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An Online University Reinvents What Learning Can Be

P2PU isn’t just revolutionary because it’s online, it’s revolutionary because it’s reshaping traditional educational models by replacing them with a community of people who are both teachers and students.

Ask any college graduate what the most important thing he learned in college was, and it’s unlikely that he’ll refer to facts delivered in the lecture hall. Still, as education increasingly moves online, the lecture remains the traditional method of delivering information—from expert to student, pre-recorded or live—that’s the most common way of digitizing academics.

A new online university called P2PU is attempting to take advantage of the openness of the Internet to break away from that model and do something new, creating a community of learners who also teach, code, and shape the direction of the university. On P2PU you’ll find crowdsourced courses in anything from writing to app-development and a community of more than 30,000 registered users (6,000 of whom log on each month) working toward non-credit bearing "badges" instead of degrees.

"We put learners in charge and believe that the combination of open web technology and peer learning can greatly increase access to education," says Philipp Schmidt, P2PU’s executive director. Schmidt sees his approach as an alternative to an out-dated and overly expensive system based on "an industrial model of education where access had to be limited, quality safe-guarded, and learning carefully structured," in a world where free and open course materials no longer requires such rigid structure.

He adds that "A lot of really important skills—like team-work, empathy, and leadership—were developed more as side-effects of the experience rather than as the focus of education. We thought, 'Let’s throw all those old ideas out of the window, let everyone participate, and see what happens.'" The project is sprawling in its ambition, with sub-projects including an Open Masters program, in-person hackathons, and opening up scientific concepts to everyday learners.

The community—made up of "education specialists, librarians, poets, hackers, biologists, and pretty much anything else"—doesn’t just teach, but steers the direction of the university, by contributing code to P2PU’s website or an opinion about the university’s strategy and direction.

While there are no degrees or official grades, Schmidt sees a future in projects like P2PU: "The open education ecosystem is in its infancy and over time employers will recognize the learning that happens in places like P2PU," he says. But for now, P2PU is a learner’s playground, where teachers and students are figuring it out as they go.