Open learning and financial sustainability

Here’s an update from Matt Tucker, our business development fellow. He’s been working with P2PU since September to help us articulate revenue models to support learning circles. By the end of February, we’ll begin testing some new concepts that we hope will bring us consistent and unconstrained funding. Our values of peer learning, community, and equity remain, which means you won’t see paywalls coming up or “freemium” models that prevent grassroots facilitators from getting what they need to organize learning in their communities.

Thanks to the Knight Foundation for supporting this project.




The first 8 years of Peer 2 Peer University’s existence has been a journey to find a model of peer learning that could meaningfully improve access to education. They initially pursued that goal by building tools and communities around collaborative online learning. In 2015 though, P2PU pivoted to the concept of “learning circles,” facilitated weekly groups focused on exploring a topic of interest collaboratively. The last two years have demonstrated the viability and immense potential of the learning circle model, as libraries around the world have embraced them and made them a key part of their programming.

Now, P2PU needs to define a sustainable funding model so that it can share its learning circle methodology with as many people as possible. Since their pivot to learning circles, the program has been largely funded by generous grants from innovative organizations like the Knight Foundation and Open Society Foundations.

In September 2017, P2PU created the Open Source Business Model Fellowship to support someone who would help them develop that new funding model. As soon as I heard about it, I applied. Between my background in open innovation and venture design, and the opportunity to help accelerate a meaningful form of alternative education, it was something that I could not pass up. I proposed that we combine design thinking, research into market dynamics, and hypothesis-driven development to tackle the project. The P2PU team liked that idea and brought me on.


Phase 1: Research

The goals of the first phase of the project were to deeply understand the nature of P2PU’s work, to define their “core customer” for the Learning Circle program, and to identify critical dynamics that have the potential to accelerate or impede their progress. I conducted interviews, examined key organizational documents, and did research on open source business models and key trends in education and society.



The first step in this process was to conduct interviews and observation of the core P2PU team. I sought to uncover and identify their values, motivations, and goals, all while getting an idea of the work they do to keep P2PU running on a daily basis. To do that, I interviewed each of them and spent time observing how they worked, asking questions about certain items that came up, and getting to know them.

The most important thing I learned is that the team truly lives by their organizational values: peer learning, community, and openness. Of critical importance to me was their definition of openness, which will determine the way that we shape their business model going forward. Based on our conversations, I found that they define openness as:

  • Free: all core resources should be free of charge
  • Transparent: all org activity should be recorded and accessible to interested parties
  • Participatory: interested parties should be able to contribute to org activity at all levels
  • Shared: ownership and control of core resources is not reserved to any one entity


Operations and Finances

The second step was to understand P2PU’s operations and current funding status. As was previously mentioned, P2PU is funded largely by grants from the Open Society Foundation, Knight Foundation, Dollar General, Siegel Family Foundation, CRI, IMLS, and a few others. It was a Knight Foundation grant that provided the seed capital to start developing and testing the Learning Circle model, and Knight has continued their support into 2017.

As we discussed their current finances and revenue, it became clear that it was important for this project to help the team earn enough unrestricted revenue to support up to 30-50% of operating costs, roughly $90,000 to $150,000 annually. Unrestricted revenue at that level would help to make P2PU more sustainable and independent.



I then spent some time speaking with different members of the P2PU community, primarily learning circle facilitators and organizers at libraries around the United States. I learned that learning circles are an incredibly successful project. Organizers, facilitators, and learners all enjoy and get a lot out of them, and the libraries that have implemented learning circle programs are committed to using them with increasing frequency.

Learning circles have found a natural home in libraries because they are becoming the resource and gathering place for adult independent learners. From Detroit to Kenya to the Arctic regions of Canada, programming is now devoted to helping people develop new skills, especially in digital literacy, and find jobs. They are also well-positioned because, as neighborhood gathering places, they are able to observe educational needs at an aggregate level. For this reason, we determined that libraries and other community-based organizations are best positioned to be the “customer” for P2PU.

The community does face challenges in implementing learning circles, though. Some of the challenges we discovered that organizers and facilitators face include: effective course promotion and community engagement, course selection and adaptation, and training and onboarding new facilitators. We determined that the present compelling options to explore for future services.


Open Source Models

Once I learned enough about P2PU and its ecosystem of participants, the next step was to contextualize all of that within a larger understanding of open source business models. P2PU is not the only open-source organization that is struggling to find a sustainable business model that can support and extend its work – far from it. The problem of sustainable open source business models has created valuable new research, and some of the resources that were the most helpful were Roads and Bridges by Nadia Eghbal, the Made with Creative Commons collection, and a report on the Commons Collaborative Economy. Using those resources, I assembled a short reference guide to open-source models, which can be found here.


System Dynamics

The final piece of this research process was the identification and analysis of critical system dynamics. Looking at the systems-level view of the peer learning landscape will allow P2PU to “skate to where the puck is going to be.” Some of the questions I asked going into this portion of the Research Phase were:

  • What are the forces at play in the P2PU model?
  • Which forces impede P2PU’s growth and which accelerate it?
  • Which variables can P2PU or its community influence, and which are outside of its control?

In the interest of keeping this post brief, I won’t explain each of the relevant trends I identified, but I will share the list I developed:

  • “Third Spaces,” Gathering Places, and Utilizing Excess Capacity
  • Loneliness and Social Isolation
  • Inadequacy of the Educational Establishment & MOOCs
  • Rise of the “Adult Independent Learner”
  • Digital Literacy: Obstacle and Opportunity
  • Digitization and the Changing Role of Libraries


Next Step

Through the Research Phase, we were able to define the overarching question for the rest of the project. The question we would use to generate new ideas for a sustainable funding model would be:

How does P2PU create sustained value, and capture it, in a way that supports the growth of peer learning while remaining accessible and participatory?


Phase 2: Ideation

With that overarching question for the project in hand, we were ready to begin the Ideation phase of the project. Using the insight that more ideas yields better ideas, our goal was to generate as many concepts for new business offerings as possible. We had plenty of inspiration from all that we had learned during the research phase.

As a team, we used the specific insights we uncovered during that process, combined with the open-source business models, to come up with those new ideas. You can find the final list, which we are using as the foundation for our final phase, here.

We’re now in the refinement and experimentation phase, further developing these ideas, identifying critical assumptions and testing them to determine viability. We’d love to have you dig into what we’ve done and let us know what excites you, what questions you have, and what ideas you have for adapting this research and process for your own organization. Keep an eye on this space for updates on the project in the near future!


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