Peer Learning Networks

6 Dec

What I miss as a teacher is a staff room where I can share my concerns, my ideas and my trials in the classroom. The joys of a good class are shared by all. I would not want the journey to stop there. I want to be able to learn from another teacher’ experiment with a class, to learn to repeat that success consistently. And to be able to share it with others. All without being judged.

Peer learning groups, such as the dream staff room I describe above apply equally to teachers and students – both learners in their own domains. Peer learning networks have existed informally in classrooms, coaching classes, family networks and staffrooms, but their reach has been limited to a small area or context. With today’s technology, we transcend traditional borders and learn from people with totally different lives and experiences from us.

Most peer learning networks that have emerged online have been informal ones so far, with structure only just beginning to emerge. Some PLNs (Peer Learning Networks) started off as emails to large groups and then morphed into self organizing groups, almost organizations. Others, and the most visible ones these days, are on facebook. They create ‘groups’ or ‘pages’ where information and perspectives are shared, fostering communities that grow together. Other platforms such as Ning which used to be free, (and still is for educational purposes), allowed people to share their materials, issues and discuss them in depth. Twitter has regular curated conversations at a set time on teaching, learning, education and instructional design, managed by a simple thread-keeper via a hash tag where people from all over the world share their views, articles and materials on the topic being discussed.

Some PLNs are more structured and offer courses (online and otherwise) by members of the group. These are formal processes, where the entire learning process is replicated, including entrance tests, baseline testing, lectures, assignments, assessments and examinations. Peers sign up to the larger group and sign up for classes as per their interests.  Many PLNs are supported within formal classroom learning too- with tools that have been in use for years such as seating young ones at a shared table facing each other and giving them a shared or common task. Or asking students to make a joint presentation or report. The process is supposed to force them to help each other in the learning process and discover more than mere lecture or one-on-many teaching activities would have done.

Are PLNs really reliable? One thing is for sure – they depend on the motivation levels of the learners, which are helped along by the old bugbear – peer-pressure. Can PLNs deliver learning that can be applied to the workplace? Can they be a substitute for traditional classroom learning, or even for non-traditional learning that is facilitated by a mentor or senior? Or will they merely remain in the sidelines (as they have in their unorganized avatar) as a support system for assessment systems?

PLNs really come into their own in situations when mature learners seek to renew learning, branch out or share their distilled experiences. Which makes it a great tool for teachers to share their learning. There are myriad small changes that teachers bring to their classrooms that can easily be transferred across to other classrooms if they are shared well. Some of us, we know, could do well with support from peers, both for content and for motivation. A small intervention can transform a school, but one has to know what to try and where to find these ideas. And honestly, if another teacher has created this perfect lesson plan, or quiz – I would be grateful for the share. Would I be willing to share, in turn? To put in extra work and send it out into the ether for the benefit of my peers? Well, yes, lest the golden goose of co-operation dies out.

The simplest networks start with curated conversations. Starting one is easy, connecting these conversations is easier still. The gains are clearly visible. The tools are almost free and accessible to all. With apologies to the great Marx, I paraphrase – learners of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your learning gaps… and a community of support to gain.

This was published on November 23, 2011 here:


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