Peer Learning

Peer learning


One of the most visible approaches to peer learning comes out of cognitive psychology, and is applied within a “mainstream” educational framework: “Peer learning is an educational practice in which students interact with other students to attain educational goals.”[1] However, other contemporary views on peer learning relax the constraints, and position peer or peer-to-peer learning as a mode of “learning for everyone, by everyone, about almost anything.”[2] This article describes peer learning through the lens of various learning theories and applications, both in school and university settings and in other domains.

Connections with Constructivism

For centuries, education theorists have questioned the effectiveness of the traditional teacher-student model, which rests on the premise that teachers are responsible for transferring facts from books to students’ minds. Most famous of the early education reformers in the United States was John Dewey, who advocated new “experiential learning” techniques. In his 1916 book, Democracy and Education, Dewey wrote, “Education is not an affair of ‘telling’ and being told, but an active and constructive process.” In a later essay, entitled “Experience and Education”[3], Dewey went into greater detail about the science of child development and developed the basic Constructivist theory that knowledge is created through experience, rather than passed down from teacher to student through rote memorization.

Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who developed the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development, was another proponent of constructivist learning, and his book, Thought and Language, provides evidence that students learn better through collaborative, meaningful problem-solving activities than through solo exercises. Jerome Bruner is another prominent cognitive psychologist whose book The Process of Education was influenced by Vygotsky. This book placed an emphasis on learners as active problem-solvers, and had a significant impact on reforming American education policy.

Educational Psychology Professor Alison King explains in “Promoting Thinking Through Peer Learning”[4] that peer learning exercises as simple as having students explain concepts to one another are proof of social constructivism theory at work; the act of teaching another individual demands that students “clarify, elaborate on, and otherwise reconceptualize material.” Joss Winn, Senior Lecturer in Educational Research at University of Lincoln, proposes that schools radically redefine the teacher-student relationship to fit this constructivist theory of knowledge in his December 2011 paper, “Student as Producer”.[5]. Carl Rogers’ “Personal Thoughts on Learning”[6] focus on the individual’s experience of effective learning, and eventually conclude that nearly the entire traditional educational structure is at odds with this experience. Self-discovered learning in a group that designates a facilitator is the “new approach” Rogers recommends for education.

Connections with Critical Pedagogy

Critical pedagogy engages students and instructors in analyzing and critiquing power structures around them. The most influential scholar in the development of this field was Paulo Freire, whose book Pedagogy of the Oppressed described the traditional teaching framework as a “banking system” in which students are thought of as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge and concepts. Instead, Freire advocated a more equitable relationship between teachers and students, one in which information is questioned and situated in political context, and all participants in the classroom work together to create knowledge.

Freire’s vision for dialogical education, where learning is situated within students’ lived experience, has been commonly deemed idealistic by modern educators. Paulo Blikstein, Assistant Professor of Education at Stanford University wrote inTravels in Troy with Freire: Technology as an Agent of Emancipation[7] that through exploratory building activities, “Not only did students become more autonomous and responsible, they learned to teach one another.”

Connections with Connectivism

We are now beginning to see how technology can enhance our understanding of the co-construction of knowledge. Yochai Benkler explains how the now-ubiquitous computer helps us produce and process knowledge with others in his book,The Wealth of Networks. The advancement and spread of technology have led digital learning theorist George Siemens to introduce a new theory called “Connectivism.” He argues in Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age, that technology has changed the way we learn, explaining how it tends to complicate or expose the limitations of the learning theories of the past. Earlier theories describe learning as a process that is contained inside the individual, but the new theory of connectivism proposes that the knowledge we can access by virtue of our connections with others is just as valuable as the information carried inside our minds. The learning process, therefore, is not entirely under an individual’s control — learning can happen outside ourselves, as if we are a member of a large organization where many people are continuously updating a shared database. The crucial point of connectivism theory is that the connections that make it possible for us to learn something in the future are more relevant than the sets of knowledge we know individually, in the present.

Perspectives of other modern theorists

In a joint paper, Roy Williams, Regina Karousou, and Jenny Mackness argue that educational institutions should consider emergent learning, in which learning arises from a self-organized group interaction, as a valuable component of education in the Digital Age. Web 2.0 puts distributed individuals into a group setting where emergent learning can occur. However, deciding how to manage emergence is important; “fail-safe” management drives activity towards pre-determined outcomes, while “safe/fail experiments” steer away from negative outcomes while leaving space open for mistakes and innovation.[8] Williams et al. also distinguish between the term “environment” as controlled, and “ecology” as more free and open, relating to the affordances of open source technology resources.

Cathy Davidson and David Goldberg write in The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age about the potential of “participatory learning,” and a new paradigm of education that is focused on the mediated interactions between peers. They argue that if institutions of higher learning could begin to value this type of learning, instead of simply trying to implement “Instructional Technology” in classrooms, they could transform old models of university education. Davidson and Goldberg introduce “Ten Principles for the Future of Learning,” which include self-learning, horizontal structures, and open source education.

Yochai Benkler & Helen Nissenbaum discuss implications in the realm of virtue and moral philosophy in their 2006 essay, “Commons-Based Peer Production and Virtue”.[9] They argue that the “socio-technical systems” of today’s Internet make it easier for people to role-model and adopt positive, virtuous behaviors on a large scale.

Joseph Corneli and Charles Jeffrey Danoff proposed the label “paragogy” to describe a collection of “best practices of effective peer learning.”[10]. They published a short book[11] along with several papers in which they discuss five “paragogical principles”, which were created by rethinking Malcolm Knowles principles of andragogy for a context in which learners co-create their learning environment.

Experiments in Peer Learning

The new learning theories previously described are currently being tested in peer-learning communities around the world. One of the first of these communities was Peer 2 Peer University, or P2PU, which was founded in 2009 by Philipp Schmidt and others. Speaking about the beginnings of P2PU, Schmidt echoes Siemens’ connectivism theory and explains that, “The expertise is in the group. That’s the message, that everyone can bring something to the conversation.”[2] In numerous public talks, Schmidt argues that current educational models are “broken”. He suggests that social assessment mechanisms similar to those applied in open-source software development can be applied to education.[12] In practice, this approach uses peer-based assessment including recommendations and badges to provide an alternative form of accreditation.[13]

Jeff Young’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “When Professors Print Their Own Diploma”[14], sparked a conversation about the necessity of formal degrees in an age when class lectures can be uploaded for free. The MIT Open Teaching initiative, for example, has since 2001 put all of its course materials online. But David A. Wiley, then Psychology Professor at Utah State, went further, signing certificates for whoever takes his class. A similar practice has become even more visible in projects like UdacityCoursera, and EdX. Although these projects attempt to “scale education” by distributing learning materials produced by experts (not classic examples of peer learning), they do frequently feature peer-to-peer discussions in forums or offline.[15]

David Williamson Shaffer argues that evidence-centered design is one solution to the challenge of online learning assessment. Epistemic games challenge students to take on professional roles like urban planning or science journalism to create knowledge through acting out a skill and identity. Instructors (or peer groups) determine what kinds of observable behaviors can demonstrate knowledge of a topic, then create situations that elicit the behaviors for assessment purposes.

Challenges for Peer Learning

The theories that support the use of peer-to-peer teaching and learning in education are becoming more nuanced and developed with each passing month that independent organizations “try out” new kinds of courses and learning groups. But in practice, especially within the traditional educational environment, certain challenges can arise. For example, technology is commonly seen as a liberating force, but it can also recreate existing, ineffective educational structures, defeating the liberation purpose. Scardamalia and Bereiter explain in “Computer Support for Knowledge-Building Communities”[16] that computers in the classroom have the opportunity to restructure the learning environment, but too often they are simply used to provide a digital version of a normal lesson or exam. They propose that classrooms be exchanged for “knowledge-building communities” where students can use computers to connect to and create knowledge in the outside world.

In “The Role of the Learning Platform in Student-Centered E-Learning”, Kurliha and Miettinen evaluated two e-learning platforms, and compared real-time social regonition with asynchronous commenting.[17] The results varied, with the real-time platform allowing peers to easily reach out to receive or provide help to one another and control the direction of the projects.

Peer Learning in Practice

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