How to build learning communities, that work peer-to-peer? – Question 3 of 10 on ‚learning by sharing’

September 22, 2014 in Freedom to innovate, Freedom to learn by Balthas

In the field of online sharing and learning, the “Massive Open Online Course” (“MOOC”) has received a lot of attention. Many are enthusiastic about what elite universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Harvard are piloting. The two schools have offered joint online courses that have attracted well over 100,000 students. Much is also written about the start-up ventures Udacity and Coursera, which managed to enroll over two million students in just one year. These ventures provide a forum to some of the world’s best professors to host their lectures online. The students are then encouraged to participate through online forums that helpbuild a joint learning



community. They typically do not offer academic credit aside from, in some cases, a statement of completion. But they also do not charge tuition. There are estimates that only about ten percent of students who sign up for courses actually follow them until the end 1. And it still remains to be seen whether mass distribution of centralized online lectures will ultimately be incorporated into the formal educational system or whether they are just briefly hyped by universities and venture capitalists searching for new revenue sources and recognition.This article will, therefore, go beyond the MOOC.

It will dwell, instead, upon the original pedagogical model that lies at the heart of the MOCC experience, which was co-shaped by two Canadian learning specialists: George Siemens of Athabasca University and Stephen Downes.The relationship between work experience, communal learning, and knowledge is at the heart of connectivism – as is expressed in ‘connectivity’. Accordingly, “to teach is to model and demonstrate, to learn is to practice and reflect” (Downes 2007). Thereby, connectivism builds on earlier practice- and community-oriented pedagogical frameworks and theories such as constructivism, social learning, distributed cognition or Albert Bandura’s social cognitive theory. Some of the theories around online community learning trace their roots all the way back to the early notion of “Bildung” that sees education as the process of shaping oneself and the world as put forth by German writers and thinkers Wilhelm von Humboldt and Friedrich Schiller in the late 18th and early 19th century (Deimann et al.: 2013).The learning concept of connectivism understands learning according to the following eight principles 2:

  • Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.
  • Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes, or information sources.
  • Learning may reside in non-human appliances: learning can rest in a community, a network, or a database.
  • Learning is more critical than knowing.
  • Maintaining and nurturing connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.
  • Perceiving connections between fields, ideas and concepts is a core skill.
  • Currency – as accurate, up-to-date knowledge – is the intent of learning activities.
  • Decision-making is in itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality.

What does this mean for the connectivist Open Online Courses? Four methods have been identified and summed up by the peer-producers of the Wikipedia article on connectivism as follows 3: “1) Aggregation: […] a starting point for content to be produced in different places online, which is later aggregated and accessible to participants on a regular basis. 2) Remixing: Learners associate materials created within the course with one another, and with materials elsewhere. 3) Re-purposing: Aggregated and remixed materials are to be re-purposed to suit the goals of each participant. Finally, 4) Feeding forward: the sharing of re-purposed ideas and content with others and the rest of the world.”

These modes of operation form an integral part of a peer-learning oriented pedagogy. The “open learning layer” (Seibold 2009:264) includes:

  • the open licensing of content as spearheaded by the “Open Educational Resources” (OER) movement (Wiley 2009)
  • the focus on ‘self-empowering’ study groups of self-organized peers ( 2013)
  • the open structure and learning goals

In a connectivist world, learning by sharing is the only sustainable way of learning. This moves the Cartesian dictum of “I think, therefore I am”, to a “We participate, therefore we are”, as John Brown and Richard Adler nicely (Brown/Adler 2008: 18) nicely put it.

But what are specific examples of commonsbased peer-to-peer learning? Let us look at Agnes, a 13-year-old from Norway, Zuizui, a 17-year-old student from Vietnam, and Nadjetey, a Ghanaian computer-science graduate. All three are jointly learning how to build a website at the “School of Webcraft”, offered by the peer-to-peer university (P2PU). P2PU is arguably the most radical peer-to-peer experiment to date. It is strictly peer oriented, with no formal instructor heading the courses. They seem to live by their motto: “We are all teachers and learners”. At the “School of Webcraft”, no one is paid to tutor Agnes, Zuizui, and Nadjetey. They support one another through the various trials and “challenges”. With over 3,000 participants in the School of Webcraft alone (as of June 2013), there is always someone who can help. Nadjetey is one of over 50 participants who act as tutors, or “peers who have offered their help”.

This university does away with the traditional hierarchy between professor and students, but instead puts emphasis on “open exploration and transparency”, according to education writer Audrey Watters:“THE POINT IS TO) PUT OUT IDEAS THAT ARE HALF BAKED…(AND) BUILD THEM THROUGH A NETWORK OF PEOPLE.” 4

This example shows that self-guided peer-to-peer learning processes are working on a global scale. They are the result of a radical paradigm shift that requires new pedagogical methods, the availability of technologies and concepts that are free enough to allow commons-based peer production.

Any questions on the issue above? Or answers? Please comment below!

About ‘learning by sharing’

This blog is part of a series of 10 questions that I have extracted of my article “Learning by Sharing – „How global communities cultivate skills and capacity through peer-production of knowledge“. The piece has been released in June as part of the GIZ Online- Series „10 trends in open innovation. How to leverage social media for new forms of cooperation“. It discusses the following issues: Sustainable human development needs solutions that scale, empower, benefit, and increase ownership. Peer-to-peer learning is a potential game changer: the trick is to build learning processes around open, commons-based peer production. Only then may one achieve more freedom to know, more appropriation of tacit knowledge, more self-sustainability of demand-driven learning systems, and more ownership. In addition, the inherent fairness of an open “knowledge commons” provides opportunities for unfettered open innovation and the scaling up of development solutions. Commons-based peer learning offers a trigger to enhance skills, competencies, connections, capacities, and the agency of people and their organisations on a global scale – from the global peer-to-peer university to the community of biogas digesters producers. It provides the freedom to learn – by sharing the world’s wealth of knowledge.

–> Article on personal blog – Here, you can comment, “like it” or RSS it there as well

–> Article on the Alumniportal / Group on “Digital Society”:

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Note: This text was first published on the blog of Balthas Seibold at the Alumniportal Germany ( Check the blog ( register or login first). All blog entries represent the personal views and ideas of Balthas Seibold.

  1. See article by Tamar Lewin (2013, January 1): “Students Rush to Web Classes, but Profits May Be Much Later”, New York Times
  2. See Connectivism. (2013, July 2). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 09:20, July 15, 2013
  3. Source of the entire following paragraph: Massive open online course. (2013, July 14). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved
    09:21, July 15, 2013
  4. See recording of Watters, Audrey; Hill, Mako; Schmidt, Philipp (2013, March 10): ‘Session 5 – Open Learning’, Part of the course Learning Creative Learning, MIT Media Lab