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This conversational piece invites you to engage in a journey to create your own learning space. You’ll find many points of entry that allow you to affectd emerging structure. Reciprocal mentoring can create a ripple effect for those who follow.

The Guiding Strategy:

In his Peeragogical Case Study David Preston states:

Peeragogical interaction requires refining relational and topical critique, as well as skills in other “meta” literacies, including but not limited to critical thinking, collaboration, conflict resolution, decision-making, mindfulness, patience and compassion.

A Self-Organizing Learning Environment, or SOLE, with a living structure accomplishes all of these outcomes, or David’s “meta-literacies,” simultaneously. An authentic problem and/or project based activity in a connected learning environment includes diverse learners in diverse ways by empowering all learners as peers.

This provides the authentic learning environment with which to design a SOLE. SOLEs are everywhere. How have we evolved as a species, if not through self-organizing? A conversation between strangers is self organizing, each learning about something or each other. The spaces around people conversing is also an environment, though not explicitly a learning one. While we are always self-organizing to learn or accomplish things, one place that SOLEs do not always exist are in learning institutions. In many educational institutions, our learning environments are predominately organized by the teacher, curriculum, or society. How can we nurture peer to peer learning environments to organize? How does the role of the teacher differ in a SOLE? In what ways can we unite that fundamental, passionate human characteristic of curiosity and self-organizing back into our Learning Environments?

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A visualization of the facilitated peer to peer SOLE, full-size at http://goo.gl/7StkJK

The model that Sugata Mitra [2] is experimenting with gives us some scaffolding to create one ourselves. This is the goal of his SOLE Tool Kit (3). Sugata’s kit is directed towards children between 8 and 12 years old. I was wondering if there is a way to make it more universal in its application. How can I apply it to my situation? How is a SOLE different in the context of peer to peer learning? This chapter of the Handbook uses Sugata’s model as a doorway into our understanding a SOLE approach to peer to peer learning. Its three key components are: learners, context and project. I find the discussion needs to integrate what we are learning about diverse learners into a Universal Design for Learning [4] context. After all, we cannot take for granted who the peers are in the SOLE. Equally, the context, the learning environment (LE) must be as deeply considered as the learners participating. As a learning designer, I am also seeking more clues about the living structure of a well crafted SOLE.

Centers within the Center

SOLEs exist in a particular context. Take Sugata’s hole in the wall [5] experiment. The parameters of the environment of a computer embedded in a wall in India are very specific. Sugata’s act was to design a project in order to facilitate a process within that environment. The elements he introduced were a touch screen computer embedded in a wall with specific software. Sugata has abstracted this design into a Tool Kit. He speaks of ‘Child Driven Learning’, intrinsically motivated learning with the curiosity to learn something in particular. As a learner-centric peeragogy, SOLEs are emergent, bottom up, seeking to answer: How do we design a project (or phrase a problem) that ignites a learner’s passion?

A SOLE is a facilitated learning environment (LE) that can nurture learner-driven activity. For instance, in the Hole in the Wall example, the design is the context of the wall, the street, the neighborhood –and the facilitation is the touch screen monitor in the wall. They are brilliantly united. In this sense it is an intentional, self-aware learning environment. The Wall’s computer is a strange foreign object that anyone would have to figure out how to take advantage of. But this is not in the classroom, or in the ‘school.’ It is an informal LE. Just like learning a game [6], there is an entire ecology that surrounds you. This is very much a systemic approach. The context is facilitated explicitly (your design of the SOLE), but also implicitly in the hidden curriculum [7] that defines your LE. [PARAGRAPH] Above is the layout of the transformed learning environment [8] I explored to work around the hidden curriculum of the traditional classroom. The LE has a tremendous, if not overwhelming influence, on learning [9]. The first step in connected learning is to reconnect to the environment around us. For me, the primary context of my LE is a performing arts center at a small rural liberal arts college. The Performing Arts Center is a Center within the context of the college and community. A diversity of spaces within the facility are inhabited: small and cozy, large and public, technology embedded everywhere, all focused on the project based learning that emerges producing a performance. I stay away from a formal classroom as much as possible. These spaces are Centers within the Center, ‘loosely connected adaptive complex systems[10] within themselves, just like people. I believe that the possibility of a SOLE emerging as a living structure seems to depend on the correct types of complex systems engaged in the LE.

What is the role of the internet in your design? Mitigating inequalities and accommodating diverse learners are somewhat assisted by access to the internet. But it is the immediate, just-in-time learning [11] that makes free and open access to the world wide web so important in a SOLE. Wireless is available throughout this LE. Nooks and lounges, interconnected, but separate rooms, provide lots of places for collaboration or solitary work, for staying connected or hiding out. In a UDL vision of a facilitated peer to peer SOLE, technology is integral to the design. In the case of my LE, with the use of digital audio, multi-media, database management, robotic lighting and dichroic [12] colors, learners are accustomed to accessing and augmenting reality with technology: allowing learners to access their social media is part of their content creation.

Do we start our SOLE as peers? Peer to peer assumes your participants are peers–especially you, the facilitator. There needs to be enough diversity and complexity to include all learners, engendering a Universally Designed Context [13]. What is the role of diversity in peer to peer SOLE building? How are diverse learners peers? In my LE, I discovered 70% of my learners have learning challenges. I know my LE is not unique in this regard. I have to facilitate a SOLE design that is inclusive. This is in contradistinction to commonality, yet this diversity is what we crave, for creativity and innovation, for deep learning to occur. Crafting your SOLE using multiple means of representation, expression and engagement empowers learners to be peers. A diverse learning environment, supporting diverse learning styles and diverse learners, supports a complex project based SOLE. But there are many SOLEs within the SOLE since learning is occurring on many levels with each student and within each group. We do not all get the same thing at the same time. Learning outcomes are diverse, emergent, serendipitous.

What type of project, problem or event will focus your efforts? Either a learner generated syllabus [14] may emerge from the SOLE, or a user generated education [15] within a specific context may answer this question. Ownership and leadership emerge when learners can apply their creativity and/or authentically assist each other in a common goal. Opportunities to design and modify even small things will draw learners into a project. The more they must rely on each other, collaborate and share their creativity, their designs and actualization–the more they work together as peers. The spaces in your LE are most likely already designed and built to accommodate the purpose of the facility in the context of the college or school. We cannot really redesign the actual space, but we can redesign many aspects. We can look for designs within it. Being able to design your own space, or project, is critical to taking ownership of your learning and experiencing the consequences. As learners mature and look for ways to be more involved, I suggest they redesign the shop, the repertory lighting plot, or the procedures of their department and/or SOLE overall. Exchanging roles as designer also stimulates peer interaction. Why not integrate design and design thinking? In my context, lighting, scene, costume and sound design are interconnected opportunities. Along with accompanying technology, every opportunity is used to nurture empathy, creativity, rationality and systems thinking. Integral to the learner generated syllabus or project design should be continuous artifact creation. A great place to start the design process and to begin to generate content is by using a virtual world.

Constant content creation can integrate assessment into your SOLE. It is the quality of the artifacts created along the way that reveals the success of your SOLE. Media that chronicles a journey through time, created by each learner, reveals the depth of participation. It is nearly impossible to cheat. The learner expresses their comprehension in the types and extent of artifact creation.

As the facilitator, I look for opportunities to introduce the unexpected, bigger questions, deeper considerations, along the way. For example, in the context of my LE, one of the events feature Tibetan Monks. They bring a counterpoint to the inflated egos and cult of personality which is prevalent in our context. The SOLE Plan is extended. It can happen over a much longer amount of time than one class or one day. The actors rehearse for weeks, as the design team designs, giving time for: research, absorption, misleads, mistakes, correction and reflection. A SOLE needs time and persistence to generate artifacts, documentation and experiences of the project and virtual worlds are an excellent way to extend time and space synchronously and asynchronously.

Sugata emphasizes the Big questions. We do not always know what they are. A focus? A goal? A product? And the event? That should be decided with the group. The learners intuit the direction that leads to deep engagement and the bigger questions. I try and leave it ambiguous, suggesting some of the things they might encounter. Facilitating the SOLE in this context, we face endless questions connected to the specific LE, to all the imaginary scenarios, Herculean tasks and questions– like building castles, programming a digital sound console, troubleshooting robotic lighting instruments, how to make the illusion of fire or, even, who killed Charlemagne? The Box Office is an example of an informal SOLE that has emerged recurrently over time. I have noticed that its vitality depends on the characters and the ebb and flow of learners entering the group or graduating. [PARAGRAPH] The physical space is a small, windowless and often damp room with a couple of couches and a desk with a computer squeezed in. My very own ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiment. The bottom of the door can remain closed, while the top is open, like a stable. Primarily the students are paid to be there, answering the phone, reserving tickets, greeting patrons and managing the Box Office and the Front of the House. In the SOLE, this subtle inversion of the institutional value proposition turns ‘work study’ into studying work. This is an informal LE nested within the context of the formal institution and the wider LE: a center within a center. Some semesters there are business majors working their way up the job ladder: Usher to Assistant Front of House Manager, to Assistant Box Office Manager, to Box Office Manager. Sometimes this takes 4 years, sometimes it happens in a semester or two. It is a recursive SOLE that differs as the interests and skills of the students who inhabit the space change. As the current manager puts it, the Box Office is a ‘constantly evolving puzzle.’

This example of a SOLE in an informal LE is similar to the other types of SOLE’s that occur within a facilitated LE. The learner’s interact as reciprocal apprentices, leaning on one another to solve challenges and problems. Groups are self-selective, this type of work suits their temperament and interests, or time. This cohort is almost a clique, attracting their boyfriends and girlfriends. They begin initiatives, re-design the lobby for crowd control, redecorate and rearrange the space constantly, decide their schedules and split up responsibility. Everyone is always training everyone, because the environment turns over each semester. It is explicitly an informal LE. The workers are students. This inverts the usual state of affairs, where essentially they are being paid to learn, though they may not even be aware of it. Occasionally, the learning experience resonates deeply with them. A number of them have used the experience to leverage jobs that parallel their interests, or get them started on their careers.

Job titles, roles of responsibility, are often problematic in a SOLE. The bottom line is that as peers we are all equal and at certain times everyone is expected to do everything regardless of their roles. Titles go to people’s heads. But this is part of the experience. Keep the titles moving, change it up when things get bottlenecked over personalities. Sometimes I create duplicate positions, Assistants of Assistants. and Department Heads. The Apprenticeship model is at play but in a new way in a SOLE. There are peers and there are peers. As power struggles emerge, some like-to-like grouping occurs. The role of the facilitator becomes mediator. The emergent epistemology of abundance and connected learning asks for a multitude of ‘experts.’ In the same way, leadership can be distributed, flowing as varying needs arise.

The experience of practicing leadership skills and encountering all the variables of working with diverse folks quickly gives feedback to us if this is a helpful role for this person. It is messy sometimes, and there are conflicts. After a few events, they learn how to manage a Box Office, dealing with patrons, emergencies, complaints and bag check. They confront the larger peer group, the student body, with authority and empathy. They are very proud of their jobs and make their own name tags with titles. A hierarchy gives them rewards that they have been trained to expect from years in school. It is another way of developing intrinsic motivation and challenges them to interact with their peers authentically.

As facilitator, I try to leave them alone as much as possible. The context has been created, the computer in the wall is on a desk. Extending the design of your SOLE contributes to its living structure. I have used Facebook as a Supplemental LMS [16] since 2007 because this is where my students are and it allows them to control the structures of groups emergently. The learners create the groups as they are relevant. The facilitator does not. Usually they invite me in! For now, Facebook aggregates the learning community that the SOLE inspires as learners become leaders, establish connections with each other and mentor newbies. This activity is integrated into artifact creation, ‘comments’ and documentation of their personal learning journey. Facebook becomes a precursor for their portfolios, and in some cases, it is their portfolio. Reciprocal Apprenticeships [17] occur in the dynamic of collaboration among peers. Continuity in time beyond the event horizon is accomplished by these relationships. Peers nurture one another along the shared learning journey that the SOLE provides. As facilitator and designer, you are, most of all, in a reciprocal relationship with the other learners. This is the essence of being a peer, an interaction that respects what each of us brings to the experience.

A review

Sugata Mitra: It is great to see the thinking that has gone into taking the idea of a SOLE forward. To my mind, SOLEs are quite experimental at this time and efforts such as these will provide invaluable data. I look forward to this. I notice that most of the important design features of a SOLE are incorporated into the article. I repeat them anyway, just to emphasise:

  1. Large, publicly visible displays are very important, this is what resulted in the surprising results in the hole in the wall experiments and subsequent SOLEs for children in England and elsewhere.

  2. The absence of unnecessary people in the learning space, no matter who they are; parents, teachers, principals, curious adults etc.

  3. Free, undirected activity, conversation and movement.

  4. A certain lack of order: I must emphasise that ‘Self Organised’, the way I use it does not mean ‘organising of the self’. Instead it has a special meaning from the subject, Self Organising Systems, a part of Chaos Theory. The SOLE should be a space at the ‘edge of chaos’, thereby increasing the probability of the appearance of ‘emergent order’.

References

  1. Preston, David (2014). Case Study: 5PH1NX (pp. –, this volume).

  2. About Sugata Mitra, on Wikispaces.

  3. The SOLE Toolkit, on TED.com.

  4. National Center for Universal Design for Learning, Universal Design for Learning Guidelines.

  5. Sugata Mitra (2010). The child-driven education, TED.

  6. Game-based Learning and Intrinsic Motivation by Kristi Mead.

  7. Hidden Curriculum, on Wikipedia.

  8. Transformed Learning Environment Analysis, by Jan Herder (on ScribD).

  9. Elmasry, Sarah Khalil (2007). Integration Patterns of Learning Technologies. IRB# 05-295-06.

  10. Curious: In-Forming singular/plural design, The Theories of Christopher Alexander.

  11. Overwhelmed with Blog Tips? Hack Learning with Just In Time Information, on Wordstream.com.

  12. Dichroic Filter, on Wikipedia.

  13. UDL Guidelines on cast.org.

  14. Active Learning Student Generated Syllabus, on theatreprof.com.

  15. User Generated Education Blog on wordpress.com.

  16. Facebook as a Supplemental LMS, on telecentre.org.

  17. Reciprocal Apprenticeship, on Star Wars Wikia.