How P2PU fits into the open ed landscape, and why we call ourselves a university

June 30, 2010, [MD]

Recently there was a discussion on a P2PU mailing list about the basic model of P2PU, questioning why we didn't embrace more open-ended networked learning where anyone could teach anything, and whether the word "university" was compatible with the concept of Peer2Peer. Since these two questions have come up frequently in other fora, I decided to post my response on my blog as well.

First about the word university: University does not come from "universe", it actually comes from "society", see this etymology:

c.1300, "institution of higher learning," also "body of persons constituting a university," from Anglo-Fr. université, O.Fr. universitei (13c.), from M.L. universitatem (nom. universitas), in L.L. "corporation, society," from L., "the whole, aggregate," from universus "whole, entire" (see universe). In the academic sense, a shortening of universitas magistrorum et scholarium "community of masters and scholars;" superseded studium as the word for this.

(I remember learning about this in my class on the history of higher education as well – it would actually make for a great P2PU course; examining different models for higher education, from the shuyuan in ancient China, Taxila in India and the nizamiyyaa in old Persia, through to Bologna and Paris universities, the German and French models, the first modern research university in the US, etc).

In that sense, I believe we are absolutely a university. Indeed, there are also many historical models of the university, for example in Bologna the students hired and paid the teachers. See this snippet from Wikipedia:

Universities were generally structured along three types, depending on who paid the teachers. The first type was in Bologna, where students hired and paid for the teachers. The second type was in Paris, where teachers were paid by the church. Oxford and Cambridge were predominantly supported by the crown and the state, a fact which helped them survive the Dissolution of the Monasteries  in 1538 and the subsequent removal of all the principal Catholic  institutions in England. These structural differences created other characteristics. At the Bologna university the students ran everything -- a fact that often put teachers under great pressure and disadvantage. In Paris, teachers ran the school; thus Paris became the premiere spot for teachers from all over Europe. Also, in Paris the main subject matter was theology, so control of the qualifications awarded was in the hands of an external authority - the Chancellor of the diocese. In Bologna, where students chose more secular studies, the main subject was law.

Then about how "structured" we should be, and which model we should follow: This is a debate we've had from the very beginning, whether we should be a "free-for-all" platform, letting people start whatever courses they wanted, or whether we should be a quality-controlled platform where courses adhered to specific requirements, and followed certain templates. Initially, most of the founders had a pretty clear vision for a platform built on quality courses, and were not inspired by the idea of another "free-for-all" site. However, it's very crucial here to note that P2PU does not claim to represent the entire sphere of open education, nor do we want to – we want there to be a vibrant ecology of open educational resources, and open education projects, using lot's of different approaches, governing models, funding models (for-profits can also play an important part, like EduFire), pedagogical models, software platforms, etc.

So rather than trying to cover all the possibilities, we would like to do something where there is a gap, something that we believe a lot of people are looking for, and something which we can do well. To my mind, there are many alternatives if you are looking for a free-for-all platform. You could start with Wikiversity, for example. Then you have unclasses, and countless other platforms for matching teachers and students. Or you could just start something on your blog, write something on twitter with a hashtag, and see if anybody are interested. There is some great innovation going on here, and we would love to collaborate with all these other projects.

But P2PU isn't Wikiversity, it isn't the Massive Open Online Courses that Siemens, Downes, and Cormier (amongst others) have been running, it isn't the for pay video-based courses at EduFire, ... It fills its own niche. One which I think is very valuable. Personally most of my learning is of the "networked" kind. I tweet, I blog, I find resources, I connect with people. But if I want to read up on the Russian revolution, and would like to do that with a co-hort of people that I can discuss with, if I want a reading list that makes sense, and is only linked to openly available resources - there aren't currently any other organizations out there (that I know of) that are likely to offer that as a free online course, other than P2PU. (There are also important strengths of small structures courses, compared to never-ending networked interaction, I discuss some of my thoughts on this in a presentation.)

And I think that having such a specific model (although we are very open to experimentation and improvement) is a huge benefit when we go out and talk to people, whether it's giving general talks, or approaching other organizations for discussions on collaboration. So yes, our vision is fairly specific, and it contains the value "quality". Because when I go to a lot of these platforms, I am often impressed by their vision and their ideas, but then I begin clicking around in the course catalogue, and it's very hit-and-miss. Lot's of courses that might never start, others where the course might run out in the sand after a class or two. Whereas if we at P2PU say we will offer 13 courses at a given date, people should know that they are all offered by people who are serious about running the classes, the curricula are all solid, etc. (Of course, some courses end up better than others, and we are working on that!).

Finally though, I do agree that it would be great to gradually crowd-source the way we achieve these results, because obviously, if we want 100 or 500 courses per semester, we are not going to be able to have the core team approve them manually. We've talked about different options, having community members "vouch" for a course, having a course automatically get offered if a certain number sign up, etc. I am sure we will see more discussion and experimentation with that. But I for one think that our goal, and our model, is still the right one for P2PU, as one small (but hopefully important!) player in the open ed landscape.


Stian Håklev June 30, 2010 Toronto, Canada
comments powered by Disqus