By Megan Driscoll
Philipp Schmidt comes from a serious tech background - he studied economics and computer science before pursuing a career as a technology consultant. After working in the start-up environment, Mr. Schmidt developed an interest in open source software communities, and it only took a small step for him to go from open software to open education. Mr. Schmidt is currently the Executive Director of the Peer 2 Peer University, where he's brought his tech expertise to bear in designing a totally new approach to open course development.
Q. What is the Peer 2 Peer University and how was it founded?
A. The Peer 2 Peer University is a grassroots open education project that organizes learning outside of institutional walls and gives learners recognition for their achievements. P2PU creates a model for lifelong learning alongside traditional formal higher education. Leveraging the Internet and educational materials openly available online, P2PU enables learning for everyone, by everyone about almost anything.
P2PU was founded by five people in 2009 who saw the need for the development of a peer component in open education.
Q. What is your personal philosophy regarding open education and how does that fit into the P2PU model?
A. My personal philosophy is that everyone should have the tools and opportunities to learn. Of course, P2PU can only attempt to solve a small piece of that overall goal - many people are prevented from learning because they don't have time to invest in an education. But technology-enabled collaboration can go a long way towards helping people access resources and find other people.
Q. Unlike many open education and OCW sites, P2PU is more than just a collection of materials for self-learners - you offer organized online courses on a semester basis for free. How do you put these courses together and how are you able to keep the cost so low?
A. Most of the P2PU community is made up of volunteers - people are organizing and taking courses or participating in study groups because they want to, not because they're paid to be there or are paying to be there. That's the fundamental point at the heart of P2PU. By making use of many different kinds of open educational resources (OERs), P2PU is able to provide the social wrapper for learning, which is a critical factor. The peer interaction is often what makes learning both fun and effective and many OERs don't offer that.
Our courses are created using many of the freely available and shareable materials that can be found online. Open sharing and collaboration enable participation, innovation and accountability. Our community is open so that everyone can participate and our content is open so that everyone can use it.
Q. Do you currently offer any type of certification or other acknowledgement for students who've completed a P2PU course? Do you plan to seek accreditation for your courses, and if so, what will it take for your model to meet accreditation standards?
A. While learning in itself is a valuable goal, getting credit for what you've done is also important to gain social and economic opportunities. As P2PU develops, we are experimenting with new ways of recognizing learning.
Assessment is intrinsic in the community learning process. Like open source software communities, the participants in a learning group provide feedback to each other, reviewing and improving each others' work. Mozilla and Peer 2 Peer University are working to solve this problem by developing an Open Badges infrastructure. Our system will make it easy for education providers, websites and other organizations to issue badges that give public recognition and validation for specific skills and achievements. It will also provide an easy way for learners to manage and display those badges across the Web on their personal websites or resumes, social networking profiles, job sites or just about anywhere. We're hoping that Open Badges will help learners unlock career and educational opportunities and demonstrate skills that traditional resumes and transcripts often leave out.
Q. Most of the P2PU courses are volunteer-taught. How would someone apply to teach a course and to what extent is the content vetted for quality by your team?
A. We find that the community is often the very best form of vetting or peer-review out there. People know when a course is good and they vote with their feet. Nobody has to apply as such, although we do have a small team of volunteers who can help orient new organizers and help them develop their courses or study groups as well as possible. And obviously anything that is overtly offensive or wrong would be flagged.
Q. You recently attended the OpenCourseWare Consortium's conference. How do you see P2PU relating to the OCW model? What have you learned from OCW's ten years of development, and in what ways do you think you've improved upon it?
A. The first ten years of OCW (and open education) have been a great success, the next ten years are much more exciting. We are only at the beginning of significant changes to the way higher education works. The sessions and conversations during the conference highlighted to me that the members of the OpenCourseWare Consortium have already moved well beyond a focus on content alone and are probing how an open approach to learning services or certification can help them and their students.
Q. What are P2PU's plans for development? Do you have a specific five- or ten-year vision?
A. There are plenty of areas we're working on at the moment. In the short-term, getting our technology platform right so that we can encourage more peer-learning is a priority. Exploring accreditation options and sustainability plans are also high priorities for us, as is growing the number of courses in as many subjects as possible. We have many different plans, but the one we like to talk about most is world domination!