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Explore alternative subjects at Peer 2 Peer University

This online resource attracts motivated learners with quirky course offerings and Creative Commons education materials.

By ANNE KERSHAW | JUL 12 2010

You’re unlikely to find courses on poker and strategic thinking, cyber punk literature or mashing up the open web at most Canadian universities. There probably wouldn’t be enough interest to justify adding them to the curriculum.

But at Peer 2 Peer University, an online community of open study groups for short university-level courses, the offerings are a reflection of global participants’ desire to explore specific topics that they’re intensely interested in, and to do so by exploiting the growing wealth of open education materials available through the Internet.

Promoted as “Learning for Everyone, By Everyone, About Almost Anything,” Peer 2 Peer University (dubbed P2PU) is the brainchild of an international group of educators, artists and business people with a common drive to make education available to people who aren’t able to be part of a formal institution.

“Some of the courses we offer are quite quirky and can be seen as the long tail of courses,” said Stian Haklev, a graduate student at the University of Toronto whose studies focus on open educational resources in China.

“There are a lot of professors out there who would dream about teaching a course related to their research but who don’t have enough graduate students in their university to support that,” continued Mr. Haklev. “But if you brought together all the students in the world there might be 10 or 15 students who would feel it’s exactly the type of course they would take.”

Mr. Haklev is one of P2PU’s five founding members (two are from the U.S., one from Australia and one from South Africa.). The institution’s nine-person advisory board also has three members based in Canada.

P2PU opened its virtual doors in 2009, inviting people to enrol in the first seven courses lasting six weeks each. About 350 people signed up and 150 were accepted. The university began its second cycle of courses this past March, more than doubling its subject offerings to 16 to include both the usual academic fare (an introduction to finance and economics and creative non-fiction writing) and more inventive topics, such as Urban Disaster Risk Management and Climate Resilient Cities. Among the new offerings is an introduction to the thinking of Paulo Freire, a Portuguese educational theorist and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

P2PU also offers what the founders call “a social platform” for teaching and research. Students read one another’s blogs related to course assignments, watch videos together and meet on Skype for class discussions. And in keeping with the online university’s philosophy, all materials generated by students and those engaged in educational research through P2PU are open licensed (they can be copied and shared). “If you’re sitting in an Internet café in Africa ,”said Mr. Haklev, “you should be able to get the same kind of access.”

Karien Bezuidenhout from South Africa signed up for the Copyright for Educators course in 2008, seeing it as an opportunity to learn about open educational resources while actually using them. She’s now taking a course called “Solve Anything! Building Ideas through Design.” It explores the theory of “design thinking” to develop ways to improve education.

Ms. Bezuidenhout is also chief operating officer of the Shuttleworth Foundation, which promotes open knowledge in South Africa and internationally. In her opinion, P2PU enables students to “take responsibility for their own learning more than in any other model I have experienced.

“And conducting most of the courses in the public eye, posting curriculum, learning materials, questions and answers, discussions and assignments online, creates an even greater opportunity for the learning to be tested and enhanced by others.”

She believes the open-access educational movement will continue to grow, including P2PU. One of the leaders in the movement is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which announced back in 2002 that it would post online all educational materials from its undergraduate and graduate courses. The MIT Open Courseware Consortium, representing universities committed to publishing courses in an open courseware format, includes three universities from western Canada: Athabasca, Capilano and Royal Roads.

“It is clear that formal education, especially at the higher education level, is not meeting the demand or needs of all potential learners and it is unlikely that it will be able to do so in the current format,” said Ms. Bezuidenhout.

Leslie Chan, who teaches international development and media at the University of Toronto at Scarborough, was drawn to the experiment through his involvement in open access to scholarly knowledge.

“We wanted to make the teaching materials available as well as the research,” said Mr. Chan, a member of the advisory board of P2PU. “The Internet makes the resources available but it also makes the people available and that’s where the connection becomes so interesting.”

After first attracting highly educated participants, P2PU is now finding more diversity in the educational backgrounds of its applicants. In the admissions process, applicants are evaluated more on motivation and interest than on previous study experience. “Our pedagogical method is participation. We want people who are going to be highly engaged,” said Mr. Haklev.

Successful students get a diploma of participation. But P2PU’s long-term success hinges partly on how well students are able translate their involvement with the online university into recognition by employers and other academic institutions. Some of the ways of demonstrating learning include a portfolio of their work, peer assessments, or an employer’s competency test. Mr. Haclev said P2PU should help researchers better understand “the pathways for people who are learning in these kinds of informal ways to get formal credit.”

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