Peer Education Briefing Notes


Note for You: There appears to be some public interest in my lecture notes, that I take at all the various kinds of lectures that I attend, for my own learning. If there is anything incorrect, please email me - - and I will update the text, or add your comments or trackbacks as you’d like. Be aware that I type these conference notes for personal use, pretty much stream-of-conscious style, so my pronouns get all messed up and confuse comments from the speakers and myself, and my typing is not accurate so it is probably full of typos. I try to tidy things up when time allows. I’m also usually paying attention to email/rss and anything google-worthy that gets mentioned, so probably a lot of things are misquoted and not even true at all. Please, apply common sense and don’t take this for anything other than rough-cuts from a notebook; nothing here is reliable or a real quote of anyone, any errors or confusions are almost certainly mine, yet I hope you’ll find uses for it nonetheless… “A snowball rolls down the webhill!” as a friend might say.

{Gahh I was 30 minutes late… And there was no open wifi there…}

Andy Gibson on “The School of Everything”

Some classes run in cafes, a ready made space with food and net access.

Technology is cheap enough, so if we can find a way to make the technology work, it can spread. We can get something that works and put it in every school in the country pretty feasibly.

There are conditions to getting this working. Its important to have a social dimension; a sense of curiosity and experimentation is really good to start with. So I now try to work with existing communities.

This is Free School 2.0 - new shapes of Post-Its! And I’ll pass round a bag with these materials. Yellow is ‘I want to learn’ Orange is ‘I want to teach’

I realised that a key it having a hard board that can be put up, taken down, and carried around.

Q: Its collaborative learning, so should it be put on a wiki?

A: We tried that but it didn’t take off; there was something in the translation to digital. When I posted things online, the ownership became mine, and so it didn’t have the dynamic I was seeking.

Just doing it helps a lot. And it doesn’t have to be teachers doing this - it can be students starting it, students looking for teachers instead of teachers looking for students.

I’ve not found anything that can do both digital and face-to-face real time, well. Maybe something will emerge that makes that possible.

Q: The physical space is something you’ve homed in on. Is this for creating a social atmosphere, or is it to create a community? And what is the reason for this? Is it altruistic?

A: The Free University started with learning and worked out. With FreeSchools, its going the other way. Its adding a learning culture to whats there already. That’s what I’m passionate about, and what is missing form a lot of educational projects. The spirit of play and experimentation - I blog about “doing things badly” as a good attitude. Having the permission to teach, and not worrying that things are perfect and just getting on with things, is really important.

Q: So you said this is in Cafes. But all spaces can be learning spaces - or is there properties in specific physical places that mark them out as learning spaces?

A: I’ve not looked into that. With French classes we brought in French food and wine to make the mood less social. Cafes are good because there isn’t a social conditioning about the way it should really be; they don’t force people to polarise into ‘i am the teacher and you are the student’ roles and stop the informal ‘I’ll tell you some stories and you can tell me something’ vibe.

Q: I think you have a bottleneck; everyone is gagging to write on the board. Why don’t you hand out the post-its and give people instant gratification to the fun and experiment - you have to grab that vibe when it shows up.

A: Lets do it!

Q: People seem smarter because t . I wonder what will happen as that becomes more distributed.

A: I call it the “esoteric web”. Film and TV industry is a very who-you-know industry, and it emerged like that because its very little margin for learning. In a small cafe, if you create a high value regular event, it will pack out the venue.

Q: There is great knowledge locked up in these institutions, and then there are cafes rammed out the doors. Is there

A: School of Everything is a cross of eBay and Floodlight; to connection people who want to learn with . The only requirement is that you have to be a person. If you are posting the opportunity to learn as an institution, it sets u pa

So we still have FE and HE institutions, but people who teach there aren’t just there, they will still do 2 nights a week in a cafe for anyone who wants to learn. The economy of scale can come from online instead of a large campus. Anyone can become an institution, anyone can become a school. So I want to make it easy for anyone to become a University.

Q: Is the video being published?

A: Yes, all the video and photos and recordings will be vlogged on and YouTube and so on.

Q: How to you consider licensing issues? A: You mean that educational information is published online? Q: Well, there are various kinds of works, functional information, opinions, and artistic works, and these are usually treated differently. A: Okay. Many institutions are posting their educational information online at zero price and letting it be Google indexed. So the Open University, which does a lot of distance learning in the UK, is putting a lot of its material up online. And in the USA “Open Learning” is the name for this trend. And its all available “for free” - at zero cost.

{{I note that School of Everything is hiring! :-) }}

— 8< —

Mary Harrington on “Offline Social Software”

Mary is all over the web, and the School of Everything is also something she’s involved in.

I fell in love with the Internet, but it isn’t all that. I’m 28, I’m the last of the generation who did a degree totally offline. I sent my first email 19, and my first job was at 23, and had a connection on my desk - and no idea how to use it. Official uses of the net at work is company business. that’s not very interesting. As my Google Foo got a bit better, I realised there were ways outside of that of making the net talk back. At the time Friendster was taking off, and I tried to play with it. It let me see a whole network of people, and you could put faces on users. Its more obviously and visually a conversation. But it seemed a bit useless - I had lots of friendster friends, and it was fun to chat a bit with randomers from LA. I was interested in psycho-geography, the emotional resonances of people. And I made my first Internet friend. I came across a dutch artist with a cool site, about psycho-graphic markup language. I was into structuralism and language, and I was a copywriter in my job, and so XML and stuff was interesting. So I mailed him, and he mailed back, and we invented something that eventually wound up in the University of Openness wiki. I was fired from the copyrighting job for not writing enough, and it was really awesome to do this collaborative work that just wasn’t possible when I was at Uni. Via conversations with Wilfred, I joined the University of Openness wiki (MediaWiki) and was amazed by the idea of a start up institution. So I learned about wikis and wiki markup and, in a Way, the psychology of using the wiki - getting over the fear of editing someone else’s pages. You’re toying with an invisible other, if they’ll be offended if you edit someone else’s text. The etiquette of online writing. So at Limehouse Town Hall, we created a learning environment. Around the time I also found PickMeUp, a collaborative written email newsletter written by its readership. A website with a sign up box, a wiki for each issue, a read only readers list, and a all-way editors list. Totally grassroots, zero money, and it got 40 regular editors and was a legit phenomena. There were 4 levels of activity: Reader, Contributor, Editor, and Inner Circle. You got random stuff like “anyone got ideas for a flat in Berlin?” or “how to attach a camera to a dog?”. And people would give answers. And you got to hear about the best London cool events, because 40 people who were all reasonably well connected would offer ideas for topics to write about things. The Inner Circle who were the people who pressed the ‘send’ button, and I was the only person outside the core team who pressed that button. And there were lots of pub time, “editors meeting” that became “pick me up parties” that became huge. We didn’t figure the 4 levels out into late into the day. There was a bottleneck in the social software, and the inner circle got bored, and it evaporated when some of them went travelling. Unlike Friendster, it was In Real Life and I’m still in touch with some of the people I knew through that. What did PMU do next? School of Everything. And we took that way of working with us; we were distributed all over the place, part time and full time jobs that did or didn’t match with that work. And then Web 2.0 happened. We’ve tried out various pieces of free software, and that’s a mixed bag, things like Zhoho, Baselist. religiously put our tasks into them for 3 weeks and got bored and never used them. We found wikis - socialtext - useful for accumulating ideas to come back to later, and references to what you’ve done, and planning TODO lists. But the content gets unmanageable. They need gardening. Skype is fantastic if you can’t meet In Real Life. And its zero cost. Twitter is dead handy. You can use it as a closed group as a group-text-messaging hack. My favourite tech tool is Google Docs, read time collaborative text editing with the change to argue back - real time text editing with someone you know okay, while connected over Skype, works really nicely. But its still challenging. So then we found the ultimate killer application that really improved our productivity: An Office. Nothing beats face to face. The net changes things, remote working is possible, but there is nothing like having an office.

What does this have to do with peer learning? PL is active; its not about a lecture like this, there should be no separation between teachers and students. You could teach me a thing or too about all of this. PMU was a peer learning process; I learned so many things by doing it. My most useful skills I learned doing this fun thing, not some boring job that I didn’t enjoy. I didn’t go into a long esoteric conversation with a Dutchman because I wanted to learn something, I just went along with it because it was fun. Stuff that has happened as just been amazing though. And peer learning is collaborative; its not about waiting to be spoon fed, expecting to spoon feed others. Its about looking for things until you find them. The net helps us to do this, find people, capture and share knowledge, but fundamentally nothing beats sitting there with or without a pint and doing it face to face. So I loved the net and I’ve returned to the pint. So for offline social networks, feed the network - throw stuff out, make offerings because you’ll get it back 10 fold. Name the hierarchies, so that when things change you know what happened. And consensus decision making doesn’t work well on the net. The maxim is “lead, follow, or get out of the way.” Its not that brutal, but empower yourself and step up to the mark or let it happen. The tech you use matters less, if your group shares an aim. We have technology and share an aim in SoE, and I hope you’ll join us.

Q: Were the other roles in the PMU hierarchy? middle roles or connective tissue?

A: The ‘lead follow or get out the way’ idea is an invitation to lead, not follow or get out the way. The Internet has plenty of room for everyone to do their thing.

Ben Vershbow on “The Institute of The Future of the Book’s activities”

I’m an editorial director at the futureofthebook. We are in the process of trying to make London a sphere of activity. I’m from NYC, I’m based there, but we’ll be in London as much as every 2 months. is a think tank in NYC, connected to NYU and places in London, LSE. We try to connect to other institutions. We’re in a cultural-technological revolution, and how will the ways we move ideas around change? Its all going network-digital. Produced, circulated, read. Its all changing. What we though we knew doesn’t apply any more. We’re not full on academics. We have a blog. We don’t make white papers, we blog. We do publishing experiments. We’ve made software, “educational objects” in a way, or “schools” as we heard today.

“Networked books” is our theme; we were dismayed at eBooks. They were a conceptual dead end. Digital print books. You cant just put text on screen and that’s it. We wanted new language, to get new thinking going. So “network books” is nice. How do they change the relations of people? Documents in the networked space, where documents and people converge.

Mitchell Stephens journalism professor at NYU, who was starting a book on the history of Atheism, and we proposed he take the research process online and make it semi-transparent. “Without Gods: A history of disbelief.” He blogged one a day or so, news clippings, his opinions, whatever. Over time, a devoted group of readers became part of the regular conversation on this site, long comment threads off the posts. He hadn’t started writing the book yet, but had readers! And they were changing what he was going to write about. He knew a few things, but his audience knew others, and over a year his readers really got him to think things through.

McKenzie Wark wrote a book on “gamer theory” and had a book done, but wanted to open it up to the web. The same intention; to play with authors and readers, explore a collaborative paradigm of readers and authors. Guy Debord wrote on numbered paragraphs; he used this too. People say no one wants to read long text online; screens have their issues, but browsers and ‘web page design’ for long text is often missing. We wanted less scrolling. We hacked WordPress so the comments were on the side, not at the bottom. This is a small change, but had profound effects. You have something very old: Marginalia. Comments in margins. The book is networked, and everyone can write in the margin. The margin of the page becomes a public space for participation. So you have a comment stream for each paragraph. So we posted the book paragraph by paragraph, and people got really into it. The author was very clear that he was involved and listening and taking part in the comments dialogue. The experience of reading the text was interesting. People stopped thinking of the authors voice in the book, and it as a book that included their conversation. It was eventually published by Harvard press. And the end notes had some of the comments from the blog. So the print is a glimpse of this network moment.

Mitchell looked at Gamer Theory and wanted the targeting commenting on a less structured text. So the page margin comments go with you, and you click a paragraph and the comments appear. And people thought this was really cool and wanted it for their own projects. The Iraq Study Group Report looked like it might be important, and so we posted this online with a more advanced version of the tool. We got these total domain experts who were not Web 2.0 savvy to use it. We called it “CommentPress.” So you generate this huge conversation. is a WordPress theme, and you install WordPress and drop it in, and its available, go get it.

So returning to peer education. Some people are using it, and this is potentially a fabulous educational tool. We contacted some teachers and said we’d put some public domain texts that kids study in school up in it, and see what happens in a school project context. Some people took us up. Ambrose Bierce, 1890 civil war, poem. “An occurrence at owl creek bridge”. So a school in north Carolina took the text. He said, “Students, you are the staff, you will build a critical edition of this, on your own” and they did. There were film clips from the film version - which famous introduced the “life flashed before my eyes with the noose around my neck” narrative form - and this shows off the tool in an educational context.

We want to set up a library of public domain texts in the CommentPress system, that is like Ning. The banal errors, stupid technical problems, installing WordPress and a theme is too hard for most people. It needs to be as easy as Google’s Blogger. So people can instantly set up a text in their classroom and run their project that easily.

So we have an idea of reading that is solitary. But texts are a great focal point for a community. I think the long term implications are maybe profound: what it means to write is changing. We’re only barely begun to perceive what is happening here.

And we’ve put up and can continue this conversation. So being together offline is great, incomparable, but when we part, we can continue online until the next time.

Q: Limitations of the tool?

A: Dealing with the mass of information is hard.

Q: Can students say “I’m really keen on this kind of teacher, and want to use their notes and feedback for my entire course,” like on Technorati. A teacherati?

A: This is another profound change, from networked texts. You can turn it into a kind of commodity.

Q: The teacher becomes an institution; you don’t subscribe to an institution, you subscribe to a teacher, like a blog.

A: Unless you’re totally focused on a subject, you’ll follow a certain lecturer at college when you pick your classes. When people create reputations, you can pick up on that and follow their activities. I think CommentPress could turn into to something like that if it was a hosted service. We have few technological researchers, its a real hack at the moment, but we’re hoping the free software community will pick it up and move it forward. We just released it in August, and cleaned it up so it wasn’t embarrassing.

Saul Albert: So this is the new website. Every workshop and all “open for business” events will be on the site. Hope to see you all again!

Mary Harrington: Join up and contribute to School of Everything too!


And they are hiring.

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The Peer Education Briefing Notes by David Crossland, except the quotations and unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.


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