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How P2P Will Change Collaborative Learning

Once associated with illegal file sharing and RIAA lawsuits, peer-to-peer services may now be the future of eLearning.


the collaborative work of tens of thousands
of student filmmakers from around the world.

HOW WILL eLEARNING change as the next generation of peer-to-peer (P2P) applications becomes commonplace? Might P2P hold the seed of great pedagogical wins for learning and collaboration? During the first wave of P2P, we had little time to think about the possibilities these tools might have for learning. After all, our first general awareness of P2P focused on legal issues and the protection of copyright and intellectual property; six years ago, the wildly popular Napster file-sharing application made P2P technologies almost synonymous with illegal music sharing. (Today, Napster is a legal online music store.)

In any P2P technology, personal computing devices have two roles, each enabling collaboration between users. First, the devices act as “servers” to other computers, providing files and/or computing power to be used by others in the “club.” And they act as “clients” to other users, receiving files and/or computer power. In true P2P applications, there is no central computer, no technical support, no command/control or hierarchical structure. As P2P has evolved, though, a popular hybrid model centralizes some functions, such as indexing where files are located.

Dozens of legal services supporting self-publishing and sharing are emerging. Most of these services appear to be hybrids of P2P and client-server technologies. Some incorporate the ubiquitous text-blogging services, new photosharing services such as Flickr, or new video-blogging and -sharing services such as Veoh. Skype, the free, high-quality online telephone service, is built on P2P technology. Web conferencing tools often use some features of P2P technologies, such as direct connection between personal computing devices, including the so-called “third screen” of our mobile handsets (e.g., cell phones and PDAs).

P2P for Learning and Sharing

Lawrence Lessig, Stanford Law School (CA) professor and author of several books on intellectual property and cyberspace, calls P2P the “next great thing for the Internet.” Others have called P2P a “disruptive technology”—its “impacts can fundamentally change the roles and relationships of people and institutions” (Peer-to-Peer: Harnessing the Benefits of Disruptive Technologies, O’Reilly & Associates, 2001). But whatever the future holds for these tools, they are sure to have interesting applications for eLearning. Key P2P features to watch for are how it supports sharing and direct communication between students and enables personal publishing.

We see the manifestations of new approaches to sharing everywhere. In fact, a tremendous shift has occurred: What was formally considered private and personal is now considered open and public. Journals, diaries, and photo albums tucked away in closets, drawers, and sh'eboxes have given way to text and video blogs. Tools to create music, videos, and other multimedia objects are readily available, perhaps resulting in a greater inclination to share such media.

A colleague of mine, Pamela McQuesten, senior director of Emerging Technologies at California State University, recently observed that illegal music sharing is just one example of how teenagers willingly share everything in the physical world, such as clothes, books, makeup and, often, families. Sharing music in the digital world thus seems natural. While record companies battle to defend the line between copyrighted and user-created material, Generation Y may not see the distinction.

Creating and Sharing Movies

One manifestation of the new sharing and personalpublishing culture is Campus MovieFest (CMF), a filmmaking competition started in 2000 by students at Emory University (GA). It has since grown into an international event involving tens of thousands of college students, faculty, and staff. Teams of five to 10 people are loaned laptop computers, digital camcorders, and technical support for a week, to produce a five-minute film. Films receive awards in four categories: Best Comedy, Best Drama, Best Documentary, and Best Picture. The CMF Web site stores much of the student work online, and sells DVDs of the movies from each school.

The CMF project is the type of learning experience that builds hands-on skills and teamwork, and really gets students’ juices going—or in the jargon of instructional design, “involves active, engaged learning experiences.” It hearkens back to the days of guilds and the apprentice model: immersion experiences integrating learning with experts and handson production. In the process of creating a movie, students share and build their knowledge about planning, designing, and editing films. Most use P2P technologies to quickly move video segments between student computers; no need to set up Web sites to “host” interim versions. Students often use instant messaging (another P2P technology) rather than email, to quickly contact each other and share ideas about content and editing. They also get involved with reviewing, judging, and evaluating movies, learning what makes a film work.

As learning experiences shift from a focus on reading prepackaged content to more active learning where students explore, research, problem solve, and create, the P2P capabilities of file sharing and collaboration become ingrained in the learning process. Teenagers use these types of technologies naturally and almost automatically. In “eLearning: The Rise of Student Performance Content” (CT, March 2006), I suggested that there are three main types of content in any eLearning course: prepackaged authoritative content, usually from a publisher; guided learning materials developed by the faculty and customized to current learners; and spontaneous performance content developed by the learners themselves, in the process of learning. Students’ CMF films are indeed examples of performance content— and some of that content might have staying power.

At Campus MovieFest, students create spontaneous eLearning content as they design, edit, and share films.

The P2P Paradigm

P2P services and applications, now on the edges of the eLearning tool set, will soon be front and center. We already see a quickening of the adoption of Web conferencing and synchronous tools that support real-time collaboration and application sharing. Each day brings new announcements about content publishers “trying on” new models of distribution, usually reaching out directly to consumers—e.g., TV shows now becoming available on PDAs and cell phones. The Millennial student prefers doing, creating, and talking, to listening or reading. He prefers rolling up his sleeves and immersing himself in projects; he likes to find ways to complete the learning requirements as quickly as possible without too much “hassle.” The Internet and P2P add a new dimension of communication and collaboration to learning, and the coming generations of eLearners are already comfortable in that space: Researchers at the Pew Internet & American Life Project have found that Internet users between the ages of 12 to 28 are more likely than other age groups to IM, play online games, and create blogs.

The P2P paradigm is not restricted to music sharing or moviemaking. Clearly, two key P2P features are fast becoming essential to the future of eLearning: instant communication between peers, and file sharing (which includes more control over content). Add in the growing culture of sharing and collaboration, and sprinkle with the continuing evolution of the faculty member into the role of producer and director, orchestrating learning from the sidelines. These are the elements of the eLearning experience we should be preparing and designing for. The relationship between faculty and students will continue to change, and adjusting our tools and systems to benefit, not collapse, from these changes is our challenge. Where P2P services will lead is yet unknown, but their future application to collaborative eLearning will no doubt hold surprises for us all. What do you think?

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