Creating an open course with P2PU

Two of our objectives this year are to improve the learning circle training materials and to implement a better workflow for people who want to create open courses for learning circles. So in March and April, we used our own Course in a Box tool to adapt our learning circle training materials into an open online course.

We ended up with Learning about Learning Circles, a six-module course that can be condensed to a half-day workshop, expanded to a 1.5 day training, or taken on one’s own online. We first ran this course during our training at Los Angeles Public Library on April 23, 2019, and in May we’ve run it in Kansas City, Missouri; Onondaga, New York; and Berlin, Germany!

The steps below are designed to help you create your own online course, using Learning about Learning circles as an example.

Step 1: Establish course objectives

As we started, we took time to identify why we wanted to create this course, and who it was for. We looked through all our past training evaluations and considered our organization’s mission and our goals for the coming year, From there we drafted a set of objectives that, if met, would constitute a successful improvement to our training materials.

Here’s what we came up with for Learning about Learning Circles:

  • Establish baseline quality assurance for learning circle facilitation training.
  • Create common reference points, language, methods, and entry points into P2PU.
  • Maintain P2PU presence when learning circles are introduced, even if we aren’t in the room.
  • Ensure training embodies the values of learning circles.
  • Offer easy-to-use training agenda and resource package to learning circle team organizers.
  • Be able to keep a pulse on the community, see who is doing what, and intervene accordingly. Keep track of team activity and offer support to new learning circle facilitators.

Step 2: Affirm the character of the course

At this point, deciding to create an open online course would be putting the cart before the horse. There are a variety of ways to disseminate training materials across communities, and it may not be a foregone conclusion that learning circles and open online learning are the best paths forward for your work. So, you basically need to ensure that you know why you’re doing this. To start narrowing in on the format of the course, we developed a series of spectra to help us articulate what we are looking for in this course. These spectra are:

  • Open (anyone can access, no prerequisites) <—–> Closed (we manage who has access)
  • Exposure (goal is for people to see us) <—–> Revenue (goal is to make money)
  • Group (designed for people to take together) <—-> Individual (designed for people to take by themselves)
  • Open-Ended (geared towards exploration; no certification at the end) <—-> Goal Oriented (clear, single goal for all users; participants need to demonstrate something in order to “pass”)
  • Stand Alone (someone could use the course without additional help/resources) <—-> Part of an Ecosystem (course is only useful in a larger context, e.g. with a trainer, alongside a guidebook, etc.)
  • Networked (People can find this and pass it along without your intervention) <—> Centralized (Organization is gatekeeper, you set the terms of engagement)
  • Static (course is made and left as is, only course designers have access to editing) <—> Dynamic (course material is updated by community, participants, etc.)
  • Offline access (can be used offline somehow) <—> Online only (Digitalness is inherent to engaging with the course)

Here’s where we landed for Learning about Learning Circles:

  • Open <X—-> Closed
    • CC-BY-SA; no log-in. Keep course materials open, but have the activities geared towards engaging with the broader P2PU community (posting on forum, creating a draft learning circle, etc.), such that by taking the course you are being onboarded to P2PU
  • Exposure <-X—> Revenue
    • User interface should first and foremost emphasize exposure and access. Also, given that we currently get paid to run training workshops, these materials should build off of that. Ideally, this course should make training workshops more successful and more cost-effective. Additionally, the presence of structured online learning materials opens up two new possibilities for us: running online cohorts through the materials, and running train-the-trainer workshops for our partners who, in turn, are training their colleagues to run learning circles.
  • Group <-X—> Individual
    • Should be primarily designed for group work and model what a good online course for learning circles looks and feels like. When people see the course they should understand that it’s primarily meant for groups. However, the materials should be coherent enough that if an individual finds the website, they can navigate it and have clear prompts to interact asynchronously with others via Discourse.
  • Open-Ended <–X–> Goal Oriented
    • Some certification is conceivable if people go through a cohort model, however the primary goal is get people running learning circles. And the best way to know if somebody “achieved” the goals of the course is if they went and ran a learning circle that was successful in whatever terms they define success. We could consider implementing a discourse discussion thread or 15 minute chat with the P2PU as some sort of capstone activity for people who go through the materials outside of training workshops.
  • Stand Alone <—-X> Part of an Ecosystem
    • Insofar as this is being run in a group, there is a clear connection between this course and all of our materials for learning circle organizers. People going through the materials on their own should connect to Discourse.
  • Networked <X—-> Centralized
    • This should help both us and our partners run better trainings.
  • Static <–X–> Dynamic
    • Discourse should serve as a place to generate new reflections/materials for course participants, but the materials on the site should remain fairly stable / not at risk of becoming obsolete quickly.
  • Offline access <–X–> Online only
    • A goal of the course is to improve blended learning, so there is an inherent digitalness to the course. However, we’d like for many of the activities to be able to be done offline, such that we could imagine a downloaded version of at least some of the course materials that people could do without a computer.

Step 3: Lay foundation for course

At this point, we sharpened our focus and drafted the text for the front page of the course, which introduces the materials, format, and intended audience. We also explicated the learning goals of the course (different from the P2PU objectives that we established in Step 1), which we then used to surface the different modules that would comprise the course. Here’s what we came up with:

  • About: This course is designed for anybody who is interested in running a learning circle.
  • Format: This course is divided into 6 modules, each of which can be explored for as little as 20 minutes or as much as 3 hours. Each module consists of some framing materials (text, video, additional resources), a series of discussion prompts, and an online activity. The course is hosted on P2PU’s Course in a Box tool, but all discussion happens on the Discourse community.
  • Learning Goals: After completing this course, participants should feel comfortable and excited about facilitating a learning circle on a topic of their choice. This means that participants should:
    • Meta (landing page)
      • Be able to articulate how the online course models a learning circle experience.
      • Support and be supported by others (both in person and virtually) who share similar goals for community education; understand the tools at your disposal for ongoing support.
      • Create opportunity for personal interpretations of the learning circle concept, practice and values.
    • Orientation
      • Understand the history of online learning and P2PU, leading to clarity around the value proposition of learning circles.
      • Be able to articulate the affordances of various pedagogical models including blended learning, peer learning, and constructivism.
      • Articulate P2PU values and the distinction between a learning circle and a class.
    • Outreach
      • Develop effective strategies for community involvement in the planning, running, and wrapping up of learning circles.
    • Courses
      • Be able to search for and assess the quality of online courses from various providers.
    • Creating learning circles
      • Understand the logistical and organizational considerations and resources available for planning, promoting, running and evaluating a learning circle.
      • Understand the P2PU software tools and support network.
    • Facilitation
      • Be comfortable facilitating a small group discussion.
    • Next Steps
      • Consider team and personal vision, implications, and potential impact of learning circles in various context.

Step 4: Take inventory of resources

It’s likely that you already have a lot of the materials that you need to put the course together. Maybe you keep meticulous notes in some productivity management tool. Or maybe, like us, your thoughts are strewn across emails, shared documents, private notes, old blog posts, post-it notes on your desk, the margins of books that you meant to put a bookmark in but then forgot to. At this point, we took the learning goals for each section and established what resources we already had that we’d want to incorporate into each section, and what resources we didn’t have but would like to include. When we say “resource” here, we are using the term very loosely: activities, videos, photos, blog posts, discussion questions, quotes…anything that might ultimately turn into the media that comprises the various sections of the course. For us, this ultimately took the form of a table within a Google Doc. Notice that each vertical section corresponds to a bullet point from the section above.

Our resource inventory table. Nuthin’ fancy to see here, folks.

Step 5: Draft course materials

The next step is to organize and format the content utilizing a two-level content structure. The top level are modules, which you can think about like folders on your computer. At the second level are sections, which you can think of as the files within a folder. Once we took an inventory of the resources we had and the resources we needed, we created a fresh Google Doc and began putting materials into the course.

At this point, and only at this point, did we begin to think about how these materials will ultimately look and live online. If you look at Learning about Learning Circles, you’ll see that each module from the table included in Step 4 is along the top navbar of the course. Clicking on any module reveals a sidebar with various submodules. For this course, we decided that the best way to utilize the submodules would be by the type of interaction expected from participants. Looking back at our goals and objectives above, we determined that each module should have three distinct elements:

  • Text, video, and photos that provide background materials for the section
  • An activity that can be conducted either in a group or through our online forum
  • Group discussion prompts for people who are taking the course together

Given this, we began separating the various resources we pulled together in these respective buckets, ultimately pulling together a full draft of the course.

We find that there aren’t many right or wrong ways to frame the voice and tone of a course; the most important thing is being consistent. We have our own voice and tone guidelines that we follow (you can see it towards the bottom of our governance guidelines), and those guidelines were a helpful framing once we got to drafting the narrative around the resources.

Step 6: Upload course materials

Finally, you need to set up Course in a Box to host the course content. This requires some basic understanding of how to use Github, but you can find full instructions on the Course in a Box site. Essentially, you just need a GitHub account and a basic understanding of how to create a repository and update some config files.

Making course creation easier in the future

Over the past few years, we’ve found that the most tedious part of putting a course together is transferring everything from a Google Doc to Course in a Box. This is because Course in a Box documents are formatted in Markdown, which is not a remarkably fun syntax to brainstorm in. Ultimately, what this means is that when you’re done drafting all your course materials, you need to go into Github and reformat each paragraph from a text file to Markdown. Oof.

Conveniently, Google released an updated Google Docs API in early 2019, just when we were making Learning about Learning Circles. We utilized this new API to write a script that automatically converts Google Docs to markdown and uploads them to a Course in a Box Github repository. The script made the conversion from Google Docs to the online course a (nearly) completely automated process.

Like all code, efficient automation asks in return a dogmatic adherence to formatting. We created a Google Docs formatting template, which we then followed when drafting the course Google Doc.

This final step is still very much a work in progress, and currently requires a fair amount of manual intervention (running a Python script on your computer) in order to execute. But we are really excited about how this might improve course creation going forwards. Let us know what you think!

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