We live in an era of informal learning. The groundwork for many middle school projects takes place over the virtual expanse of Wikipedia. Blogs on specialised subjects and tweets from ‘mind-casters' have redefined information access.
However, traditional forms of walled universities and limited access to scholarly publications still persist. While it is possible to look up that trivial fact on Google, to put it bluntly, one cannot actually go to college online.
Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU) is an initiative that aims at tackling this problem head on. It is a grassroots education project that organises learning outside the institutional walls. Leveraging the Internet and educational materials openly available online (licensed under Creative Commons), P2PU provides the social environment (by creating a study group) necessary to learning for free, anywhere, at anytime.
P2PU was started in September 2009 with seven courses, with each course spanning six weeks. In March 2010, an additional 16 courses were added. Each course has about 15 to 20 learners and is headed by a course organiser. It is learning for peers by peers.
The course topics range from digital journalism and civic hacking to open standards software development. Joi Ito, CEO of Creative Commons, is teaching his digital journalism course simultaneously at Japan's Keio University. Students at the university can also take the online module for credits.
John Britton, course organiser of ‘Mashing up the Open Web,' says time zones are a problem while attempting to simulate a “sit around the fire and learn by discussion” environment virtually. “But lively weekly video discussions (using a combination of Skype and IRC) to review materials and work through the questions presented by the peers still happen.”
The ‘class' is very diverse, he says. “We have peers from Korea, Japan, India, Spain, the U.S. and Canada. They're artists, technologists, environmentalists, and traditional students.”
Stian Haklev, co-founder, P2PU, says that it was started as a movement for open educational resources. “For most people, it is very difficult to learn on their own. The question that led to the creation of P2PU was: Given all the material that is openly available online, can we add the social element?”
The quest for greater access to quality education has special resonance in countries such as India and China, says Mr. Haklev. Access to knowledge is an important indicator of social mobility, he adds, “Collaborative learning experiences can result in a movement for open learning. Everyone can teach a course. You don't have to be an expert. It doesn't matter what your background is.”
P2PU represents one small success in an effort to build a new-age paradigm for education. Apart from projects such as MIT OpenCourseWare that are widely known, there are others in the forgotten corners of the educational content landscape such as IGNOU's effort to digitalise and provide ‘open access' to almost all of their teaching materials; http://www.egyankosh.ac.in/ or Pakistan University putting up close to 6,000 hours of lectures in Urdu on their Youtube channel.
What these initiatives aim to do is that no one who really wants to learn something should be left out. We might never be able to provide equality of circumstances, but ‘open learning' measures might at least lead to equality in opportunities and access.