Two trees in Manigot. Personal collection.

Missed opportunities (2): How one selfish learner can undermine peer learning

Reda Sadki #DigitalScholar

The idea that adult learners have much to learn from each other is fairly consensual. The practice of peer learning, however, requires un-learning much of what has been ingrained over years of schooling. We have internalized the conviction that significant learning requires expert feedback.

In a recent course organized by the Geneva Learning Foundation in partnership with an international NGO, members of the group initially showed little or no interest in learning from each other. Even the remote coffee, an activity in which we randomly twin participants who then connect informally, generated only moderate enthusiasm… where in other courses, we have to remind folks to stop socializing and focus on the course work. One participant told us that “peer support was quite unexpected”, adding that “it is the first time I see it in a course.” When we reached out to participants to help those among them who had not completed the first week’s community assignment, another wrote in to explain she was “really uncomfortable with this request”…

That participant turned out to be the same one demanding validation from an expert, speaking not just for herself but in the name of the group to declare: “We do not feel we are really learning, because we do not know if what we are producing is of any quality”.

Yet, by the third week, other participants had begun to recognize the value of peer feedback as they experienced it. One explained: “I found reviewing other people’s work was particularly interesting this week because we all took the same data and presented it in so many different ways – in terms of what we emphasised, what we left out and the assertions we made.” Another reported: “ I am still learning a lot from doing the assignments and reading what others have done [emphasis mine].”

Here is how one learner summed up her experience: “Fast and elaborative response to the queries. […] The peer system is really great arrangement [emphasis mine]. The course is live where you can also learn from the comments and inputs from course participants. I feel like I am taking this course in a class room with actual physical presence with the rest.” (She also acknowledged the “follow-up from the organizers and course leaders in case of any lag”.)

This is about more than Daphne Koller’s 2012 TED Talk assertion (quoted in Glance et al.’s 2013 article on the pedagogical foundations of MOOCs) that “more often than not students were responding to each other’s posts before a moderator was able to”, which addresses the concern that peers may not be able to find the one correct answer (when there is one).

Week after week, I observed participation grow. Discussion threads grew organically from this shared solidarity in learning, leading to self-directed exploration and, in a few instances, serendipitous discovery. This helped above and beyond my own expectations: “The more we work with peers and get validation, [the more] confidence grows.” After having peer reviewed three projects, one participant wrote: “This is a great experience. Every time I comment to a peer, I actually feel that I am telling the same thing to myself.”

And, yet, that one lone wolf who displayed negatives attitudes stuck to her guns, reiterating her demands: “I would really like to get more feedback on the assignments. I know individual feedback might not be feasible but it would be great to see a good example to see what we could have done better. I would like to learn how I could improve.” Furthermore, she then ascribed her negative attitudes to the entire group… while completely ignoring, denying, or dismissing the group’s experience. (A request for expert feedback is entirely legitimate, but this does not require disparaging the value of peer feedback.)

Admittedly, for various logistical reasons, the course’s subject matter experts were not as present as we had intended in the first three weeks of the course. This, combined with aggressive, negative clamoring for expert feedback, put the course team on the defensive.

That led to a week in which subject matter experts impressively scrambled to prepare, compile, and share a ton of expert feedback. That they were able to do so, above and beyond expectations, is to their credit. As for me, it was startling to realize that I felt too insecure about peer learning to respond effectively. There are substantive questions about the limitations of peer learning, especially when there is only one right answer. “Peer learning” sounds nice but also vague. Can it be trusted? How do you know that everyone else is not also making the same mistake? Who would rather learn from peers with uncertain and disparate expertise rather than from an established expert? Doubts lingered despite my own experience in recent courses, where I observed peers teaching each other how to improve action planning for routine immunization, analyze safer access for humanitarians, improve remote partnering, or develop sampling procedures for vaccination coverage surveys.

Learning technologists‘ interest in peer review is premised on the need for a scalable solution for grading. They have mostly failed to acknowledge much less leverage its pedagogical significance. Reviewing the education research literature, I find mostly anecdotal studies on K-12 schooling, interesting but unproven theories, and very little evidence that I can use. This is strange, given that peer education is nothing new.

This reinforces my conviction that we are breaking new ground with #DigitalScholar. Building on Scholar’s ground-breaking system for structured, rubric-based peer review and feedback, we are adding new layers of activity and scaffolding that can more fully realize the potential of peers as learners and teachers. I do not know where this exploration will take us. It feels like uncharted territory. That is precisely what makes it interesting and exciting. And, following this most recent course, my own confidence has grown, thanks to the audacity and invention of those learners who learned to trust and support each other.

Image: Two trees in Manigot. Personal collection.