The Fellowship Year in Review

by P

As part of my Shuttleworth Foundation fellowship, I am asked to reflect once a year on progress I have made, and think about challenges I may have encountered (and overcome hopefully.) It always seems difficult to find the time to write these reports, but turns out to be an incredibly useful exercise in taking a longer-term view. It helps me to notice trends and developments that are easy to miss in the day-to-day excitement.

This is not an overview of all the things that have happened at P2PU in the last year, but rather it’s a reflection on along three broad themes: (1) building a social learning platform and community, (2) laying the groundwork, and building the partnerships necessary for hacking certification, (3) and making P2PU run like a well-oiled machine, that is fast and nimble, but remains committed to openness and transparency.

It’s long. You were warned. Photos thrown in for entertainment.

Building a Social Learning Platform and Community

  • We ran two rounds of courses, and continued to double the number of courses and size of our community each time (as we have done in every round so far). More than 3300 users signed up for 54 courses and the community has grown to almost 20,000 registered users by June 2011. A significant part of this growth has been driven by School of Webcraft, and together with partners we are developing a number of other schools (including schools for social innovation, maths education, and we are currently preparing the first courses of a planned school of education / teacher training).
  • A major milestone was the complete re-design and migration to our new web site which we just launched on June 17th (old site: The development work was led by Zuzel Vera, our fantastic technology lead who came onboard full-time earlier this year. She rolls out updates to the site every 2 weeks, which means things are getting better all the time and we are super excited to see a small, but active open source community starting to contribute code. The idea has always been to get people who are using P2PU involved in the process of improving the platform – and we are now offering a P2PU course for developers to help them get started (one for for UX designers is coming soon.) If you want to geek out on the technical details (Python/Django mainly) check out our github page and development task tracker.
  • As part of the redesign, we decided to make some adjustments to our model and added support for more flexible courses and study groups. Requiring all courses to be more or less the same length, and setting a coordinated start date, didn’t work for everyone. And in between the course cycles, there were no courses new users could sign-up for. That’s why the new site adds support for self-organized study groups that can run perpetually and encourage users to start courses and study groups at any point, and not confined to a small number of cycles each year.

Hacking Certification

One of my main interests has always been the idea of “hacking certification” and how we can recognize or certify achievements that take place in informal communities like P2PU.

  • We worked hard to establish the concept of badges as part of an alternative accreditation system. P2PU co-hosted the “Badge Lab” (agendablog post from a participant) which ended up growing into one of the most influential streams of the event, and has since evolved into its own project, hosted by Mozilla, to create an open badges infrastructure. We are also building more support around the idea of badges, by organizing a badges working group for the MacArthur Foundation (second workshop coming up).
  • Since some of these ideas are fairly new (and controversial) and I also spent a fair amount of time thinking out loud and spreading the word. Vijay Kumar invited me to speak about “hacking certification” in his “open education” course at the Harvard Extension School and I wrote a longer blog post about it afterwards (has links to recording). I presented similar ideas as part of a joint session on certification in open education with Sir John Daniel (ex Commonwealth of Learning) at the OpenCourseWare Global Conference at MIT (slides at slideshare), and discussed the implications of all this for the “Future of the University” at the University of California Humanities Research Institute. And I was recently invited to give a keynote on the topic at Open Ed 2011, which will take place later this year.
  • Another focus has been to build partnerships with organizations and people that have a shared interest in providing certification for open learning. We continue to work with Mozilla on badges, and the School of Webcraft. The University of California Irvine has been a great supporter and partners since the early days, and we hope to issue professional development unites through UCI Extension very soon. And we are strengthening our relationship with MIT. Steve Carson from the OpenCourseWare project has been an advisor to P2PU, and Joi Ito whom I consider a mentor and who ran the Digital Journalism course at P2PU last year recently took over as director of the MIT Media Lab. Lots of opportunities there! Another great source of inspiration has come from Hal Plotkin, the senior policy advisor to the under-secretary of education, who has helped us think through a lot of these issues with a view on connecting them into the formal education system in the US.

The Machine that runs P2PU

  • Made lots of progress, building an organization to support P2PU. I wrote this summary blog post that gives a lot more detail, but in a nutshell: We incorporated as a 501(c) non profit organization in the US, and obtained our tax exempt status. We appointed a really fantastic board of directors that consists of the founders, community members, and two long term strategic partners (Cathy Casserly, Creative Commons; and Mark Surman, Mozilla). For more detail on the board see this post. We are also revamping our advisory group and are specifically looking to add more business expertise and experience. And we started hiring a few great people to add to the team. P2PU is still entirely grant funded today, which is something we intend to change (see below) but we received a Hewlett grant which allows us to diversify our core funding (and we are waiting to hear back about two other large proposals.)
  • While building an organization that can accept funds and provides a legal structure is important, the open P2PU community continues to be our foundation and greatest success. We ran another great community workshop in Barcelona, October 2010 to set the strategy for 2011. We are navigating how to be open and transparent to allow a wide variety of opinions and encourage participation, while at the same time being able to move fast like a start-up company (and fulfill the legal obligations of a non-profit organization). It’s a balance act, but it’s fun. For example, as we are increasing the number of paid staff, we are designing processes that involve the community – by sharing job descriptions for review and feedback, asking for nominations from the community, involving community members in the interviews, and discussing our compensation principles publicly. While we are nowhere done, we are getting better at keeping people in the loop, through our weekly community calls that are open to anyone, a shared P2PU calendar, and regular email and blog announcements about new developments and courses.

What’s next?

This post is intended as reflection of the past, but our trajectory over the last 12 months, says something about where we are going in the next year. At least two big goals: build out certification opportunities for our users, and start generating revenue. We have been successful obtaining grants, and there continues to be donor interest in supporting open learning projects, but I am particularly excited to work on opportunities for revenue generation in order to make us independently sustainable in the future.

Enough already. Thanks for reading all the way through. If any of this resonates, feel free to drop me a line, mention @sharingnicely on twitter, or leave a comment below.