An elephant of a sandbox

I’ll be blogging in response to a webinar series offered by at the invitation of the National Writing Project’s Digital Is .

In last week’s webinar, Philipp Schmidt, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Peer2Peer University (P2PU) , spoke with host Howard Rheingold and a small panel of doctoral students who study connected learning.

P2PU, a grassroots online open education project , strives to provide high-quality, low-cost educational opportunities. Currently, P2PU offers a myriad of free, online courses .

Schmidt offered three questions to begin the discussion about scaling online learning:

  • How do you scale online courses that don’t stink?
  • What are new ways to recognize achievements?
  • How do you assess 21st century skills?

Now, days after the webinar, having viewed the archived session and consider these questions, I have the found the answers and they are ready for publication in this blog.

The correct answer to all these questions is: YES! (Any lower-case response, or response not in bold should receive only partial credit.)

My confidence in this answer comes from hearing Rheingold say to Schmidt about learning online, “It is still early.”

It is worth noting that someone of Rheingold’s long experience hesitated to draw conclusions. At this stage great questions serve to guide thoughtful inquiry.

The interchange made me remember the tale of the blind men and the elephant . In the old Indian tale, each man touches only a small part of the elephant, and therefore describes the elephant as something consistent with the part he can feel.

Having completed my second P2PU course in their school of education , I can look back at my experiences in those courses and talk about the excellent facilitation and the community building I experienced in the courses online sessions. To me, that is online learning.

Since I participated in a couple of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) , I can point to those experiences, all exploratory and positive, and say “that is online learning.”

But it is early. So, I remember the blind men and the elephant. In my passionate interest to explore and discuss online learning, I may just have a hold of this elephant’s tail.

Still, fom my vantage point here at the tail, I found myself disagreeing with the doctoral students in the discussion when I watched the archived web session. One of the participants made the claim that unless the courses offered certificates that academic institutions or employers recognize, time spent in open courses is akin to time spent watching soap operas. This is certainly not the case from my side of the elephant. The doctoral students in the webinar have their own position on this elephant of open online learning. Whatever appendage of the beast they have their hands on, the student researchers in the discussion seemed to think that certification is the most important thing in online learning. I feel confident that many of my “classmates” in the #change11 MOOC and my most recent P2PU course would disagree.

Maybe these doctoral students, working to complete their own certification requirements in varying education contexts, have a view of the world right now that says learning is pursuit of certification.

In the web session, Schmidt acknowledged the importance of thinking about learners and their motivations and pushed back on the notion that open learning must yield tangible rewards, saying, “It is great to be a sharer.”

Here are some other questions Schmidt posed for the group’s consideration:

  • What are good pathways from interest to learning?
  • What support mechanisms are needed?
  • What is the role of content?

The challenge for educators exploring online learning is to answer these questions by asking question. When I begin to draw conclusions, I will remember that it is still early. Again, a correct answer to these questions is “ YES!”

The great invitation of online learning, especially in open virtual spaces like P2PU, filled with discussions, challenges and communities, is that the whole thing feels less like the elephant of traditional education and more like a sandbox. Educators can take their questions about online learning into the Schmidt’s sandbox where, through play and exploration, they might arrive at some answers. Or maybe better questions.