The P2PU Review of 2011

One year is a long time. A lot has happened at P2PU over the 12 months. And while this time “between the years” is always a good opportunity to look back, I struggle to sit still and not look ahead to 2012 as well. Here are some 2011 take-aways going from the very high-level right down to the personal, with a few subtle hints of what’s coming in 2012.

Some of my best friends are peer learners

 50,000 ft – Change is in the Air

If you care about learning and education, 2011 was the year that made you jump up and down and run around with excitement, because things were starting to move. When we first put volunteer-run courses online there weren’t many other people trying similar things and not a lot of people were paying attention.

In 2011 people started paying attention. One reason was Clayton Christensen‘s work on Disrupting Innovation in education, which uses an innovation framework to explain the potential for changes in education. It suggests that projects like P2PU that are emerging outside of the traditional education system are part of a natural first phase of innovation, which could lead to broader changes and more direct competition with the existing system in the future. Looking at education through the lens of innovation drew people from traditional institutions, government, and the private sector into the conversation, who had previously regarded open education as something for the geeks, rather than a legitimate source of innovation.

As a result money started flowing into education projects through large government programs like the first 500 M USD grants from the Department of Labor for open educational resources as well as VC funding. It’s easy to get overly excited by the sheer number of new projects popping up every week and I have found Audrey Waters’ writing a consistently good barometer to track the things that are worth paying attention to.

10,000 ft – The Lab for Social Learning

My friend Steve Song first told me about the Zen Buddhist concept Shoshin meaning “beginner’s mind”. The idea is that there are many possibilities in the beginner’s mind, but only few in the expert’s mind, and that in order to fully understand something we must remain open to its many possibilities. P2PU is the many possibilities of taking education into one’s own hands.

Being many things is good, but you can’t be really good at many things at the same time. One of my big realizations about P2PU in 2011 was that we are really good at experimenting with all aspects of social learning online, prototyping new approaches, connecting practical work to bigger ideas around changing the education system and working with partners to help the best ideas fly. 

One example is our work with Mozilla on designing meaningful credentials for web developers, which led us to the concept of digital badges and subsequently grew into a whole Open Badges Infrastructure initiative at Mozilla. Another example is the work we’ve been doing with Karen Fasimpaur and University of California Irvine trying to figure out how formal accreditation and informal learning may work together (the answer so far is, “not very well”). A final example is our work on reimagining what an online “course” could look like. We have been thinking a lot about the problems of translating a traditional model of instruction online (quality doesn’t scale) and started experimenting with a new approach that is structured around individual learning modules and has social interaction, support and mentoring baked in.

What all of this suggests is that P2PU is a lab, which is an idea I first shared in October and which has received a lot of positive feedback since then. As a lab P2PU can foster a culture of many possibilities and at the same time apply a rigorous testing and review process to find the ideas and models that can scale – and work with partners to see them take off.

1 ft – Great People 

P2PU Workshop in Berlin 2011

The people involved in P2PU are lovely. One of my favorite moments of 2011 was reading Jessica’s email about keeping the mailing list tone respectful and constructive because she wasn’t going to let anyone mess with the way in which we engage with each other. Another favorite moment was the email from Dany who sent a photo of himself in a School of Webcraft t-shirt speaking about P2PU at a huge conference in Colombia. The community workshop, where some of the core volunteers and staff come together, is my favorite event of the year – and I can’t wait to see everyone again next year.

The volunteer community will always be a big part of what makes P2PU special, but 2011 was also the year of filling our core team of paid staff members. We grew to four full-time (including myself) and two part-time positions and I couldn’t imagine a smarter, nicer, and more amazing group of people to work with. As a result my own role has also changed quite a bit and I have learned a lot about letting go of some things and focusing on other aspects of building P2PU. We still need more developer resources (including volunteers!) to make sure our tech lead can start working normal hours again, but other than that the team feels solid and well-rounded and I am super excited to think about what we can achieve in 2012.

Having more paid people also means that our budget is growing (from about 120k USD in 2011 to a projected 400k USD for 2012) and I am spending a lot more more time focusing on income generation than a year ago. We will continue to use grant income to bootstrap P2PU while we explore earned income opportunities, and we made a strategic decision to focus on donations from our core community as a way to make sure we stay true to our mission. However it takes time to build up an income stream from donations and when a few proposals that we had submitted towards the end of the year were not successful, I felt a new sense of responsibility and urgency to focus on sustainability. It’s a good feeling, because it means that P2PU has taken on a certain momentum, but at the same time I don’t want us to loose the sense of lightness that we started out with. The organization will never become the end in itself, it will always remain a means to an end – towards improving the way education works.

2011 has been a fantastic experience for me and I hope for everyone else at P2PU as well. Let’s keep learning new things every day in 2012!

Happy New Year!




Back to Blog home