Fostering Open Learning Grounded in Co-Creation, Peer-to-Peer Support

A Few Moments with Philipp Schmidt

Philipp Schmidt is widely recognized as a leading thinker and advocate for open learning and for helping to jumpstart the open education movement in the early 2000s. He co-authored the Cape Town Open Education Declaration in 2007 and co-founded Peer-to-Peer University (P2PU), an online open learning community, two years later. Schmidt is currently based at the MIT Media lab as a Director’s Fellow In-Residence, working with Mitch Resnick and Joi Ito to pinpoint innovative opportunities for online learning. This past semester, the MIT Media Lab and P2PU teamed up to to offer MIT’s Learning Creative Learning course to online participants in a massive experimental format, which dives into new ways of teaching and running online courses that are more engaging and create opportunities for more people to participate. We spent a few moments with Philipp to talk about this new approach to online learning and to learn more about open learning’s potential in transforming the way we think about education in the 21st century. 

What are some characteristics of an open learning community?

If you take a moment and you think about an amazing learning moment in your life, my guess would be that that moment does not involve a standardized test, and it probably does not involve receiving a certificate or degree. It is likely to involve other people and is likely to involve you being interested in something, having to be challenged to achieve it, and then managing to achieve it. It’s likely to involve some type of safe space to fail where you could make multiple efforts and where you knew it was okay to take a risk.

Open source software communities are a great example for what these open learning environments look like. You could argue that more people have learned how to become software developers through participation in open source software communities than by attending universities.

Software is one prime example of how open learning communities can work on a massive scale. Over time more areas are going to start recognizing that this is a great way to learn. Digital media production or photography seem like good topics to try next. To become a successful journalist today, you don’t have to go to “J school.” You just have to write a lot, find people to help you get better, build up an audience, be willing to learn, and have some talent. Jonathan Worth from the UK has been running a huge, free and open photography course, years before people started talking about MOOCs. His ideas are exciting. He is trying to get people running similar courses in other countries to group together to form a global university program, which enables those who want to become photographers to participate in courses without having to enroll in a particular university. They do all of the same work and keep their portfolio, which provides evidence that they took these courses and displays the work they produced in the process.

If we begin with the current education system and then try to compare what open learning systems look like, it’s very easy to come to the conclusion that this will never be a valid alternative. But if we start with how we actually learn, how we like to learn, and how we learn the most important things in our lives, we will realize that it’s very similar to how these open learning communities are set up. It becomes much easier, then, to imagine them becoming an alternative for how more people will learn in the future because they support the things we value most.

What distinguishes the Learning Creative Learning course from a MOOC or typical online course?

The Learning Creative Learning course is designed to be much more activity driven. It’s not asking participants to read something and simply regurgitate it. Each week we provide participants with an interesting idea in education and some background information and really try to bring this idea to life through hands-on activities. Some of the activities are offline, some are done using online tools, and some have to be done with other people. The activities don’t typically involve simply answering questions or submitting an assignment. People are doing things that they are actually interested in and then reflecting on that experience. One week, participants were supposed to visit a community learning space and ask people their questions to try to understand how the space worked. We gave them enough pointers to get started, but we didn’t tell them exactly what they had to do. For the Scratch lesson, for example, we told them to create a Scratch project. Participants could create something based on their interests. They could get very elaborate or just do something small. We gave people a lot of freedom. We let people take it where they wanted to go and that seemed to draw in a really strong sense of community.

From the start, we made it clear that this was an experiment that we hoped to co-create with the participants. We have really iterated on the model every week. We have tried new things and played with different technologies, and because we invited people to be part of the experiment, they have been very gracious about it, when things didn’t go perfect. We all learned a huge deal as a result.

If you invite participants to put themselves out there and try new things, they are more likely to learn more than they would have otherwise because they feel as if they are a part of something. They feel like it truly is their course, rather than a course for them.

How do you turn a course like learning creative learning into an open learning community?

This is a big question we are looking to answer; what are we going to do with the community when the course ends? We want to provide a little more structure, but it’s clear we won’t be able to do a weekly seminar indefinitely. It’s a lot of work. We are thinking about ways to keep some of that going, but it introduces the question: what’s a course, and what’s a community? Two things are going to have to take place. First, we have to do things to keep that larger community engaged in a very low-touch way so it isn’t too much work on our end and so the community can drive the conversation. We also want to offer these courses almost as onramps into the community so that if a person wants to join this community, he or she can take this course and work at his or her own pace. The course is structured in a way that encourages group learning, but in the end, that person becomes part of this community and then the next cohort comes in. We have to figure out what exactly we are going to do with the group at that point. It’s something we are thinking about a lot, as our numbers get larger.

How does accreditation tie into these open learning communities?

Recognition of achievements is useful. You need to be able to represent to someone that you have done something. Ideally, that can be done through portfolios. Creating something is the best measure of what you have learned. Reviews can easily be added to portfolios. If I trust someone’s opinion in a particular area, I can ask him or her for a review of a particular person’s work. That might be more useful than a certificate or a degree.

The other important piece is feedback. As you go through the learning process, you want to get feedback that helps you improve. That feedback might come at specific moments or may be driven by your own experiences, and badges could be tied into that process. Badges are useful markers of community, and markers of community can be tied to learning outcomes.

I am a little bit weary of the potential of badges as credentials. I am less excited about that. There is a danger that we will end up in a system where on one side you again have some authority that issues some form of certification (which just happens to be badges instead of university degrees). And then on the other side you have the people who are learning. Those two groups are separate from each other. Consider for a moment a university degree in technology. Whether that’s in a form of a badge or a degree isn’t the most important component. The more important component is if the community involved comes away with less or more expertise, and if they give each other feedback and recognize each other’s achievements in ways that make sense for that community. If that’s the case, badges could play a very important role.

We have implemented a particular take on badges on our badges platform at, which is designed around project feedback. In this system, there is no way that a separate group would have authority to issue a badge to the people who are doing the work — those two are by design the same group — so our goal is to build badge models that incorporate this community type of learning.

How have your own experiences been shaped by this open approach to learning?

I feel very fortunate because I think of my work as part of a learning community. When I am trying to articulate my ideas, I send them to people I trust, and they give me feedback and help me refine them. For example, I have a call with David Theo Goldberg every couple of weeks where we talk about general ideas in the university. For me, that’s being part of an open community. I am not in a degree program, but he asks me questions just as much as I ask him questions, and he helps me come to terms with things that are relevant to my work. There is no separation between learner, student, and worker.

I also have a friend who is my mentor on bike repairs. I took a photo just this morning that I plan to send him because I was struggling with a particular piece of a repair. He will review it and tell me what I need to do.

We are all parts of lots and lots of open learning communities, but we might not think of them as open learning communities in the same way. But perhaps that is much better. You do things you want to do because it interests you, and in the process of discovering it, you get the help you need to do it. It’s a much better way of thinking about learning.

Banner image credit: hfordsa