Is Peer Input as Important as Content for Online Learning?

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Flickr: Incase
By Nathan Maton

Back in 2001, MIT launched OpenCourseWare, a bold idea to put world-class MIT professors’ lectures, syllabi and resources online to the world for free. Today, Open Education Resources (OER) industry leaders are arguing that the free content is only the starting point.

The next stage of the open education movement has evolved into Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) -- the key word being "massive," as in drawing tens or hundreds of thousands of students. Last fall, Sebastian Thrun's Artificial Intelligence course enrolled 160,000 students and Thrun recently gave up tenure at Stanford to start Udacity, a company that will offer more MOOCs.

But at such a huge scale, what are the digital methods of teaching that work best? Philipp Schmidt, founder of the free online university P2PU, preaches three building blocks: community, recognition and content.

"It was totally clear to me [several years ago] that content is only the starting point,” Schmidt said at recently at a SXSW session. “The really exciting stuff is going to be the learning, the assessments and the stuff that you need the content for. In a way, we started P2PU because institutions weren't doing it. How do we build community around it and recognition for this open content is my question."

The Stanford professors readily admit that some of the students who participated in their online courses provided their peers with deeper, more comprehensive answers than they were able to.

You’d expect MIT to tout its content as the solution. But that’s not how Steve Carson, director of external affairs for OpenCourseWare, describes the benefits of their project.


“The most exciting thing is that the last six months of open education have been spectacularly disruptive,” Carson says. “It was kind of a sleepy enterprise for the last 10 years where MIT was doing its thing and there were other projects doing their thing. It was all good and there were positive global benefits, but in the past 10 years I've heard people say campus-based education better look out, that this will be threatening to their business model, and I've never really felt that until the last six months. The pace of change in open education is qualitatively different than it was even a few months ago."

Carson argues that MIT’s work is merely a necessary transitory experiment. It only puts classes and course material online, but you still have to watch, frequently from the back of the room, as the professor lectures students. He compares it to Wikipedia. MIT’s videos and materials provide deep references on a subject -- but not the actual courses themselves.

Carson is a big fan of Schmidt’s work.  At P2PU, they run online courses that can be taught by a peer (you can create your own course), and they heavily promote the social part of learning. They have a peer mentor program to help students get through their courses and have the most users teaching web development courses, although Schmidt says they'll be doing less of that. Schmidt believes that even with all the OER in the world, the way people learn is by being excited about it, by making things (even if it is just a blog post) and working together.

"The things I care most about is collaborative skills, are you a good communicator, can you get stuff done?” Schmidt says. “I think that's the number one thing that isn't being assessed anywhere that is super important. That's what you ask when someone wants a job from you: do they get stuff done."

Carson likes Schmidt’s focus on community, recognition and content because he argues it is more important to discover successful learning techniques rather than merely sign up 100,000 students online. He sees promoting big-sized classes as a way to bring attention to the issue.

"I think one of the higher level struggles these MOOCs are injecting themselves into is to change the way higher education as it is practiced on campus," Carson said. "It is an opportunity to show faculty members different ways the Internet can support learning."

And what exactly is the problem all these groups are trying to solve? It's the sudden acceleration of global higher education demand.

"If you look at the scope and scale of the educational need in the world we're going to need all of our educational systems firing on all cylinders to come close to even meeting the educational demand emerging in the world,” Carson said. “You could offer a thousand courses enrolling a 100,000 students each and you would not even be scratching the surface of the need in India and China and other developing regions. So we need these educational techniques to solve this problem.”

It took 11 years to get from the launch of OpenCourseWare to the point where a Stanford professor would walk away from a tenure position to launch another online learning venture. So how long will it take to build this next phase? For computer science, experiments like Thrun’s suggest that it may not take that long. Other types of courses Schmidt describes as important don't yet exist.  And P2PU is still a relatively small community of around 30,000 members. Other countries have small experiments building OER and digital courses using high tech solutions like 3-D simulations, but no strong business model to scale their open efforts.

"We probably haven't fully made the transition to digitally native pedagogies and learning approaches," Carson said. "The first generation of distance learning is basically an attempt to move the classroom online, and I think that part of the scalable learning of these massive courses is the breakdown of that model.”