From One-to-one to Many-to-many: Powering peer learning in open learning environments

Tony Ramirez,* a ninth grader in New York, has failed every math class through eighth grade despite numerous teachers and paid tutors. He dreams of a future building planes, but you and I know the harsh realities of his situation. Children who struggle in their classes get discouraged, bored, drop out of school, and struggle the rest of their lives. In fact, every year in the U.S. about one million high school students drop out of school. Then one day Tony discovered; he met another OpenStudier named Hero who helped him with mathematics. Six months later in the OpenStudy forum Tony shared he was anticipating a grade of 90 in math. This is the power or peer learning, creating a success where other strategies and interventions fail. For Tony and thousands others like him, peer-to-peer learning on OpenStudy led to a behavior change, and a transformation from “disengaged” to “engaged” and from “failure” to “success.”

Today MOOCs have taken center stage in the educational debates. Yes they provide access to content for thousands of learners, but are they the solution to education’s many problems? Can they help Tony? Hardly! MOOCs still struggle to solve many of the problems that traditional educational systems have yet to solve: passive learning, disengagement, low completion rates, irrelevant assessment, and more. The Tonys in the system pose a challenge to the traditional 25-person classrooms of yesterday and most definitely, to the 3,000-person MOOC classrooms of today.

Creative Scalable Solutions

The founders of OpenStudy are educators whose most positive moments in their teaching career were the “one-on-one” moments—not one-to-many lectures—and who saw how interactions and conversations transformed learners from passive to active, from a loser to a winner, and from disengaged to engaged. The challenge we face today is to scale these intimate one-on-one moments and so that we can change behavior at scale, from disengaged to the engaged.

Figure 1. The OpenStudy system

The conceptual framework of OpenStudy’s technology is based on established research in collaborative learning environments, peer-to-peer learning, problem based learning, social learning theories, and supportive learning communities.

OpenStudy is a free site, available globally and 24/7. Learners come to ask and answer questions on a range of academic topics, mathematics, computer science, writing, history, etc. As our users engage with one another, young with old, the middle-schooler with the MIT engineer, the Tanzanian with the Turk, they learn to interact, be courteous, to be helpful, to work together, and to communicate. For the most active of our users, OpenStudy becomes their passion. The social interactions lead to engagement. The peer-to-peer learning creates a win-win scenario. Our users complain happily that they are addicted. “Addicted to math!” When was the last time you heard that?

Good answers receive medals; the learner earns badges and progresses through the different levels in the platform. Sophisticated game mechanics keep learners engaged and motivated to answer more questions and progress from an “asker” to a “helper.” In a study conducted by Georgia Tech, users self-reported improved engagement, study habits, learning outcomes and grades. Moreover, SRI researchers noted the progression from “asker” to “helper” demonstrated deeper learning. These users spent time in problem solving activities, answered questions, and improved the quality of their answers over time as evidenced by increases in medals received.

Behavior Change: From asker to answerer

When learners teach one another, work collaboratively on a problem, actively construct their understanding of a concept, interact socially and build relationships with each other and then develop a sense of belonging to a learning community, they make the behavioral transition from disengage to engaged learners.
Figure 2. Students start out asking questions and eventually provide answers to their peers.
Figure 3. As students become more comfortable answering questions the quality of their answers improve as evidenced in the number of medals collected.

The first graph shows Aravind’s initial behavior as an asker. Over several weeks, he starts to answer more questions and toward the end of the graph he has transitioned into a helper. The second graph demonstrates the progression of his expertise, evident from the high medal to answer ratio, which indicates the community, not just the asker, finds his explanations helpful. Aravind’s behavioral change demonstrates the power and possibilities of social learning.

Learners like Aravind and Tony, come for academic help. We connect them, not to content to study from, but someone to study with. They stay because someone has taken an interest in them and is willing to help them succeed. And then, most importantly, they come back so they can help someone else in turn. They are engaged in a game where peers reward good learning behavior. As they integrate into the community, they seek to win fans and earn testimonials, and the respect of their community of peers. This is the win we are after.

Going Beyond Grades

Innovative learning environments offer the possibilities of innovations in assessment. From user activity described above, we developed an assessment that not only reports on a learner’s mastery in a subject but also, more importantly, soft skills demonstrated in a social setting and in the peer-to-peer interactions. Unlike quiz or test grades that report on an individual’s performance on a particular test in a particular event, OpenStudy’s SmartScore assessment, which is based on behavioral and social analytics, reports on a learner’s progress over time. Not only does the SmartScore contain information about the learner’s questions and answers, but also their interactions with the community, and how the community regards the learner. Overall the SmartScore reports on problem solving, teamwork, and engagement; three soft skills critical for employability.

The Numbers

OpenStudy has close to four million page views a month and more than a million unique users visit the site each month—60 percent of them are repeat visitors. Each day more than 2,000 questions are asked and answered on OpenStudy, in mathematics alone. In the top five study groups, the average time on site is about 20 minutes.

Users come from every country in the world, from more than 2,500 schools and colleges and create a community that never sleeps. OpenStudy learners come from traditional brick and mortar and online institutions, private and public colleges, high schools, and MOOCs, for profit and non-profit. The numbers demonstrate a strong need for academic help that is not being met in today’s learning institutions. In the days of the traditional campus, the campus quad or the campus green filled an important and well-recognized need in the college ecosystem. It was a place for relaxation and socialization, for peer-to-peer learning and to foster a sense of belonging. OpenStudy is that campus quad—a virtual global campus quad, for learners of the world. An informal and fun environment where learners build relationships with each other that lead to peer-to-peer learning and improved learning gains.

Trying to Learning Alone

OpenStudy provides the virtual quad for learners regardless of their school or affiliation and through partnerships with schools and colleges, MOOCs, and content providers like OpenCourseWare Consortium.

MOOCs are in particular need of a virtual gathering place. With the focus on content creation and delivery technologies, we should not forget the very real human need for help and interactivity. Presently, OpenStudy provides the virtual quad for MIT OCW in their MechMOOC (“Introduction to Python”). This MOOC weaves together high-quality content (MIT OCW), student experience management (P2PU), coding practice and assessment (CodeAcademy), and student interactions and help (OpenStudy). A quick look at the study group reveals the different stages of engagement of MOOC learners.

User 3emarcus, a newcomer (SmartScore 10) to OpenStudy is lost and posts a plea for help. eSpex a more advanced user (SmartScore 78) steps in to help. His guidance is detailed, generous, and critical in keeping 3marcus engaged in the course and in overcoming his frustration.
Figure 4. “Help! I am lost!”

Figure 5. A helpful solution.

Over time more helpers emerge in the community. For example, Screech is a retired programmer. He offers encouragement, help, and even valuable feedback to MOOC organizers. He shared this insight: “I enrolled for two courses through edX. The ability to communicate with other students in edX was quite limited. OpenStudy provided an opportunity for easy interchange and learning from each other.”

From One-to-one to Many-to-many

Does social learning work? Yes it does, according to A. Sasha Thackaberry the district director of eLearning technologies at Cuyahoga Community College. She shared results from a study performed at Cuyahoga, focusing on a Gates Foundation supported developmental Math MOOC: The success rates of learners who used OpenStudy increased by 66 percent.

Social learning platforms can improve the learning experience for online learners when they are built for collaboration and community and can create pathways for many-to many interactions. In a mature learning community, relationships lead to interactions between members, which in turn keep the members engaged in the pursuit of their goals.

To date, Hero has answered 8,500 questions, received 5,000 medals, and has 1,400 fans. The world has millions of Tonys and peer social networks make it possible for many Heroes to reach many Tonys.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of minors.

For information about learning, training and knowledge-transfer, contact:

Originally published by Dr. Preetha Ram in eLEARN MAGAZINE


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