Part 3: What the peer-to-peer perspective can do to enhancing student communication in flipped learning in both the group and individual space.
P2P Definition #1: (Computers)
“Peer-to-peer denoting or relating to computer networks in which each computer can act as a server for the others, allowing shared access to files and peripherals without the need for a central server.” sourced from Google
Peer-to-peer, also known as P2P, is a computer network architecture as described above and it came into the popular consciousness by way of the music sharing system Napster where audio files were stored on an individuals computer and was accessible via Napster to anyone else in on the internet. P2P has had many more, and less, professional uses since its rise in the late 1980s. The key to the system is the elimination of a centralized server or information source allowing the sharing and diffusion of knowledge.
P2P Definition #2: (Relational)
“It is a specific form of relational dynamic, is based on the assumed equipotency of its participants , organized through the free cooperation of equals in view of the performance of a common task, for the creation of a common good, with forms of decision-making and autonomy that are widely distributed throughout the network.” P2P Foundation
The idea of taking the P2P concept that was born of technical necessity to lower the cost of developing a music or file sharing system has grown into a relational system as people experienced a different type of freedom of exchange and interchange. The Flipped Learning Network itself is growing to reflect this model more and more. Creative Commons License is a copyright tool reflecting an increased desire to use more minimal controls to provide greater access and wider dissemination of ideas. A P2P perspective can be a key to creating a learning culture in a flipped classroom.
P2P in Flip
Permit me a quick back track to the 1st pillar of F-L-I-P. The 1st pillar is the “Flexible Enviroment” specifically accommodate active, interactive, and varied learning. Inherent in the flexible environment is an increase in a student’s interaction with both the teacher and their peers. I know from education methods classes years ago and from years of teacher conferences and in-services that there are a variety of methods to stimulate peer to peer interaction, including the turn-and-talk, role playing, assigned team roles, and others. However, when I did a cursory search for “peer to peer” or “student to student” communication it is as if Google ignored one of the students and returned only references to teacher to student communication. While the initial steps of flipping a classroom focus on how the teacher will change his or her communication with students we must not stop there and miss the opportunity to improve and better utilize communication between students. Approaching a flipped classroom from a P2P perspective may be the best way to increase student to student communication and create a learning environment.
Equipotency of Participants
The big words sound pretentious but I had enough trouble finding an “official” definition for relational P2P. In short, the basis of the perspective is that each student joins the community as an equal participant with the same potential and opportunity to contribute as all the others. In my experience regardless of how hard I tried I could never achieve this type of parity among peers in the traditional classroom and this issue was not differing ability but differing levels of preparation.
In a traditional classroom students all start a unit study or skill demonstration only with the pre-experience they brought on their own and had to process all new information in real-time where differences in ability made gaps between peers wider and more pronounced. The flipped learning structure allows me as the teacher to provide supports and scaffolds to all students to supplement their pre-experience. By providing the instruction in a flexible environment in the independent space the student can spend as much or little time as they choose in preparation. When students come to the classroom or group space all students can approach it with a level of confidence that they each have something to contribute. This allows for the “cooperation of equals” as listed in the definition leading to productive interaction among students (read: individual nodes) without constant input or false leveling provided by the teacher (read: central server)
As I think back on many of the classic ways to encourage or structure peer interaction in the classroom they seem to involve an acceptance of imposed interaction rules or roles. However, if students of even differing ability are somewhat equally prepared then they can all approach a common problem or task from the security of their own perspective more naturally. The structure change inherent in the instructional delivery in flipped learning also provides the disruptive element that gives students opportunity to redefine their group space interaction as well. As the teacher, I have the ability to design a meaningful and honestly applicable task that provides students opportunity and practice in communicating to accomplish a common goal. The power of common tasks or goals is the power of community.
A community creates
I recently saw an older interview Stephen Fry did with a founder of wikipedia. At the time of the interview wikipedia had 10 employees that were primarily service personel while the content was the product of independent volunteers worldwide. While Wikipedia takes a drubbing as less than academic it is a supreme example of the power of community to create what is currently the 7th most visited site on the entire internet. I dont suggest that my classroom rivals the creative power of wikipedia but there is no reason my classroom cant develop a sense of community in which creation of a learning product is not both valued and useful. By enabling and engaging all learners to accomplish a common goal or creation through equal preparation and equal access a learning culture can develop.
Flip aids communication
Having a common goal or task is the most natural way to develop communication, teamwork and inter-dependency. In the traditional classroom, gaps in knowledge, preparation, and ability are frustrations that are simply to great to overcome. In the flipped classroom, all students have access to a common knowledge base and preparation reducing the number of potentially frustrating factors preventing communication. The flip-side of universal access to knowledge and preparation is that both teacher and fellow students can now have a reasonable expectation that all participants have come prepared and ready to contribute. Students can now share in holding one another accountable for participation and productivity. From the perspective of the student with less ability they have confidence they can contribute and an expectation that they will be heard. From the perspective of the student with greater ability they can expect all participants to contribute and are compelled to give everyone a hearing.
Autonomy and distributed decision making
It may seem strange that autonomy and distributed decision making are important for effective peer-to-peer communication but as the old adage goes “no one is interested in listening until you have something to say”. Meaningful communication must be a two way endeavor and for a common goal to be accomplished each participant must bring something meaningful to the conversation. Setting the expectation in the classroom that each student must come prepared and that by doing so is expected to be included means that each individual is valuable to the process. Every effective team in sports or in life depends on each member taking care of their share of the load and the common good cannot be accomplished until everyone can accomplish their task. It is this widely distributed expectation that each person is responsible for making a contribution that also shares the load of holding each other accountable rather than the singular teacher as the regulator of participation. If each student feels the accountability from both teacher and peer then there are solid foundations for a broad culture of learning.
Students not machines
While I believe the P2P perspective can be a valuable lens through which to view the classroom and the development of an interdependent network of peers that sustains ongoing learning is laudable, students are not entirely analogous to computers. In the original genesis of peer-to-peer the participants are machines with a singular purpose lacking emotions. “Lacking emotions” in no way describes students, teenage or otherwise, and “singular purpose” does not apply either at least not with respect to academics and learning. However there is hope for the ideal.
Students at nearly all ages voluntarily participate in multiple platforms of social media, and while social media has central servers, the conceit of social media is that it is nothing more than a web of interconnected nodes of “friends”. We must remember that every student in any of our classrooms do not know the world in which the internet does not exist, and few know a world in which they do not participate in the internet. We may have grown up in a world with four TV channels that centrally distribute the news and common culture. We may have grown up at the end of an industrialized society where a handful of factories or industries provided the economic engine. Our students do not live in a world like that anymore and choose their own playlist, podcasts, and Netflix. The central server in the view of many young people is the enemy and interconnectedness is the holy grail. As teachers, flipped learning is our way of decentralizing our instruction but by applying the P2P perspective we can also decentralize the learning culture in our classrooms while increasing meaningful interaction and accountability for learning.
Coming soon: What communicating with other teachers tells us about how we can improve communication with students.