A slightly edited transcript of a recorded discussion with +Mia Zamora +Lee Bessette +Howard Rheingold +Charlotte Pierce
and Alec Couros (and myself). I was thinking I would use this in an article, but it's a bit long so I think I may just reference it.
MIA. This is the fifth panel discussion in the co-learning unit for Connected Courses. Tonight we’re going to discuss the issue of co-learning and its relationship to authority in particular. I have some wonderful guests and some wonderful co-facilitators. I’m Mia Zamora, I’m at Kean University as Associate Professor of English there. I direct the Kean University Writing Project as well. And perhaps, Alec, would you introduce yourself next as my co-facilitator.
ALEC. For sure, thanks Mia. My name is Alec Couros, from Regina University in Regina, Saskatchewan. I’m going to pass it over to my esteemed colleague Howard.
HOWARD. Hi, I’m Howard Rheingold, I am currently Lecturer at Stanford University, and in 2011, started the Peeragogy project, which Joe Corneli and Charlotte Pierce are splendidly continuing to carry forward.
CHARLOTTE. I’m Charlotte Pierce. I’m an independent publisher in the Boston area, I’m also the Interim President of the Independent Publishers of New England. In 2012, I took Howard’s Think-Know Tools course online, and I was just thrilled with the things that were going through my head from that. I met up with Joe and Fabrizio, as members on the forums in the Social Media Classroom website that we were using, (right Howard?), and they were kind of rattling around wondering what to do with the project, and so I jumped in, and we got started with finishing up Version 1. And we’ve met via HangOuts almost every week since then – there’ve been times when we haven’t but we probably have several dozen videos on the Peeragogy Handbook channel on YouTube. We’ve used it to do “hive editing”, which is where we all glom onto an article and edit. That to me is like the ultimate connected learning. It’s very thrilling, and it’s very motivating for me and to a few others. Now we’re working on Version 3 of the Handbook, and getting started with some of the specific hangouts to work on that.
JOE. Hi, I’m Joe, I live a little bit north of London in England, so we have 3 countries represented. But I’m from Minneapolis in the US, so no fancy accent. I moved to England to do a PhD. The title was initially something like “Peer supported problem solving and mathematical knowledge” which morphed into something else, “Peer produced peer learning” with the subtitle “A mathematics case study”. So, my background is in math. The case study was PlanetMath.org, which is looking a little better than it was before I started the project. In 2011, I met Charlie Danoff at Wikimania, and we met again at P2PU and we decided to sit in on one another’s courses, and we started to develop an increasingly robust idea of what peer learning could be. That all took off beyond our wildest expectations when Howard became the driving force behind the Peeragogy project. And now, surprisingly enough, I have a job in a computer science department, trying to apply some of these ideas to computers. So, all’s well that ends well (it’s not over yet).
MIA. And last, but not least, Lee, would you introduce yourself too please?
LEE. My name is Lee Skallerup Bessette; I’m what they call a Faculty Instructional Consultant at the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky. I’m originally from Canada, so I’m a Montrealer at heart. About, almost exactly 5 years ago now, I found myself unemployed living in the middle of nowhere, really just trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my career. The academic job market had collapsed, and there weren’t that many other options. I discovered Twitter and started connecting with other scholars. When I found myself back in the classroom teaching writing, I was desperate for a way to learn, and so I took to Twitter and co-founded what was called “First Year Composition Chat”. It was a fantastic opportunity to connect with other educators from all different levels, to really talk about how do we teach writing. It was just an absolutely phenomenal experience. It really transformed the way I teach, and it really emboldened me. So I started to embrace co-learning and peer-learning alongside my students.
MIA. I’m thrilled that we have global representation, but we also have interdisciplinary representation. What does co-learning mean? What is co-learning? What’s your own personal take. I suspect there are varying understandings.
HOWARD. Well, I’ll jump in here. I see two aspects here. One is to break out of the paradigm of the individual learning by sitting in the classroom – certainly with other people, but their primary purpose is to collect knowledge, to bank knowledge. They’re really there to “get” and in many cases to compete with the other students in order to “get more.” Co-learning is a very explicit commitment to helping each other learn. And that requires knowing what the other learners are interested in – so that when something comes your way that the others might be interested in, you can point it out to them. The other aspect is that the instructor is learning along with the students, and that requires this re-negotiation of authority. There’s a fear among educators of saying “I want to learn.” There’s the thought that that is equivalent to saying “I don’t know what I’m doing as much as I pretended” and I think for co-learning you need to be ready to show what you don’t know.
MIA. Yeah, I think that’s a key aspect of learning side by side, revealing the gaps in our knowledge and ability as well as the strengths, the passions, and the interests.
LEE. I really appreciate that you brought up the banking model of education. For me co-learning is this thing that happens alongside learning. Friere describes the banking model of education as basically one where the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing. That’s stuck with me, since every teaching situation I’ve been in since I moved to the States is one where I’ve been forced into co-learning. The first place I started teaching at was a hispanic serving institution, and then I got a job at an historically black college, then moving to rural Appalachia. I was like, look, I don’t know much about your interests and your experiences, and it turned into this awesome co-learning opportunity, and there was this trust that developed betweened my students and me. Now I seek to recreate that even if it turns out I have more in common with the students than perhaps I have in the past.
MIA. I’m struck by that idea of trust.
JOE. I wanted to defer to Howard, but he jumped in, and maybe I can defer to him again. The point is that co-learning doesn’t need to be a totally beneficent act. There’s an evolutionary hypothesis that says that organisms must continually adapt not just to obtain reproductive advantage, but when pitted against adversity. Howard mentioned competitiveness among students. The essence of this Red Queen hypothesis is that if your world is not changing very much, you don’t have to learn very much, and you can just stay on your typical path. So, this story from Lee about moving from venue to venue and having to learn even how to communicate. I don’t want to say she was learning even more than her students, but I hope she was learning a lot and her students were also learning a lot. There’s room for benevolence in that, but there’s also this idea that when you’re adapting to a changing world, the world is adapting to you.
ALEC. I wouldn’t mind asking – with the environment changing around us, and the evolutionary aspect of this – the affordances of technology, the re-amplification and the heightening of networks in the way we learn... Well, it’s interesting that all of this is happening while we still have this fascination with formal schooling. Co-learning is a natural extension of how we actually learn, certainly from a network theory perspective. I’m continually finding we bump up against formal learning. And these peer learning models we’re talking about are complicated by our fascination with individual achievement. So for students it’s often “why should I bother with this” – “just because it makes us all smarter…what’s in it for me?” So, does the formal education part fall off eventually, like our tail?
CHARLOTTE. I’ll make a comment from our Handbook experiences, and learning how to produce a book basically. When Joe was really involved in the 1st and 2nd edition, and then got busy doing his thing, and we were all hoping for Joe to show up and initiate our sessions and so on. And we’ve basically just come out of that, because there’s a collective desire to continue with the project. We’ve spent quite a few sessions recently thinking about how we’re going to do that. It’s a constant mindfulness of not looking to the camp counselor to lead the song around the campfire. So we had a session today and we were floundering around, and finally we got a planning document up and wrote down a few things. (I can share the screen for a second – oh, this is my website “collaboration is the new competition” that’s my new motto.) Here’s our document from today, we hive edited that; Doug Brietbart said that that was his watch word, “no camp counselors.” We wrote down who we are, and what we would hope to achieve. This document is the seed to a real practical guide to peeragogy that we’re hopefully going to produce. So, I’d say being mindful of not going to your natural default, to the camp counselor is important.
ALEC. I’m teaching a grad course and an undergraduate course, and I don’t know which one is more difficult to bring about this model. We focus first on getting students to establish connections with each other. Going back to that camp counselor thing – they continue to seek me out hoping for me to do something, and I certainly can default to that role. But when you’re convinced that this is an essential way, outside of Higher Ed as well as inside (and I also teach teachers), you want to dig in your heels and tell students that it’s going to work. You get students who say “just tell me what to do” – tell me how many times you want to post in the forum and that kind of thing.
CHARLOTTE. Before Joe, it was Howard, and then Howard was off doing other things, and we were missing him. Maybe we’re just in the evolutionary link phase.
HOWARD. Both with the younger students and ourselves, there’s a lot of previous training and we have to go against the grain in that regard. The interesting thing with the Peeragogy project is that these are all people who didn’t know each other at first. It started at UC Berkeley, where I gave a public lecture, and we met in person twice after that, and I opened up Collaborate, and via Twitter I said, “anyone in the world who would like to join us, come in.” After a couple months, the people from Berkeley drifted away, and the people from about 7 or 8 other countries drifted in. And I wanted to take the training wheels off then and leave it to its own devices. But David Preston kind of kicked my ass and said it’s not really ready to do that. So I came back in a little bit at that point. I think again with the co-learning, there’s some de-programming if the co-learners who are expecting someone to tell them what to do. You can tell them, look, you’re going to be able to do this.
JOE. The thing is now we’re doing very different things, and we have different tools, so for example “catching up” means something else entirely. At the beginning, people were very concern about “catching up” which would have meant reading hundreds of forum posts, but now it mean watching lots of videos and reading Google+ posts, and it would really be impossible. But I wanted to market another book that I got used – it doesn’t really need it though because it’s a New York Times best seller, Nurture Shock, by Po Bronson. This chapter, Chapter 8, is on “Can Self-Control be Taught”. The only sad thing is that it focuses on pre-K and K. They talk about Tools of the Mind, and it reminds me of Howard, and what Charlotte was talking about, with their take on tools of the mind. In the book they focus on getting kids to imagine what they are going to play, not just playing – but, like with that document Charlotte was showing, who am I, what is my role here, that kind of thing. In the end the kids had better standardized test scores, and even better IQ scores!
CHARLOTTE. Sign me up! Didn’t David Preston with his 5PH1NX thing, didn’t the students just come in and then have to discover what they were going to do that day? And the students would come in with various states of resistance to that idea. I saw a video of Howard kind of flipping his classroom too. It seems to me that your group needs to be informed that you are expected to generate something. It doesn’t matter if it’s a mistake or the wrong thing! You’re expected to get together, collaborate, come up with a project or a course of learning.
MIA. It seems that another foundation of co-learning is inquiry: inquiry-driven engagement in learning. And what you’re saying about play and the small ones, children, really rings home for me because I have 2 small children – they’re in elementary school now, but when they were in pre-school they followed a Reggio Emilia style curriculum, where they ask questions, and the teacher continues to press them to express those questions. And that turns into the curriculum for the day, and for the month and year. And it’s really powerful – and this is what they do with the young ones. But when they get to grade school, we see this hidden curriculum of right and wrong answers, and it’s a profound shifting of what learning is and learning can be. And it’s a shame because if we try to re-instate co-learning in a Higher Ed context, then they’re lost at sea. For the really young ones, there’s theory around the idea that they can lead their way to discovery. But after that, they have to somehow listen to a master. Lee, earlier on you wanted to say something.
LEE. It goes back to what you were saying – I have two really young children as well. Particularly my daughter who had such a thirst for learning and who wants to learn everything, all at once. And then going in to teach my freshman writers, and just seeing these dead-eyed stares, and thinking “Oh god, when does this happen to my daughters and how can I get it to stop?” “How do I get that five year old back?” That got me thinking: and one of the things Alec was talking about, that also got me thinking, is that I would tell my students “This is probably the hardest class you will ever take, but it is only hard because it is unlike any other class you’ve every taken. This is going to be very difficult for you because you’ve been schooled on the proper way to learn.” I bring up trust, because they really think that I’m tricking them – “She’s not serious, she’s tricking us, there really is a right answer that she’s trying to get us to give and when we give it, things will go back to the way it was.” And it’s interesting to me, the first ones to embrace the peer learning and co-learning style that I’m trying to advance in the classroom are the smart-aleckey students. The kids who are going to stand up to me, back talk, all that kind of stuff. Once I get them co-learning, then they start pushing me further – and they say “Oh, I can do this? This is what I’ve been waiting for my entire life.”
JOE. So, that’s really cool. Do you think you could invite some of those students to edit the Peeragogy Handbook, and that they would be excited by that? (Now I’m going to try to market the Peeragogy Handbook, or maybe the Peeragogy process.)
LEE. If I were still teaching, I would be doing it. There’s an irony to being in a Center for Teaching and Learning. “You’re such a great teacher, now come out of the classroom, and you will now do curriculum or professional development.” But there’s something to be said for teaching the teachers in that sense.
CHARLOTTE. David Preston, I think his student’s successes with standardized tests are so good that he can keep doing his stuff in the classroom, although it’s not necessarily sanctioned in the curriculum in his school.
HOWARD. Well, David Preston is fortunate in that the principal is behind what he’s doing. And I introduced him to another teacher, named Don Wettrick, who has similar a class called Innovations, and the students can take on whatever they’re interested in, and the teacher will help with that. Somehow or other the word gets around and the students are ready to do that – students from a small school just outside of Indianapolis have come to Stanford twice and talked to my Stanford students, and they really woke them up. If these students from a small town in Indiana are able to take their learning into their own hands, then, yeah, maybe we can do that. Once you can get them to do that then things are ready to go. I think it requires either benign neglect or support from the administration. It requires one or two learners ready to jump in the water. The love of taking charge of your learning is very innate, it’s just so suppressed.
MIA. There’s a question that’s coming in from Twitter that’s very interesting. “How can we build more trust for our students?” The word trust has come up a couple times this evening. I thought you guys might have some idea about trust in a co-learning environment.
ALEC. A colleague of mine, Dr Richard Schwier, who just retired this year from University of Saskatchewan, he’s done a lot of work on communities of practice and what creates a community. And trust is something that comes up every time, whether it’s building a terrestrial or an online community. Modelling learning, for oneself and others – being able to see a success, whether it’s participation or something else. The instructor moves away from the directed knowledge transfer mode to something that actually models learning. I think trust is actually based on watching someone else be successful with the model. There’s always going to be some hierarchy if we’re looking at something institutional. So, rather than taking on a role like being the bearer of all knowledge, take on the role of the lead learner. Being willing and able to fail in front of large audiences is another thing that, I think, leads to trust – being able to fail online and survive, and see others and their success of bouncing back and learning more, I think that contributes tremendously to building trust. One more thing, we talked about in the session last week, we created an introductiory Lift Off, and that little piece allowed people to share something about themselves: creating some introductory step that allows people to take small risks with great benefit.
CHARLOTTE. I just wanted to note that in the peeragogy process, there’s trust when we do collaborative or synchronous editing on documents – because someone might change what you’ve just done. But you’ve got to trust that eventually it will emerge into a better document. Also Howard does this, and we’ve tried to do this in the post-Howard era, trying to provide several ways to engage – not just trying to get your word in, but typing in the chat, forums, communities; and if you have a facilitator or a number of co-facilitators, make sure that you acknowledge those contributions. Someone may not be comfortable talking in this setting, but they can still contribute something critically valuable in another way – so make sure you keep checking in on those other venues.
JOE. In addition to the synchronous editing, there’s also the asynchronous editing. Our master copy of the handbook is basically a blog, a Wordpress site, and we just assume that the more edits that take place there, the better, once someone has access to the site. How do you build trust? You trust people. But I’m a little cynical about it, I was thinking about this Cathy Davidson class that wrote Field Notes for 21st Century Literacies. They use a CC-By-NC-SA license for that, and I’m like, “No, that kills my ability to use that.” But that said, they did successfully build a community. And for those authors, collaborating under the terms of that license worked fine. Maybe that’s helpful to think about just who is the population that has to build trust. Like they said: “How a class becomes a community”
ALEC. Is it the Share Alike license the part that that you don’t like?
JOE. No, it’s the Non-Commercial part. “NC” is basically not a free license. It means, for example, we couldn’t take material from that book and put it in the Handbook and sell it. Whereas our license is actually public domain waiver, so people can take content from our book and put it in their own book and sell it.
CHARLOTTE. That said I don’t think we’ve ever detected anyone who’s taken the handbook and called it their own.
JOE. True, but I did find some people who took a paper I wrote with Charlie and just remixed it. But that’s pretty much standard practice in academia anyway!
ALEC. I think it’s not just trust in the people, but trust in the process. I’m thinking of the cynicism you display around the NC clause. Even Share Alike is a bit of trust in the system, that you would share things, and that the process actually works, that building on others’ ideas actually works. I find that when I work with some of my colleagues, academics, on papers – and it’s less about going into a Google Doc and deciding to make changes, it’s not that they don’t like the technology, but there’s this real reluctance to overwrite someone else’s ideas. You’re making a very bold statement, that says “My idea about this is better.” To say this or feel this, that you’re improving someone else’s ideas is really tough in an academic culture. You’re actually hoping, trusting in the process, that the editor is actually making a change that is better and that ultimately the document becomes better. That can be scaled, so that this peer learning piece is for the betterment of our local community, K12 education as a whole... and so on.
LEE. And I think it makes sense – of course students don’t trust the system. And at the same time students know that co-learning works. Because that’s how they share informal learning, pop culture: they join teams, they join groups – the extracurricular things are usually the most fun. They know! They might not know their peers very well in the classroom, but outside the classroom they can look around and say I recognize that person’s style, or I know that band, or I’m on that team. Once they enter the four walls of the classroom, there’s something about leaving the co-learning outside. They have been schooled that it’s all about competition. I try to model the good behavior – almost like being a good parent, you follow-through, so that they believe you.
JOE. The other psychology thing in this book Nurture Shock – and I’m not a parent, but I found this quite revealing – not only do kids learn from each other, they spend a lot of time trying to make their parents happy. And when you go into the classroom, the teacher becomes the parent and they spend time trying to please the teacher. Another theme in the book is trying to help kids get a lot out of sibling realtionships, because they may find their siblings boring. Kids are almost infinitely maleable, but the cultural defaults are not necessarily that healthy: kids don’t just learn good habits, they also learn bad habits – and it’s a lot to ask anyone to intervene in that. There are lots of little gems in this book, like popular kids are more likely to have drug problems, which makes some sense if you think about the nature of peer pressure.
MIA. I was thinking about what Lee said earlier, about the kids that take to a co-learning environment quicker – that those are the ones who in a traditional environment would be the trouble makers. On the other side of that spectrum, the students who are most resistant to the co-learning are the ones who are people pleasers. I also teach teachers and I find that people who want to be teachers are the ones most disoriented by co-learning. Which in many ways is very disheartening to me in terms of thinking about the future of education. This brings me to what is probably our last question because we’re getting closer to the end of the hour. Why co-learning now? What is it about teaching and learning in this day and age, and the technological advantages that we have in the early 21st century, and we’re now considering co-learning as a center-piece to this thing we call connectedness. I guess it’s two questions: why co-learning now at this moment; and the second is, what role does it play within a connected learning experience?
HOWARD. I’ll say something about the first one. For most people who are not stubbornly dedicated individual learners, schools have had a monopoly on learning. Now, I challenge you, type in “How to do…” anything, and you will find a YouTube video with a 14 year old explaining how to do it. That didn’t exist 1000, 100, or 20 years ago. For the people I’m getting in my classrooms, the web has always been there. Increasingly, we will find students coming into the classroom who know that learning can happen in a collaborative way. Right now, there are probably 1 million people (maybe more) helping each other play games.
LEE. I think Joe also hit the nail on the head when he said, “when we’re not faced with a lot of change we don’t need to learn very much.” And this particular time period has a lot of change, a lot of it very positive but some of it very stressful, and the old schooling isn’t working; and I think we know instinctively, and explicitly, that it can’t go on this way. And we know, because of the internet, because we can Google anything on YouTube, these things are happening simultaneously, we have the technology – “We have the technology Jim” – to make it better. That’s the 14 year olds who are already co-learners when they leave the classroom. They know there’s a better way, and now us old geezers are being forced to learn it as well. So, I think that’s “why now” – now is just this perfect storm of change and uncertainty.
JOE. I think that that’s really interesting. I would challenge Howard to say, maybe 20 years ago, some people were doing it (as he documents in the book The Virtual Community, about his experiences with The WELL), but now everyone’s doing it. Now, you can connect with people out of interest, and your communities of interest can include almost anyone. But I also wanted to say, I have an interesting and weird perspective, because I’m now a computer scientist, but I’ve also studied social media stuff. We can talk to anyone around the world; these days there are typically hundreds of authors on physics or biology papers, but if you look in computer science, it’s less – and computer scientists are the ones who specialize in the tools we’re talking about. But I would say, from my weird position in that field, that we’re not much further along in than we were in 1950 with Turing – I mean the field of thinking about what computers can do. Computers are faster, they are good at chess, they are good at Jeopardy, they are good for email and whatever goes beyond email, like Google Hangouts, but how about getting computers to talk to each other? I guess I find it fascinating that computers are so distinctly bad at what we’re good at doing, and what we enjoy doing – humans want to talk to each other, they’re naturally curious. There’s nothing about computers that will do that. From my perspective I think we’re just starting to understand the theory of how to make systems collaborative. Vygotsky is one of the most prominent people who studied that before, but I think there are changes in theory not just in practice. But yeah, stay tuned, because I’m not sure where that’s headed.
MIA. Any closing words for the last five minutes?
CHARLOTTE. I was just going to flash up another project that we’ve been doing. We’ve been doing these Peeragogy Accelerators where we focus on these topics in these Hangouts. This woman, Sagarika Bhatta, a graduate student in Nepal, I’m not sure how she found me – through Hangouts, and I have another friend in Nepal – and we’re helping her brainstorm about how to keep her project going. She’s investigating how to merge modern science with indigenous sustainable practices. This is something, we went through a slide-show, they had taken pictures and videos of their field work; something we would never have been privvy to on this intimate level. It’s just very exciting, my son is a college student and I think he’s going to join us this week as well. It’s exciting - it allows us to reach out and understand our world.
MIA. Yeah, the classroom is no longer bound by four walls that much is obvious from your example.
JOE. We move from tools to tools and platform to platform. And I’ll try to get my aunt to join, because she’s in Nepal too, and if Sagarika starts talking to my aunt, well that’s enough people to go and have tea, and they might be able to start organizing around their interests; it doesn’t have to be peeragogy.
CHARLOTTE. When I was in London and Scotland this past summer, Joe and I got together, and we were already in the stream.
JOE. I’ve been involved with open source for a while and I’ve always made an effort to meet people – if you don’t have that, I think you lose a lot of the humanity, and people can be really mean to each other.
HOWARD. The more you reveal about what interests you and what problems you’re trying to solve, you’re multiplying your learning. I guess the mathematics of it is factorial. You have 20 people in the classroom, and each one of them has an idea of what the other 19 people are interested in. Once that catches on, it’s so much richer than even the best teacher trying to get that knowledge across to those 20 people. To me that’s the ultimate excitement of co-learning. It’s why the web and online communities are so exciting.
MIA. I think that’s a fantastic note to close out on, as we’re at the hour now. I just want to thank everyone for this conversation, which just seems to be the beginning of something. My mind is effervescing with so many ideas. We’re going to have another panel, that’s going to be on Wednesday night, and we will hear from Cathy Davidson and some of her students, who made that field guide, as well as David Preston and some of his students and the kinds of innovative things that they’re doing in their learning context. So the conversation will continue beyond this chat. Than you so much for your enthusiasm. Some of the highlights for me were trust, the issue of authority and relinquishing it, I also liked how we dug into the roots of learning at an early age, and how that might inform how we learn when we get older. And certainly I can see the timeliness of co-learning in the 21st century, as educational paradigms shift, as we look at what learning means with an open horizon for all of us. With those comments, a big thank you to all of you, and I wish all of you a good night.