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What Is Peer Learning?

The new term, “peeragogy,” that we use in this book is a riff on the word pedagogy — the art, science, or profession of teaching. The term pedagogy has a complex etymology: it comes from the ancient Greek tradition of having a child (paidos) be supervised (agogos) by a slave.

Greek philosophers disagreed with each other as to the best way for individuals to gain knowledge and especially, wisdom. Socrates, who insisted that he was not wise, also insisted that his interlocutors join him as peers in investigating truth claims. The most famous of these interlocutors, Plato, on a more pedagogical bent, spoke of an enlightened few, whose responsibility it was to show others the light of knowledge (illustrated by his famous allegory of “The Cave”).

Platon Cave Sanraedam (1604). By Jan Saenredam [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The debate continues today!

It’s true that for centuries, education theorists and reformers have challenged the effectiveness of the traditional teacher-led model. Most famous of the early education reformers in the United States was John Dewey, who advocated new experiential learning techniques. In his 1916 book, Democracy and Education, Dewey wrote, “Education is not an affair of ‘telling’ and being told, but an active and constructive process.” Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who developed the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development, was another proponent of “constructivist” learning. His book, Thought and Language, also gives evidence to support collaborative, socially meaningful, problem-solving activities over solo exercises.

One influential scholar in the development of the field of “critical pedagogy” was Paulo Freire. In the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire describes the traditional teaching framework as a banking system in which students are empty vessels in which knowledge and concepts are to be deposited. Freire advocated a more equitable relationship between teachers and students — one in which information is questioned and situated in its political context.

In the 1980′s, Edwin Hutchins developed the theory of Distributed Cognition. In this view, knowledge lies not only within the individual but is situated in the individual’s social and physical environment. Distributed cognition refers to processes whereby cognitive resources are socially shared, extending individual cognitive resources, and allowing groups to accomplish some things individuals cannot achieve alone.

According to Paulo Blikstein, Assistant Professor of Education at Stanford University, technology can be used as a tool for making the Freirean ideal a reality (Travels in Troy with Freire: Technology as an Agent of Emancipation [PDF]). Inspired by MIT mathematician Seymour Papert’s work with the LOGO programming language, Blikstein ran a series of expressive creativity workshops for students at a public school in São Paulo, Brazil. Blikstein found that “through the exploratory building activities, not only did students become more autonomous and responsible, they learned to teach one another.”

A common thread runs from Socratic dialogues through Freirean critical pedagogy — the desire to be freed from the rigid boundaries of traditional social and political hierarchy. Although peer learning does not always imply a subversion of traditional roles and abandoning the teacher-student hierarchy, it does imply a strong personal commitment to your own learning and to your peers in a learning environment where all are co-learners. As to whether or not peer learning will serve as a catalyst for social change — this depends on how it is deployed.

Beginnings of contemporary Peer Learning Theory

Educational Psychology Professor Alison King explains in Structuring Peer Interaction to Promote High-Level Cognitive Processing that peer learning exercises as simple as having students explain concepts to one another demands that students clarify, elaborate on, and otherwise re-conceptualize material. Carl Rogers’ Personal Thoughts on Teaching and Learning focus on the individual’s experience of effective learning: self-discovered learning in a group that designates a facilitator is the new approach Rogers recommends for education.

Yochai Benkler explains how the now-ubiquitous computer helps us produce and process knowledge with others in his book, The Wealth of Networks. The advancement and spread of technology have led digital learning theorist George Siemens to introduce a new theory called Connectivism. He argues in Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age, that technology has changed the way we learn, explaining how it tends to complicate or expose the limitations of the learning theories of the past. The crucial point of connectivism is that the connections that make it possible for us to learn in the future are more relevant than the sets of knowledge we know individually, in the present. Furthermore, technology to can to some degree and in certain contexts, replace know-how with know-where-to-look.

Roy Williams argues that educational institutions should consider emergent learning, in which learning arises from a self-organized group interaction, as a valuable component of education in the Digital Age. WikiQuals is a project born in 2011 that seeks to one day replace the traditional high stakes assessment model of academic accreditation, using learning processes derived from emergent learning theory. Web 2.0 puts distributed individuals into a group setting where emergent learning can occur. Deciding how to manage emergence is important: fail-safe management drives activity towards pre-determined outcomes, while safe/fail experiments steer away from negative outcomes while leaving space open for mistakes and innovation.

Cathy Davidson & David Goldberg write in The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age about the potential of participatory learning, which is how people today use technology to join virtual communities and exchange ideas. Similar ideas are discussed by Carl Bereiter in Education and Mind in the Knowledge Age. If schools and universities could harness the potential power of participatory learning, they could transform education.

Experiments with Peer-to-Peer Learning

What are the practical realities? The learning theories described above are being tested in various contexts around the world. One of these settings is the Peer 2 Peer University, or P2PU, which was founded in 2009 by Philipp Schmidt, Delia Browne, and Neeru Paharia, as a free, online, space for peer learning. Schmidt believes that a set of specific factors made space for initiatives like P2PU: an abundance of high quality free content, the ability to connect with millions of learners on the Internet, and some tumultuous events in the higher education sector. These challenges included a demand for high quality but inexpensive education in developing countries, and a growing demand for “learning skills” that are not necessarily included within a university education. Schmidt put a team together and established the first experimental P2PU courses: Introduction to Cyberpunk Literature and Playing Poker & Strategic Thinking. Schmidt explains that, “The expertise is in the group. Thats the message, that everyone can bring something to the conversation.”

In his essay Commons-based Peer Production and Education, Philipp Schmidt examines the idea that the social assessment mechanisms inherent in open-source software development can be applied to education. He feels that online reputation may one day replace the traditional degree as the most popular indicator for how much we should trust someones opinion on a subject. Schmidt argues in Peer-to-Peer Recognition of Learning in Open Education, that peer-based assessment and recognition are a feasible option for accreditation purposes. In open source communities, a user has various ways to signal that they are an expert. In a more open scenario, the traditional pillars of social status would be removed to make way for more fluid definitions of trust and relevance of expertise. Concetely, we see things like the rise of the twit-o-sphere as representations of mediated influence and expertise.

And yet, the situation is not entirely perfected at P2PU. Participant engagement is an issue, with many people silently joining only to “lurk”. P2PU itself has introduced several changes in the way it works over the years, with the latest introduction being “challenges” that can be completed at any time (rather than necessarily forming part of a scheduled course), alongside courses, badges, and community features for which P2PU is known and respected.

Further discussion in the next section!

Post Revisions:

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