Suggested timing: 30 minutes
Peer 2 Peer University (we mostly say P2PU) is a grassroots organization whose mission is to create alternatives to formal education that are both practical and liberating. Our primary project is called learning circles, which are groups of people who meet in-person to learn something together, using free online courses or other learning resources.
P2PU is a small team, but learning circles have reached six continents because we are an open-source and grassroots project. This means that anybody can freely adapt learning circles to their context and also contribute to our work. We involve learners and collaborators in all stages of the design and delivery of our work and believe that sustained learning communities are created through grassroots collaboration, not hierarchical mandates.
P2PU is guided by our three values of equity, community, and peer learning. You can read more about what those mean to us on our website.
Simply put, a learning circle is a group of people who meet in-person to learn something together. Every learning circle looks a little different, but they all have a few things in common.
Learning circles utilize freely accessible learning materials such as online courses. Along with this is an expectation that learners are never charged a fee to attend a learning circle, and that you are not charged to start a learning circle.
Learning circles usually meet for 90 minutes/week for 6-8 weeks, but this is flexible depending on the course and your goals. Generally, we find that learning circles shorter than 4 weeks don’t have enough time to form a group culture, and learning circles longer than 8 weeks can be alienating due to the time commitment. While some groups have continued to meet indefinitely after the learning circle finished, this should not be the expectation up front.
Every learning circle has a facilitator. The facilitator does not have to be an expert in the subject, so with a little practice and training, anybody can facilitate. In addition to serving as a host for the learning circle each week a facilitator is responsible for:
Learning circles are rooted in peer learning, which values each participant’s experience and expertise. Three values underlie P2PU’s concept of peer learning:
Peer learning can create a rich learning environment in which everyone simultaneously teaches and learns, acts and observes, speaks, and listens. This exposes learners of all backgrounds to new perspectives, provides an opportunity to develop useful social skills, and allows individuals to achieve something greater than they could have on their own. One way we capture this sentiment is by saying that we are all teachers and we are all learners.
By convening a group of learners who are interested in a similar topic, you have the basis for an open, collaborative learning environment and a helpful support system. We find that learning circles work best with between 4-15 learners. Outside of this range, you may find extra burden placed on you as the facilitator. That being said, there have been said, there have been successful groups of three who have worked through courses together and learning circles as big as 60 people, supported by a team of facilitators!
Every learning circle meeting has the same overarching structure: a check-in, time spent watching and reading background materials, a group activity (do/make/say/think), and time for reflection.
Check-in: Learning circles begin each week with a ~5-10 minute check-in. This is a chance to (re)familiarize yourself with other participants and to set your personal goals for the meeting. Check-ins may include icebreakers, reviews of personal goals, and/or a recap of the prior week.
Read & Watch: The majority of each learning circle is devoted to working through the online course materials. There are certain course topics (e.g. web design and basic computer skills) where it will make sense for everybody to have their own computer and work through a lot of the materials on their own. There are other course topics (e.g. public speaking and interview skills) where it might make more sense to project the course on a wall and go through all the materials as a group. It’s completely up to you and the learners who you are working with to determine how you best want to spend this time: oftentimes, what’s best is a mix of both individual and group work.
Do/Make/Say/Think : Incorporating group discussions and activities into the course ensures that you’re doing more than just proctoring a study hall. Sometimes group activities emerge naturally from the online course, but sometimes you need to look elsewhere. We have created some of our own activities which you can use to support peer learning and bridge the gap between the online course and real life.
Reflect: Reflection is a core component of learning circles, and we recommend doing a short group reflection exercise at the end of every learning circle meeting.
You’ll notice that each module of this course is broken into these same four sections, making it perfectly suited for use in a learning circle format! However, not all online courses are as learning circle friendly, so as a facilitator, you’ll work closely with your learners to adapt existing courses to this format. Don’t worry, we’ll be covering this topic later in this course ;)
Some learners will inevitably come to the learning circle expecting a traditional classroom experience (where you are the teacher). Therefore, it is important for the facilitator to model peer learning from the very first meeting and involve learners in setting the tone of the group.
One easy way to do this is to set up the room in a circle. We encourage groups to sit in a circle whenever possible. If you’re in a computer lab, you can still stand in a circle for the check-in and reflection. Sitting in a circle brings up important questions that can help you re-enforce peer learning: how is this different from classrooms that the learners are used to? Who holds the expertise when there is no front of the classroom?
Let’s hear from some P2PU facilitators, and get their advice on how to start learning circles off on the right foot.
The ideas behind learning circles are not new. To the contrary, there is a long and important legacy of anti-oppressive education practices that P2PU honors through our work with learning circles. We’ve compiled a brief history of learning in a circle on our community forum, which we encourage you to read and comment on. We draw inspiration from iconic texts and historic social movements as much as we do from modern movements that fight against the hegemony of formal education.
Additionally, a lot of what we addressed in this module - particularly the question of how learners perceive expertise when there is no teacher in the room - was addressed in an award-winning 2017 PhD dissertation by our friend Cristiane Damesceno entitled Massive Courses Meet Local Communities: An Ethnography of Open Education Learning Circles. It makes for great weekend reading!