So you’ve decided to try peer learning? Maybe you’ve already found a few people who will support you in this effort. Congratulations! It’s time now to focus your thinking. How will you convene others to form a suitable group? How will you design a learner experience which will make your project thrive? In this chapter, we suggest a variety of questions that will help you to make your project more concrete for potential new members. There are no good or bad answers - it depends on the nature of your project and the context. Trying to answer the questions is not something you do just once. At various stages of the project, even after it’s over, some or all of those questions will aquire new meanings - and probably new answers.
Fabrizio Terzi: “There is a force of attraction that allows aggregation into groups based on the degree of personal interest; the ability to enhance and improve the share of each participant; the expectation of success and potential benefit.”
Note that there are many groups that may not need to be “convened”, since they already exist. There is a good story from A. T. Ariyaratne in his collected works in which he does “convene” a natural group (a village) - but in any case, keep in mind at the outset that the degree of group-consciousness that is necessary for peer learning to take place is not fixed. In this section, we suppose you are just at the point of kicking off a project. What steps should you take? We suggest you take a moment to ponder the following questions first - and revisit them afterward, as a way to identify best practices for the next effort.
There will be a quiz
Those taking the initiative should ask themselves the traditional Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. (Simon Sinek suggests to begin with Why, and we touched on Who, above!). In doing so, preliminary assumptions for design and structure are established. However, in peer learning it is particularly important to maintain a healthy degree of openness, so that future group members can also form their answers on those questions. In particular, this suggests that the design and structure of the project (and the group) may change over time. Here, we riff on the traditional 5W’s+H with six clusters of questions to help you focus your thinking about the project and amplify its positive outcomes.
Expectations for participants
1. Who: Roles and flux
- What are some of the roles that people are likely to fall into (e.g. Newcomer, Wrapper, Lurker, Aggregator, etc.)?
- How likely is it that participants will stick with the project? If you expect many participants to leave, how will this effect the group and the outcome?
- Do you envision new people joining the group as time goes by? If so, what features are you designing that will support their integration into an existing flow?
- Will the project work if people dip in and out? If so, what features support that? If not, how will people stay focused?
2. What: Nature of the project
- What skills are required? What skills are you trying to build?
- What kinds of change will participants undergo? Will they be heading into new ground? Changing their minds about something? Learning about learning?
- What social objective, or “product” if any, is the project aiming to achieve?
- What’s the ‘hook?’ Unless you are working with an existing group, or re-using an existing modality, consistent participation may not be a given.
3. When: Time management
- What do you expect the group to do, from the moment it convenes, to the end of its life-span, to create the specific outcome that will exist at the conclusion of its last meeting?  Note that what people ACTUALLY do may be different from what you envision at the outset, so you may want to revisit this question (and your answer) again as the project progresses.
- Keeping in mind that at least one period of is inertia is very likely , what event(s) do you anticipate happening in the group that will bring things back together, set a new direction, or generally get things on track? More generally, what kinds of contingencies does your group face? How does it interface to the “outside world”?
- What pre-existing narratives or workflows could you copy in your group?
- How much of a time commitment do you expect from participants? Is this kind of commitment realistic for members of your group?
- What, if anything, can you do to make participation “easy” in the sense that it happens in the natural flow of life for group members?
- Does everyone need to participate equally? How might non-equal participation play out for participants down the line?
4. Where: Journey vs Destination
- What structures will support participants in their journey to the end result(s) you (or they) have envisioned? What content can you use to flesh out this structure?
- Where can the structure “flex” to accommodate unknown developments or needs as participants learn, discover, and progress?
5. Why: Tool/platform choice
- What tools are particularly suited to this group? Consider such features as learning styles and experiences, geographical diversity, the need for centralization (or de-centralization), cultural expectations related to group work, sharing, and emerging leadership.
- Is there an inherent draw to this project for a given population, or are you as facilitator going to have to work at keeping people involved? How might your answer influence your choice of tools? Is the reward for completion the learning itself, or something more tangible?
- In choosing tools, how do you prioritize such values and objectives as easy entry, diverse uses, and high ceilings for sophisticated expansion?
6. How: Linearity vs Messiness
- How will your group manage feedback in a constructive way?
- Why might participants feel motivated to give feedback?
- How firm and extensive are the social contracts for this group? Do they apply to everyone equally, or do they vary with participation level?
- What do people need to know at the start? What can you work out as you go along? Who decides?
- How welcome are “meta-discussions”? What kinds of discussions are not likely to be welcome? Do you have facilities in place for “breakout groups” or other peer-to-peer interactions? (Alternatively, if the project is mostly distributed, do you have any facilities in place for coming together as a group?)
Cycles of group development
The above questions remain important thoughout the life of the project. People may come and go, particpants may propose fundamentally new approaches, people may evolve from lurkers to major content creators or vice-versa. The questions we suggest can be most effective if your group discusses them over time, as part of its workflow, using synchronous online meetings (e.g., Big Blue Button, Adobe Connect, Blackboard Collaborate), forums, Google docs, wikis, and/or email lists. Regular meetings are one way to establish a “heartbeat” for the group.
In thinking about other ways of structuring things, note that the “body” of the Peeragogy Handbook follows a Tuckman-like outline (Convening a Group is our “forming”, Organizing a Learning Context is our “storming and norming”, Co-working/Facilitation is our “performing”, and Assessment is our “adjourning”). But we agree with Gersick , and Engeström , that groups do not always follow a linear or cyclical pattern with their activities!
Nevertheless, there may be some specific stages or phases that you want your group to go through. Do you need some “milestones,” for example? How will you know when you’ve achieved “success?”
In closing, it is worth reminding you that it is natural for groups to experience conflict, especially as they grow or cross other threshold points or milestones - or perhaps more likely, when they don’t cross important milestones in a timely fashion (ah, so you remember those milestones from the previous section!). Nevertheless, there are some strategies can be used to make this conflict productive, rather than merely destructive (see Ozturk and Simsek ).
Gersick, C. (1988). Time and transition in work teams: Toward a new model of group development. Academy of Management Journal 31 (Oct.): 9-41.
Engeström, Y. (1999). Innovative learning in work teams: Analyzing cycles of knowledge creation in practice. In Y. Engeström, R. Miettinen & R.-L-. Punamäki (Eds.), Perspectives on activity theory, (pp. 377-404). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Ozturk and Simsek (2012). “Of Conflict in Virtual Learning Communities in the Context of a Democratic Pedagogy: A paradox or sophism?,” in Proceedings of the Networked Learning Conference, 2012, Maastricht. (Video or text.)