by Chris McGivern and SF Team, 18 December 2017
He might not admit it, but there’s a slight rebellious streak running through Philipp Schmidt. He’s spent his career questioning conventional wisdom, experimenting with innovative ideas and taking on projects many others would call risky.
It’s an attitude that’s served him well. Almost a decade after starting the Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU) project, he is now Director of the Learning Initiative at the MIT Media Lab, exploring the fringes and potential futures of teaching and education. But Philipp is a humble guy, too, and happily attributes much of his success to the communities that have inspired him.
The Shuttleworth Foundation funded Philipp and P2PU from 2008, and this story sets out how it happened, and explains many of the reasons why we were delighted to offer help.
In the late 2000s, Philipp Schmidt was already enthused by open education but experiencing a hint of frustration with its limitations and direction.
”At this time, open was focussed on developing content, producing content and licensing content,” he explains. “Everything was about content, but there was little exploration of how to use it, learn with it, or provide an experience. Something was lacking.”
After many discussions about uncovering the missing piece of the jigsaw, Philipp and a friend - Neeru Paharia - hit upon a possible solution.
“We wanted to create a platform for people to share learning, and improve access to education” says Philipp. “Neeru came up with the name Peer 2 Peer University a few weeks later, and that was it.
Philipp Schmidt established Peer 2 Peer University in 2008, alongside co-founders Neeru Peraha, Delia Browne, Stian Haklev and Joel Thierstein.
The project is a nonprofit, grassroots open learning institution seeking to democratise education and fill a significant gap in online learning: a social, peer-led community experience.
“A Harvard Assessment Study reviewing successful students found the number one indicator was ability to learn with others at your level,” says Philipp. “It’s not about specific knowledge, it’s about engaging on a level playing field.”
Today, P2PU has grown into a vast community of educators, learners, librarians and technologists, all focussed on opening education of all levels to as many people as possible. In 2008, however, it was still very much an idea.
Getting a project like P2PU off the ground is tough. It was a big idea and posed significant challenges for Phillip and the team when they first started out.
“At the start of a venture, it’s all hustle,” remembers Philipp. “I talked to people at conferences or online, set up calls and spent hours getting to know them. You get a lot of rejection, and it can be discouraging.
“We were using a cheap, hosted Wiki, with everyone in the group communicating on Skype,” he recalls. “But it was disorganised and lacked coordination, and creating a proper system for people to use was going to cost money.”
The salary issue was prominent, too. Without money in the bank, it’s hard to focus on your ideas as you are spending too much time trying to earn a living. Funding was the obvious solution, but it wasn’t without its own problems.
”In the social impact space, applying to foundations from the development aid world is a pain,” he explains. “You write out applications, wait six months for funding, present big reports and go to endless meetings. It takes a huge amount of time, and nothing ever gets done.
“Many funders are metric driven, and apply business logic to socially-driven ideas - they can’t invest because it’s not in their model. You are up against a lot of bureaucracy.”
In 2008, the Hewlett Foundation awarded a small start-up grant to P2PU, and it wasn’t long afterwards that Philipp applied for funding from the Shuttleworth Foundation.
“The Foundation was exactly what I was looking for,” explains Philipp. “Openness is at its core, and it shares the same values as P2PU - it was a perfect fit. Having a group of people around you that share those values is vital. You can depend on it.
“But the most impressive thing in the early stages was the feeling of backing; someone taking a bet on your crazy idea.
“I was able to quit my job and put all the eggs in the basket. Once you find that ‘thing’ - it’s so much fun.
The Foundation funding helped P2PU launch seven pilot courses, with over 200 participants in September 2009.
It also gave Philipp the time and space to find and grow the communities P2PU needed to run and take part in courses - and tap into them.
“The funding enabled us to run a workshop in Berlin with a community of people who had taken part in our courses before,” explains Philipp. “It was the best investment at that stage, as it gave us invaluable feedback on how we should make changes and refine P2PU.”
And it wasn’t just the P2PU communities that were growing - Philipp underwent something of a growth period, too.
“The Foundation doesn’t just offer money,” he remembers. “The Fellowship has changed over the years, but all the way through it was my education in entrepreneurship.
“People in the Shuttleworth community chat about everything they are struggling with, and you get fantastic support and critical nudges - ‘be kind, not nice’ is a kind of motto.
“A lot of my ideas about learning have started with the P2PU experience. How do you get ideas out? How do you get people excited? How do you scale things? I learnt a lot - and so much of it was through conversations and interactions with other Fellows.”
P2PU enjoyed significant success in the following years, and learning communities appeared covering all kinds of subjects from high-quality, university-level courses to hobbyist programs.
Within a year, P2PU established an ongoing relationship with Mozilla, partnering to establish the School of Webcraft. Further schools of Mathematical Future, Social Innovation, and Data opened within 18 months.
“We were the darling of the open education world for a while,” recalls Philipp. “We were invited to speak everywhere, and lots of people joined the community to hold and take part in courses.
“At our peak, we had over 100,000 users in total. We were doing phenomenally well, and were incredibly excited about the sheer volume of the numbers.”
But during 2012/2013, P2PU’s world began to change. A new form of open, online learning began to appear in volume: Massive Open Online Courses - or MOOCs.
“It came from nowhere, and had an instant impact,” says Philipp. “It felt like everyone was saying ‘We don’t need P2PU anymore - now we have the real experts’. Public attention and funding started to dry up.’’
When things are looking bleak in the social impact space, many investors walk away. Plenty of organisations talk a good game, but the reality is they rarely invest in anything that looks risky.
“They are not collaborators - more like accountants,” says Philipp. “You have to demonstrate progress in a very specific way, and they just don’t accept failure. They are set up to avoid it.
“The Shuttleworth Foundation is different. It’s small, lean, and if things don’t work, they get fixed. Every philanthropic organisation says they do wonderful things, but the Foundation actually does them.
It was a tough time for P2PU. The impact of MOOCs meant the organisation had to scale down, people were let go, and the possibility of ending the venture was floated.
“Accessing a community of other people you can turn to or have been through similar things is really important, remembers Philipp. “Everyone fails, it’s how you deal with it that counts.
“You need friends, allies, and a support network. The Foundation embraces - and even enjoys - the failures and are keen to put them right.”
Philipp and the team came close to calling it a day and had even made peace with the decision. They had managed to change the conversation about online learning, and had driven home the point that content alone is not enough - perhaps that was all they were meant to do?
But far from being the end, it was actually a new beginning. After hearing of a Knight Foundation News Challenge for libraries, Philipp got in touch with a contact at Chicago Public Library, and they started on a plan to recreate the online P2PU idea in a face-to-face environment.
“It made complete sense,” says Philipp. ”The idea was to include librarians as hosts, rather than teachers or experts, and make all this online content available offline at the public libraries.
“It fit into what the libraries were trying to do at the time, and it gave us the opportunity to turn things around.”
Today, P2PU provides tools and materials for public libraries to host Learning Circles, and is demonstrating that face-to-face study groups can increase course completion rates in online education, and reach more diverse learners - especially those not already benefiting from online education.
Philipp Schmidt has taken on a role at MIT Media Lab as Director of the Learning Initiative, and remains an active board member on the executive committee of P2PU.
“At the Media Lab, I get to play with crazy ideas, build things and have a great platform to get new things out into the world,” he says. “But Open Education still plays a major part, and it’s woven into a lot of things I do. I love working with passionate, smart people and prefer collaboration over strict hierarchies.
“But if it weren’t for the P2PU experience and the Shuttleworth Foundation, I wouldn’t be here now.”
“I still spend time promoting the Foundation,” says Phillip. “I always tell people that when they find something they really need to do, the Foundation is a great place to share an idea and get the help you need to make it real.
“It’s an opportunity to discuss plans openly, rather than having to craft a perfect sounding narrative, and then get help making them better. It has to come from the heart.
“If you have a really interesting idea that connects with learning, technology, education and openness, there is no better way of doing it than with a Fellowship.”