What I Learned From My P2PU Course

The final meeting of my P2PU course on teaching free-range learners how to program took place this morning. I enjoyed chatting with the people who showed up, but overall I was disappointed with how things went: less than a quarter of those who signed up back in January were still with us at the halfway mark, and less than 10% were in at the end. Partly, I think, this happened because the demands of day-to-day life trump good intentions every time. I also blame myself: sending out a couple of chapters of reading material at the start of the course sent a clear signal that this was going to be top-down and centralized, rather than bottom-up and peer-to-peer, and that turned a lot of people off.

That mistake is a symptom of something more fundamental: I have never actually completed a course online myself [1]. Think for a moment about what that means. I have probably spent more than twenty thousand hours in classes of various kinds. I wasn’t just learning algebra and history during that time: I was also learning what made a class good or bad. How did the teacher handle interruptions and disruptions? How big were the assignments, and how easy were they to understand? Was there some overall arc to the course, or was it just a disconnected jumble of facts? Consciously or otherwise, the first time it was my turn to teach, I drew on that experience.

But online is different, and a lot of what I soaked up in those hours and years doesn’t apply (or worse, seems to, but is wrong). I’m pretty fluent with email, Skype, chat, bulletin boards, wikis, and so on, but using those things to socialize or to coordinate a software development project isn’t any more relevant to online teaching than knowing the difference between keeping a bunch of undergrads engaged and just blocking their view of the whiteboard.

As many people have pointed out, the greatest and most common weakness in Silicon Valley’s approach to education is a thundering lack of relevant experience [2]. I’d therefore like to propose that the following question be #1 on the Audrey Test:

How many online courses have you personally taken and completed?

If my answer is January had been “more than zero”, the people who signed up for my P2PU course would probably have gotten a lot more good out of it. And if the techies who want to revolutionize education by internetting it could say “more than zero”, I think society would get more good out of them.

[1] I did the first six weeks of an online course about online courses through Ryerson University back in 2010. It was awful: there was no discussion on the bulletin boards, I got A’s on the first four assignments by turning the instructor’s point-form notes into sentences, and so on. I’m now lurking on a MOOC that George Siemens is running, but—well, see the comment in the main post about day-to-day life vs. good intentions… :-(

[2] See also Kanyi Maqubela’s “The Reason Silicon Valley Hasn’t Built a Good Health App”.