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Learning swap shop

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by Clive Shepherd
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Peer-to-peer technology, in the form of systems such as Napster, created a popular revolution that just for while threatened the smug complacency of the media industry and spawned talk of the next 'Internet revolution'. With Napster on the retreat in the face of a barrage of lawsuits, the P2P bandwagon may be grinding to a halt, but the potential for positive application of the power of peer-to-peer communication over networks is still alluring, not least to the e-learning industry. In this article, Clive Shepherd looks beneath the P2P hype to see just what can be achieved by removing the chains and allowing learners to 'do it for themselves'.

Contents
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Learners are doing it for themselves
P2P in all its glory
Where does P2P work?
Applying P2P to e-learning
Case study: Creating and sharing learning in local government
Appendix: Five tips for making P2P e-learning a reality

Learners are doing it for themselves

Wouldn't it be nice if, to fulfill our training responsibilities, all we had to do was organize a forum for the exchange of skills and knowledge? A marketplace in which learners could exploit their talents by helping to develop them in others and overcome the gaps in their own skillset by locating colleagues who can help them out - a sort of learning swap shop. All the training - the learning content, if you like, was designed and delivered by learners themselves, while your contribution was merely facilitational - bringing peers together so they can help themselves.

Some of you may say that this vision is pure fantasy and that no learning can take place without the expert guiding hand of the trainer. Yet surely, much if not most of what we learn, we learn informally from our friends and work colleagues in much this way. Even formal learning events can be organized this way. I personally attended a series of one-week development workshops back in the early 80s, in which members of the group posted on a flipchart at the beginning of the week: the contribution they could make to the topic in hand and the gaps they had in their own understanding. The timetable for the week was then negotiated as a series of mini-presentations and discussions run by learners themselves with only occasional interventions by the tutors. Contrary to many expectations, the result wasn't anarchy, but a rich learning experience and a strong sense of community. If we'd known of the term, we might even have called this 'peer-to-peer learning'.

The phrase 'peer-to-peer' has, of course, been much in the news over the past year in the context of network technology. Let's be more specific - we're really talking about Napster and all the fuss it caused. In case the phenomenon of MP3 music has passed you by, let me summarise. In the way it was originally configured, the Napster website provided access to a database of MP3 (that's highly compressed) music files on the hard disks of its many members. Let's say you wanted a copy of the Eagles' Hotel California (for research purposes, of course, not just because you didn't want to pay for it). You could search the Napster database, find a member that was currently online and who had an MP3 copy of the song and download it directly from their computer to yours. Note that Napster didn't keep a database of music files themselves, just details of the songs that members were prepared to make available. Napster operated the marketplace, although it was rather a unique marketplace in which nobody paid for anything; and that's what got the record companies and the musicians that they represent rather peeved. So much so that they stopped it. Napster lives on, but with major restrictions on what can be swapped free of charge. As a result, practically nobody uses it anymore.

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P2P in all its glory
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Leaving aside the woes of Napster for a minute, let's try and pin down the definition of 'peer-to-peer' (or 'P2P' as you must refer to it) as it relates to network computing. According to commentator Lee Gomes (2001), P2P is a "computing scheme in which information is stored on many PCs, reducing or eliminating the need for a central repository like a web server". There are several variants on this theme, the first of which we've already examined - Napster and its clones, where users get together to swap assets that they've created or purloined from elsewhere. Whether the Napster concept extends well into other domains is debatable. According to A. Joon Yun of Palo Alto Investors: "There has to be a value proposition to get P2P members to aggregate, and other than music, people haven't yet identified a good one". Perhaps learning provides a value proposition, but more of that later.

A second instance of P2P is what can be called 'distributed computing', in which many thousands of users pool what has become their somewhat-excessive CPU processing power to solve a major computing problem in areas such as medical research. Nice in theory, but that's just about all it is at present. A third category is the use of P2P to solve problems and share information in collaborative work situations, using products such as Groove, from Ray Ozzie, the original creator of Lotus Notes. These applications only partially comply with our P2P definition and one has the suspicion that the label has been attached to add a certain buzz to what are really just extensions to the capabilities of existing office products.
People want to make something of P2P and one has to ask why. One reason is because technologists have come up with the idea and are now looking for problems it can solve. As Job Katz comments on his posting to Slashdot: "In most of the world, inventors identify a need and wear themselves out creating innovations to meet it. On the Net, the creative process seems to work in reverse: you make cool and exciting stuff and assume that somebody, somewhere will eventually want to use it."

Less cynically, there is a more fundamental principle that is expressed through P2P. The energy that made the World Wide Web such a phenomenal success so quickly was not commercial, it was not driven by the world's major media and telecommunications giants. The World Wide Web was created originally as a way for scientists to share research information, across national boundaries and without cost - P2P in spirit, even if it did require the use of servers as intermediaries between peers. The growth of the Web from these humble beginnings was driven almost entirely by the sense of community of ordinary Internet users, the desire to make things happen from the very fringes of the network, without the approval of any central authority. Anyone could create a website and so anyone did. The spirit of P2P is at the heart of the web experience - unleash this spirit and unexpected things happen, unexpectedly fast.  

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Where does P2P work?
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Let's be clear where P2P makes its most valuable contribution. According to author AndyOram: "P2P is useful where the goods and services you're trying to get at lie at many endpoints; in other words, where the value of information lies in the contributions of many users rather than the authority of one." Of course this need exists outside the realms of technology, where individuals have always needed direct access to information and services that can only be provided by their peers, not by the BBC, Rupert Murdoch or Microsoft. In fact, quite a useful technology was developed to address this need when individuals happened to be at a distance from each other. It was called the telephone and as Alexander Graham Bell is alleged to have predicted: "One day there will be a telephone in every major city".

Pure P2P, in the technological sense, has limited applications. According to Chas Linn, Technical Producer at Epic Group plc: "The sharing of data from hard disk to hard disk across networks only makes sense where the technology is really easy to use; where a good proportion of the information providers have permanent Internet connections; where the files are finished items, not works in progress (otherwise we have version control hell); and where quality control is not a key issue." True P2P, on the other hand, is unstoppable, because that's where the majority of communication takes place - face-to-face, on the 'phone, by text messaging, email and even post. In summary, sticking to the technical definition, we're unlikely to find much with P2P to interest the training community. Looking more broadly, although still within the confines of computer networks, we may be on to something.  

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Applying P2P to e-learning
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The importance of peer communities in e-learning has been recognised for some time now, as a means for providing learners with moral support and facilitating the exchange of tips, hints and experiences. Content publisher SmartForce has integrated this philosophy into its MySmartForce site, which has more than 1.5 million users. Laura Overton explains: "We are real advocates of connectivity between individual learners. Not only do we provide chat rooms and discussion boards, we're building exercises into our courses that require learners to collaborate to solve problems." However, Overton is cautious about turning over control entirely to learners: "We use experts to moderate the interaction between learners and ensure that it stays on track. Someone needs to be responsible for the quality of the experience."

Collaboration between learners is important but it doesn't take the P2P concept the whole way - where learners are themselves contributing to the bank of content. Overton: "We know how important it is for learners to be able to draw upon tacit knowledge, in particular the insights and experience within their own organisations. We encourage SmartForce customers to contribute their own learning objects to our courses, whether these are web links, PowerPoint presentations, white papers or case studies. This is done at an organisational level, not by individual learners, because learners rely on us to ensure the overall quality of the material in our courses."

Linn expresses similar concerns: "P2P more than anything represents freedom; freedom from publishing restrictions, from the need for web space and server access, from copyright and legal restrictions. But is this freedom of information helping us address the primary problem we are faced with? Most professional people are information rich and time poor. We want to be informed but what is most useful to us is intelligently filtered information. And the need for less for edited information runs counter to the main drive of P2P."

Although there may be reservations at this stage about the benefits of allowing learners to make available whatever content they like for the benefit of their peers, they will not be held back by the technology. Learning management systems are increasingly capable of supporting the origination of content from a variety of sources, not only content publishers, but an organisation's own training department and individual learners. Says Keith Smith, Managing Director of Docent UK: "The delivery of formal learning content in the form of standard courses is necessary but not sufficient. Systems like Docent make it possible for organisations to drag and drop all forms of content into the repository." But won't most of this content be simple, passive material in familiar formats, such as Word and PowerPoint, whereas powerful learning needs to be interactive and crafted by professionals. Smith: "We encourage clients to create content in the form of short learning objects that address a real need. In these circumstances, what is being said is more important than its form. However, at the same time we are seeing a new generation of users who are familiar with interactive multimedia technology and will be confident to create more sophisticated learning material."

Where does this leave us? Well, one thing is for sure and that is that P2P technology as such is a red herring, if not a complete dead end. What is important is the spirit of P2P, the opening up of the gates to learners to put something back for the benefit of their peers - to be a provider as well as a consumer. True we still need formal learning content, developed by subject matter experts and skilled practitioners in the design for learning. But so much learning material does not need to be so formal, it needs to be quick and to the point and express a diversity of perspectives and viewpoints. Let go of the reins just a little and you may find the horse gallops even faster.
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Case study: creating and sharing learning in local government
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The IDeA (Improvement and Development Agency) supports training, development and performance improvement across the UK's many hundreds of local authorities, large and small. At present some 600m is spent on training annually by local authorities, with the responsibility for the majority of this spending devolved to the local level. With such a large target population, including a large proportion of knowledge workers, and broadly similar needs across the population, the IDeA is well aware of the potential contribution that e-learning could make, but is reluctant to initiate a large, centralised content-creation project. Instead the IDeA has embraced the philosophy that 'nobody is as smart as everybody' and is banking on people power to get e-learning going big time.

Susan Biddle is Director, Learning for IDeA: "Local government is a unique sector, in which each organisation provides similar services, and indeed similar training, on a non-competitive basis, but where it has traditionally been difficult to share learning and information resources. The subject matter experts in local government are out there in the field, not at the centre, as is a great deal of valuable learning material. We're launching our peer-to-peer e-learning service to make it as easy as possible for local authorities to both contribute to and benefit from a shared repository of learning resources."

The system, which is being constructed by e-learning developer Epic Group plc, will allow authorities to upload content in a wide variety of forms, from standard Office documents to interactive lessons, created using an in-built authoring tool. All content will be tagged according to IMS standards, to make it easy for users to find out what each piece of content contains, its purpose, author and format.

The IDeA is aware that it needs to play a major role in the successful launch of the system. Says Biddle: "To ensure that the system contains a solid base of quality content, we will be developing something like 15-20 hours of learning materials each year, geared to the specific needs of local government. Then to encourage the contribution of additional materials by authorities themselves, we'll be working closely with local champions to run regional events, including training for content authors." Response to the new system has so far been extremely enthusiastic, so look out for a flurry of e-learning activity at your local council offices later this year.
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Five tips for making P2P e-learning a reality
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1. Let go of the reins and trust learners to do the right thing. Don't feel that you have to moderate all learning experiences.

2. Allow users to benefit from contributing content to the repository. At very least make sure their names are featured prominently. Ideally take account of their contribution in terms of your performance management system.

3. Provide users with the software and the training necessary to create quality content.

4. Provide an easy-to-use yet powerful tool to allow users to upload and download content.

5. Don't allow users to drown in content. Add sophisticated search and filtering facilities to your content management tool. Allow learners to rate the content that they download.

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E-learning's Greatest Hits by Clive Shepherd
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E-learning's Greatest Hits
by Clive Shepherd
Available now from Above and Beyond

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