Recently, I read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about "P2PU," a rather unfortunate-sounding abbreviation for Peer 2 Peer University. (Here's a link to the article.) But despite the abbreviation, there is a lot we can learn in online education from what the founders of P2PU are trying to accomplish.
The long and the short of peer-to-peer learning is that students can collaborate on learning in such a way so that each brings his or her expertise to bear in solving a problem or answering a question. For example, one person who studies sociology might team up with another person who studies mathematics, and between them, they have the requisite knowledge to teach themselves statistics for the social sciences.
At P2PU, and largely in the open-course environment, the idea is to have this kind of learning taking place without the confines of a traditional institution of higher education. I understand where they're coming from. Professors from traditional universities are branching out into MOOCs -- "massive open online courses." (There's a great article on these in Wired Magazine from a few months ago. You can find it here.) The professors who run such courses -- at schools such as MIT, Stanford, Princeton, and Michigan -- are struggling within their own institutions to determine how to provide some sort of useful credential for those who pass their courses, which in and of itself requires some bona fide way to assess all the students who participate in the course.
For those of us who do teach at traditional institutions of higher education, there is a lot to learn here. Social learning is becoming the canon of online education, and just within the last 12 to 18 months. It's the foundation of peer-to-peer learning, and open-universities like P2PU recognize that. MOOCs also recognize the value of a facilitating professor. And employers -- the vast majority of them still -- recognize the value of a college degree or certificate.
I don't see that any of these strategies or perspectives is right all by itself. But, taken together, we have the ingredients for a successful online program. If you have your own ideas on this topic, please comment -- I'd appreciate some peer-to-peer learning with this blog post!