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At the Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU), course facilitators have tried to find a middle path between the traditional classroom model (teachers and students) and the voluntary, distributed, model of free/open source software and other forms of peer production.

But when a course is based on volunteer participation it is hard to keep motivation high: each new difficulty or annoyance that an individual experiences gives them one less reason to participate. Furthermore, diversity in the body participants is an asset for learning, but it can also make planning and organization more difficult (like when vastly different timezones are involved!).

This article takes the form of a lesson plan for people who are organizing peer learning experiences, and aims to help make their job a little easier. The secondary aim is to help groups of facilitators explore new patterns for "organizational learning", and to encourage healthy growth and debate.

Peer-to-peer learning[edit]

Peer-to-peer or "peer-based" learning is what happens when a group of people with different backgrounds and aims agree to come together for a learning activity, most likely without a teacher and without an explicit learning plan (at the outset). There are both benefits and hazards to this kind of learning. This lesson is aimed at persons who are interested in helping facilitate such learning experiences, to get the greatest benefit and diminish the overall hazard. You might be an official "facilitator", or an administrator, or a peer learner aiming to help your learning group achieve more. You may be someone who is simply intensely interested in a topic, and who wants to figure out a way to make your involvement more social. For the purposes of this lesson, you might imagine yourself as something like a captain on a sports team, still "one of the guys" (or girls, respectively), but with more responsibility.

The lesson reflects back on half a year of experience at P2PU and continues to grow and develop -- in working through this lesson, you will have the opportunity to contribute to the new theory of "paragogy".

  • Purpose of this lesson
    Learn techniques for designing and running a peer-to-peer course.
    Learn techniques for fostering organizational learning in your institution or other shared context.
    Develop plans for balancing the above with your own learning needs and ambitions.
  • Audience
    Anyone who is already involved in peer-to-peer education or who aims to become involved with it.
  • Time to complete
    Initial exercise: about 1 hour - Practice in the field: at least 6 weeks.
  • Requirements
    Can be studied alone, but should be practiced with a group.

The paragogical principles[edit]

  1. context as a decentered center
  2. meta-learning as a font of knowledge
  3. peers are equal but different
  4. learning is distributed and nonlinear
  5. realize your dream then wake up!

Implementing Paragogy[edit]

This lesson is based on the experiences of the author in several enrichment courses at P2PU, in Autumn 2010 and Winter 2011. Some of the courses went well, and others didn't, and I was curious about why. Charles Jeffery Danoff and I wrote up some of our initial thoughts on this topic in a short paper called Paragogy: Synergizing individual and organizational learning (2011), but we needed another round of experiments to put our ideas into practice. This lesson integrates what we've learned in our second round and will help you work through the process of designing a peer-to-peer learning experience. In turn, your feedback on this process will help take the theory of paragogy to the next level! More information on how to submit feedback will be provided below. For now, your first task is to begin designing a new course.

Task 1: Select your topic wisely[edit]

We've found that some of the most successful learning experiences enhance projects that were "going to happen anyway". For example, Marisa Ponti and I were planning to write a book chapter on the topic of Open Governance and Learning, and we decided to convert our abstract for the chapter into a syllabus for a 6 week course. Our conversations were going to happen anyway, but now they have expanded to include a lively discussion with a diverse group of interested participants, including some contributions from noted experts in the field.

That said, by the end of the course, the only participants in a course meeting set up for playtesting the current lesson plan were Marisa, Joe & Charles! Between the effect of people drifting away, and the difficulty of making it to meetings, people need to be strongly motivated about the topic if they're going to stick with it. On the other hand, just because someone doesn't make it to a live meeting doesn't mean they are disinterested (time zone issues apply).

As a point of contrast, consider the case of the Short Calculus course I ran contemporaneously with the one just mentioned. Here I had to hunt hard to even find candidate participants for the course, and it did not come as much of a surprise when participation turned out to be very low right away. On the other hand, a more immediately popular course called DIY Math from the previous quarter ended up going very badly because the "topic" was too vague and general for this group to handle.

In short, the choice of topic is crucial. And while it would be possible to choose topics based on a poll that asks "what are you interested in?" (and P2PU is running a poll for course suggestions on Uservoice), the problem with this approach is that people frequently don't know what they "really want" in advance. A more "emergent" way of getting at interests would be still different, and we need to explore this. Whether we call it a "radical peer-to-peer model" or a simple application of social networking to learning, perhaps some of the appropriate systems and structures can be developed in the course of a course -- for interested participants only, of course!

Task 2: Engage your peers in the design process early on[edit]

Whether it's by talking with friends with whom you share an interest, or running a survey to get feedback from interested participants online, making the design of the course into a collaborative process could encourage "buy in"; and it will certainly help you decide many pragmatic points. Do you need live meetings, or will an asynchronous discussion do just fine? What sort of background do people have (or should they have) with the topic? Etc. For purposes of this exercise, it's enough to write down a few questions that you'll want to ask would-be participants before the course starts.

But we can also ask "when do we need design?". Wenger suggests to look for ways in which design can scaffold and support learning through practice. He also suggests to design for the the learning potential of an organization [1] (Chapter 10). This is in line with our view. In particular, when you think about what you really want to do (in practice), it could be that a course would not be the best way to get there -- consider P2PU as one example of a designed peer-learning experience that doesn't take the form of a course.

On the other hand, even without being "perfect" (see the principle just discussed), a course can help -- perhaps especially if it connects to larger body of work, to other people with similar interests (who may be outside the course), and to the larger groups and networks dealing with the course's topic.

Peer learning can happen "slowly" across time and space, whenever people share things they have learned in ways that others can learn from. In this extreme, peer learning experiences might not be so much "designed", as they are simply the byproduct of individual learning processes.

Still, given what P2PU is trying to do, perhaps we need to deepen our critique. The difficulty of creating rich, global, synchronous peer learning experiences is all too frequently washed away in a celebration of how cool the idea is. The hazard is that instead of actually doing the hard stuff, we just talk about how wonderful P2PU is -- despite the fact that the site is really still in "beta" mode.

Maybe we haven't developed the theory of paragogy enough for it to support this ongoing critical analysis -- but that's OK because we are still in the "beta" period too!

Task 3: Make the scope and structure clear[edit]

You don't have to provide everything, but as a course (co-)organizer, you are likely to be largely responsible for finding (or creating) the initial set of resources for the course. P2PU has been described as follows: think of it as book clubs for open educational resources. That pointer may be helpful (or potentially confusing).

The question to sort out here is what shape your course is likely to take. By now, this lesson should have made you ask if it is it even appropriate to think of it as a course at all, or would it be better to think about it as some other sort of structured activity? Be as explicit as possible. (For convenience, we will continue to talk about "courses" here, but you are encouraged to look for the word that suits your situation best; perhaps "affinity spaces" would be the best term to use in general [2].)

It is OK to put your answer in the form of further questions to ask to participants before the course begins, or at its outset. However, note that if part of the course is "building the course", you must make sure that the course participants are really up for this, and make sure the overall course design is sufficiently flexible to accommodate changes.

For example, in the first week of the Mathematics for Game Designers course, many of the participants declared that they mainly wanted to write code -- but many of these people were not heard from much after the first week.

Task 4: Define your objectives[edit]

I'm personally not a great fan of the term "learning objectives"; in light of the principle we just discussed, I think they can be too hard to specify. However, I do think there is significant value to be obtained by being clear about your objectives in general.

In one of the key documents of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, A. T. Ariyaratne tells a story of how working with a group of villagers to clarify their real objectives resulted in them getting out of a tangle of red tape and led them to resolve their problem directly [3]. To sort all of this out, you may need to get to the (third) "norming" stage from Bruce Tuckman's theory of group development in order to find shared objectives, and this is not likely to happen overnight.

For the purposes of this exercise, it is enough to come up with some your own most important objectives for the course, possibly including a rough time-table. You can later invite course participants to go through a similar exercise.

Task 5: Report back[edit]

This lesson will be undergoing development as long as feedback keeps coming in: you can get in touch by emailing the author directly -- or you can just dive in and edit the document at its "online home" on Wikiversity (see the About this Document section below).

Has this exercise been useful? If you run a course you've designed with the help of this plan, I will be very curious to know how it goes. Your feedback will be hugely valuable in improving this document for next time. I hope that by including this participatory component, I've also made a good example of a paragogical lesson plan!

Assess your plans using the five paragogical principles[edit]

Principle: Context as decentered center[edit]

In paragogy, we recognize that we are not merely teachers or learners, but are actually co-creating the learning context as a whole. This is a good time to reflect on your context, generally speaking. What role does learning play in your life and in the life of your communities? What was it that brought you here? Why this learning in this context? What would you really like to have happen here?

Paragogy complements didactic and other teaching modes (particularly andragogy [4]) by drawing attention to the central role of context, and the way it shapes, constrains, and supports learning activities, and the way learning, in turn, can help people shape the context in which they live.

Principle: Meta-learning as a font of knowledge[edit]

I have not been doing this long enough to know precisely what works and what doesn't work. Indeed, one of the themes of paragogy is that even after a rich career in peer-to-peer learning one would still be learning a lot -- that's part of the point! It may be helpful to address the question what do I hope to learn about the learning process through my work in this course?

One way to amp up your meta-learning is to acknowledge the need to support it explicitly. This lesson plan reflects on several courses I was organizing or co-organizing, but has been developed as an assignment in another course where I've been (twice!) a participant, Collaborative Lesson Planning. P2PU maintains various structures to help -- a good place to ask questions is the general community mailing list, or the research list.

Doing research about learning can be really hard, but I would argue that it is something we should each be doing, to come up with a plausible picture of how we each learn best, or even just a sketch that can help us understand when we are learning.

This can happen on the organizational level too -- in some sense, the best version of P2PU's roadmap would be an aggregation of all of the "learning profiles" for participants. We should not take the organization as "given", nor should we as researchers working in this space take ourselves to be detached observers. We're not. That's what makes us researchers in this space!

Principle: Peers are equal but different (and they give feedback that wouldn't be there otherwise)[edit]

Peer learners work together to create the key resources in the course -- learning opportunities that come from interaction. Presumably you'll want to foster an egalitarian culture: remember that in peer learning there isn't anyone who dictates what others have to do. However, this doesn't mean that the peer learning experience should be a structureless blob. Some participants will want more overt structures given to them, others will want to create new ones! Does your course accommodate people with these, and other, personal characteristics?

Principle: Learning is distributed and nonlinear[edit]

Given the ongoing difficulties I've had organizing mathematics courses on P2PU, and the comparative success of programming and other computer-related courses, I've spent a lot of time thinking about what I might be doing wrong as a course organizer. Then I think back to my original goal for these courses, namely, to build a useful bridge between P2PU and This can only happen slowly. In particular, it seems essential for PlanetMath to offer much better support for independent mathematics learners. There is then a serious question to consider, about how peer learning is useful in mathematics.

The key point is that you may find an important part of your course's critical mass "elsewhere" -- but any external resources you choose need to be the right ones.

Principle: Realize your dream then wake up![edit]

The topic you pick should help you realize your dream. Ideally as you sketch out the topic in a bit more detail, you'll be able to find others who share the same dream to a reasonable extent. In addition, once the course has progressed far enough, you should get a sense that you've reached its potential. The point of this principle isn't that the course forms the ultimate "answer" to your questions, or that it will be the final say on the topic you've chosen. Rather, it can be a useful step forward, and can help you figure out what your "real" questions are!

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better." -- Beckett


As I've thought this over, I've come to see two primary ways to go about evaluating or measuring learning. The first is to use some sort of external measurement. In this case it doesn't really matter how the person learned the material -- it could be from a peer, or from a book, or from an on-the-job experience.

The second is a self-assessment, based on the question "when have I been learning best"? This is a challenging question, but it is important to take up in paragogy. It may come across as a weak point, to say that we have no "standard" by which learning should be evaluated. But in fact, paragogical evaluation asks each person to judge according to their own standard -- what has worked here and what hasn't?

Of course, the two approaches can be blended. For example, the conditions that promote your learning can be kept track of in a learner profile, using both subjective and more objective measures. A rating system can be part of peer-production ("star" a message post that you learned something from, and this shows up both in your own profile and in the profile of the person creating the message).

In general, one can evaluate paragogy by its outcomes. If a peer learner writes a paper that is useful to the immediate peers and/or published and useful to a broader community, then they have probably learned something too. Conversely, one hopes to make what one learns useful to others.

About the author[edit]

Joe Corneli is a Ph. D. student at the Knowledge Media Institute of The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK. (email:, www:

About this document[edit]

Implementing Paragogy is made available under a Creative Commons Zero License. Contributors include Charles Jeffery Danoff, Marjorie King, Brylie Oxley, and Marisa Ponti. The document's "upstream" home is


  1. Wenger, Etienne (1998). Communities of practice: learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-66363-2. 
  2. Gee, James Paul (2005), "Semiotic Social Spaces and Affinity Spaces: From The Age of Mythology to Today's Schools", written at Cambridge, in Barton, D.; Tusting, K., Cambridge University Press 
  3. Ariyaratne, A. T. (February 7-9, 1977), Organization of Rural Communities for Group Effort and Self-Help, Food-Crisis Workshop Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, 
  4. Knowles, M. S. (1980). The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy. Chicago: Follett. ISBN 0842822135.