Peer-to-Peer University to be launched

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Proponents of Online Education Plan to Start Peer-to-Peer University
>From the issue dated October 24, 2008

Five academics from around the world plan to open a new kind of online university early next year, built upon professor star power and students learning from one another through online social tools. The teachers will be volunteers, the courses will cost next to nothing, and no official credit will be given.

The organizers call it P2P University (for peer-to-peer), and they hope to fill what they see as a gap in online-education efforts by traditional colleges, which often focus more on delivering full degree programs online than on one-off courses. The project is running on a shoestring, with the organizers paying the initial Web-hosting fees and volunteering their own time, though they may seek grant support in the future.

"In some ways it's a vetted book club, where you do exams at the end," said Joel Thierstein, one of the leaders of the effort, who is also executive director of Rice University's Connexions project, a free online collection of scholarly materials.

The idealistic project might be a long shot - especially considering that several similar efforts have failed to take off in recent years. And some experts say the project could face resistance from traditional colleges that won't like employees trading on their names and reputations.

But its leaders point to successful models like Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. They also say that the timing is right, now that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other major universities have established an audience for free online course materials. What the new university is adding is expert teaching.

The effort grew out of theoretical discussions at open-education conferences over the past two years. But in the past few months the five colleagues, who work at different universities, decided to flesh out their plan and put it into action.

"It's kind of design research - an action research project almost," said another of the university's founders, Stian Håklev, a master's student in online education at the University of Toronto who runs a blog about free-education efforts. He first met his colleagues by paying his own way to attend an academic conference in
Croatia. "Maybe in half a year it will look different than what we thought, but that's part of the plan."

Professionals and Retirees

P2P University's two main audiences will be working professionals who want to brush up on a topic for their jobs but don't have time to take a whole degree program, and recent retirees who have plenty of time on their hands and feel comfortable in cyberspace, said Mr. Thierstein.

Details are still being worked out, but the plan is to open registration for the institution's first 10 courses in January and begin the first term in February. Basic information about the project is posted to the university's tentative Web site (

Among the unusual aspects of the model:

  • Although the university will not grant credit or seek accreditation of any kind, it will encourage students to seek college credit elsewhere - either by asking a traditional institution to give independent-study credit or by directing students to Western Governors University or other institutions that grant credit to students who can prove they have learned certain material on their own. P2P University might issue some kind of certificate indicating who taught the course and what was learned, however, and in some cases that alone might be enough for students to show a boss or put on their CV.
  • Courses will last six weeks rather than the traditional 12-week term. The hope is that shorter courses will appeal to new audiences, better fitting into people's busy schedules. And students can take two courses in sequence in hopes of earning the equivalent of one course worth of credit from a traditional institution.
  • Professors will have a reduced role than they have at traditional institutions, in part to encourage top faculty members to volunteer by lowering the time commitment. (Organizers are tentatively calling them "sense makers.") To handle the work of managing the course and grading papers, each course will have at least one tutor, a role expected to be filled by graduate students at traditional colleges volunteering their time. The motivation for the tutors will be to work with the professors, said Jan Philipp Schmidt, free-courseware project manager at the University of the Western Cape, in South Africa, and another project leader. "And students probably learn more teaching the course than they would being a student in it," he said.
  • Each student will be able to set up a profile on the university's Web site, much like on Facebook, where they can show which courses they have taken or taught and communicate with other students.

Starting With Stars

The hope is to start with star professors from major universities, as well as noted experts outside higher education, to teach courses on pet topics that might not attract enough attention to warrant traditional courses at their institutions.

Although the project's leaders would not release the names of the first 10 professors they have lined up, they said they are well-known in their respective fields.

Other institutions have tried similar efforts in the past. Columbia University spent millions of dollars about 10 years ago leading an online spinoff called Fathom, which sold online courses and lectures by star faculty members before it was forced to close for lack of interest.

More recently, companies such as Supercool School have opened and encouraged people to teach each other, though that one is hardly a household name.

"They moved the ball a little bit further down the field," said Mr. Thierstein of those efforts, unfazed by their poor track records. "Every one of those attempts that didn't work led us to where we are now."

One of the biggest challenges Mr. Thierstein and other leaders of the project see is motivating students to do the hard work of taking an online course - and of sticking with the course until the end.

That is why, even though the university's planners believe in free and open education, they are considering charging a small fee for their courses. "It's simply a barrier to people who aren't committed," said Mr. Schmidt. The fee will be reduced or waived for students who demonstrate need and commitment, he added. The founders haven't decided where the money will go, but it might be given to a charity of the student's choice or to the tutors.

Patrick Partridge, vice president for marketing and enrollment at Western Governors University, said his institution might welcome P2P students. "We would love to have students who have received content training through something like this university," he said. "We essentially don't care how and where you learned something, but you will have to still pass the WGU assessment."

But the new university raises legal and ethical questions, said Michael B. Goldstein, a higher-education lawyer with the Washington law firm Dow Lohnes. In particular, using professors' primary employers - the universities that pay their salaries - to attract attention could be a problem.

"What could be a concern to traditional institutions is the degree to which the name of their institution is being capitalized on," he said. "It's a trademark issue - you don't have a right to imply that what you are doing is under the auspices of the professor's institution."

He also worries that some professors might mix P2P University students into their regular university courses, which he said would "dilute the experience" for students paying full price at a traditional institution. "I frankly think it's wrong," he added.

Mr. Schmidt disagreed. "It doesn't 'dilute' their experience but 'enhances' it - as long they get the amount of feedback and attention they need from the professor, having a more diverse group of people to exchange ideas with is good."
Section: Information Technology
Volume 55, Issue 9, Page A12


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