Philipp Schmidt
Ashoka Fellow since 2012   |   Germany

Philipp Schmidt

Peer 2 Peer University
Philipp Schmidt is infusing participatory learning into the open education space and building the first-ever open source lesson-planning platform.
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Check out this video of Philipp Schmidt's work

This description of Philipp Schmidt's work was prepared when Philipp Schmidt was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2012.


Philipp Schmidt is infusing participatory learning into the open education space and building the first-ever open source lesson-planning platform.

The New Idea

Philipp is combining the best in open education with leading technologies for social networking and collaboration to create a revolutionary model for online learning. Beginning with the premise that people learn best in groups and that a person learns as much from designing a course as from participating in it, Philipp has set out to change not what we learn, but how we learn. Through Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU), peer learners from around the world connect around topics they care about and skills they wish to master, harnessing the vast wealth of high-quality openly-licensed education materials currently available over the Internet. Unlike traditional courses, however—which match those who want to learn a subject to those able to teach it—P2PU enables learners to come together around a shared goal, and to collect and share whatever resources are required to meet those challenges. Students act as both teacher and learner, and are thus able to collaborate throughout the entire course development process, beginning with design, and extending through co-teaching and peer evaluation.

While recognizing the value of learning for learning’s sake, Philipp understood early on that students would need some form or recognition for their advancements and accomplishments. The team thus designed a system of badges, which participants earn through both technical mastery and the demonstration of critical social and organizational abilities, such as the ability to work in teams. The new digital credential is then authenticated through peer evaluation, and by select partners consisting of well-respected employers in the field. Partners can issue their own badges, thereby defining the skills they wish to see in employees, and providing a powerful lens to evaluate success in a particular subject. For example, recognizing a need for new education resources for web developers, Mozilla now oversees a growing number of courses that serve thousands of users. These partners thus play a dual role: increasing demand, by opening up their network to new cohorts of potential users, and legitimizing the skills and accomplishments that come of each successive challenge.

The result is the first-ever open source lesson-planning platform, whose quality and value only improves with time. Just as web developers can now experiment with one another’s code—creating ever-improving web platforms and technology tools—learners and course developers can now build upon existing lesson plans and materials to create more and more quality courseware. P2PU is more than a cost-effective alternative to traditional higher education: it is changing the way professors—and others inside and outside the university—approach learning and coursework. Philipp is working with universities to leverage the P2PU platform in their own courses, and its open source design means that anyone anywhere can take advantage of its resources. Launched in 2009, P2PU now serves more than 23,000 members and between 4,500 to 6,500 active users each month. With 1,000 more members joining each month, P2PU is poised to connect the millions of potential learners around the world looking for a better and more cost-effective means of education.

The Problem

Much has been said about the problems facing today’s higher education system, where tuition hikes have left students subject to increasing costs—and with it, mounting debt—while facing an uncertain job market that no longer guarantees that long-term returns will exceed investment.

Outside of costs, however, is a fundamental set of questions over the quality of learning, and the ability of today’s colleges and universities to equip students with the knowledge, skills, and mindset they need to achieve success in the real world. The popular “publish or perish” mantra that guides today’s top research universities incentivizes narrow specialization among professors, a high regard for theory over practice, and a culture of risk aversion. Rigid course structures disregard individuals’ unique learning styles, and too often, render students passive recipients of knowledge, rather than active participants in their own learning trajectory. In most universities, subject matter is siloed—divided into clearly defined domains that fail to account for the deeply interwoven nature of most fields and issue areas, and the interdisciplinary thinking required to tackle today’s most pressing challenges. The result is a disproportionately high rate of unemployment among young people and recent graduates compared to older adults. Even at a time in which the supply of unemployed workers exceeds the demand for new hires, employers complain that they are unable to find suitable candidates with the skills they are looking for.

Traditional courses—relying on a single instructor—are inherently difficult to scale: the instructor must be skilled not only in the subject, but as a teacher, requiring substantial training and vetting. Once the right instructor is found, moreover, he or she often tires of teaching the same course repeatedly, or otherwise fails to keep the content fresh and relevant. The challenge is made all the more difficult for online coursework, due to the unique skillset required to convene, facilitate, and sustain active participation remotely.

Furthermore, while today’s open education movement has made high-quality learning materials more widely accessible than ever before, it has failed to account for the fact that materials alone are not enough. Students need peers with whom to share ideas and new perspectives; they need guidance from others who’ve mastered the task at hand, who, through mentorship, can offer a combination of expertise and experience. Too often, however, online courses and open education materials rely on one-to-many instruction, leaving learners isolated behind computer screens.

The Strategy

Beginning with the arrival of MIT’s OpenCourseware, the open education movement has seen a proliferation of content-sharing platforms, ranging from TED Talks, to Wikipedia, to the OpenCourseware Consortium. With the goal of opening up access to a wide variety of new materials, emerging efforts tend to focus on content, using video, gaming technologies, and the like to provide a structured learning experience for an ever-growing number of users. Yet Philipp believes that technology is there not only to improve efficiency—delivering more content to more people at less cost—but to facilitate connectivity, making it possible to freely and cheaply communicate with others all over the world, and to open the door to literally millions of fellow learners and collaborators.

In 2009, Philipp, together with four others who shared his frustrations, set out to create a laboratory for online social learning. Their first attempt at supporting peer-to-peer collaboration relied on a course model supported by active volunteer facilitators. However, they soon found that facilitator-led courses suffered from two major challenges: first, students had little motivation to take ownership over the experience, falling back into old patterns of instructor-based learning. As a result, facilitators often took an undue portion of the course design and delivery process, weakening the peer-to-peer informal learning P2PU was designed to produce. Second, it was difficult to scale, as well-equipped facilitators were difficult to find and train. Instead, Philipp reconfigured the learning experience into a series of user-designed challenges, allowing users to pull in knowledge from across different fields and disciplines in order to meet a desired outcome. For each challenge, there exists more than one path to completion, and each one is carefully designed to foster project-based, collaborative learning.

The same underlying principles can be applied whether working with small groups or large communities of learners. Participants who begin at roughly the same time are grouped into cohorts of 5 to 15 people, which research has shown to be the ideal size for collaboration, and together compose a larger learning community with a shared set of interests. The communities include both first-time challenge users and alumni, who—through various incentives—are encouraged to answer questions and provide advice. Finally, participants can receive one-on-one mentorship from an active alum, whose role is to assist them in participating in their cohort and community. And because all courses are publicly shared, the quality of learning improves with each successive group that signs up to complete the challenge, as new materials, experiences, and practices are added to the existing body of knowledge.

Philipp and the team are now turning their attention to the design of more flexible and useful credentials. He initially planned to partner with universities to certify course completion, but quickly found the certification system too limiting: universities refused to sign on without a Ph.D. instructor and were wary of significant user control. Instead, the team has designed a system whereby the community can develop and award badges to recognize demonstrated skills and achievements, whether for those of a technical nature or ones related to social contributions. For a web developer, for instance, this might mean earning a badge for creating a compelling and effective blog interface, or for developing code for a new mobile app. Others, however, may recognize more cross-cutting competencies, such as critical thinking, helpfulness, or leadership within a team. Philipp believes that online learning assessments, if used effectively, can act as a better learning tool than even face-to-face reviews, allowing learners to track their activities in far greater detail, and to pinpoint the precise instances and areas in which they need help and improvement. What’s more, users are able to manage a larger and more comprehensive portfolio of completed works, alongside collaborator comments and testimonials, than would be possible through traditional coursework.

Particularly popular subject areas are grouped together under “Schools,” to allow for greater collaboration and information-sharing across multiple courses and user groups. The Schools act as a steward of that particular domain of knowledge, while maintaining a level of flexibility not found in the cookie-cutter, siloed schools and departments present in most universities. While Philipp hopes that Schools one day emerge organically from the community, he and the team are constantly on the lookout for topics around which there is significant user demand. Once identified, they seek out potential partners with related domain expertise, and who share an aligned set of values. These partners play a dual role: adding a level of quality assurance and credibility to related challenges and badges, and serving as a powerful means of scaling because each one brings its own network potential users.

While anyone can launch a course on whatever subject or challenge they choose, P2PU puts an emphasis on domains that are poorly served by traditional education, and where formal credentials are less important than portfolios and demonstrated work. This allows them to experiment with multiple types of assessments and ways of recognizing achievements, while ensuring that users are able to effectively translate their experiences into greater proficiency and employment appeal. Partners can define the skills and competencies they most value, and can design and issue their own badges, as well as vet those produced by users. Examples include a partnership with Mozilla, which helped launch P2PU’s popular School of Webcraft, and a more recent partnership with Creative Commons around the School of Open. Similar structures are being piloted for a School of Social Innovation, School of Education, and more.

Because the quality of the learning experience is tied to the level of user engagement, maintaining a strong sense of community is core to P2PU’s success. Philipp realized at the outset that P2PU’s three core values—community, openness, and peer-learning—had to be more than mere taglines: they were essential for upholding a sense of ownership among users, which in turn determines how actively users participate. Discussions take place on a public mailing list and in open community calls, through which anyone can offer input. Decisions are made according to “rough consensus,” allowing the team to avoid gridlocks and move forward quickly. Like other open source platforms, its role is therefore one of facilitation rather than content-creation. In addition to carefully selecting prospective partners and seeding the creation of new Schools, P2PU staff offers guidance on subjects such as how to structure content, the essential ingredients of a successful challenge, and strategies to maximize collaboration and engagement.

P2PU has maintained its “laboratory” feel, allowing it to remain at the forefront of new advances in technology, connectivity, and open education, and to constantly evolve to meet the needs of its users. Going forward, the laboratory aspect will take place on an experimental platform separate from that used by the general community. Individuals and groups will be able to connect and try out new approaches to online learning, provided that they are open to sharing their learning and the products that emerge with the entire community. Successful experiments with proven value and reliability will then be ported over onto the general site, and applied to new domains. The open source approach is key to P2PU scalability: rather than attempt to compete with traditional universities, Philipp actively seeks out schools and partners interested in adopting the platform to their own environment, allowing it to scale rapidly through other institutions.

Based out of the U.S. and powered by a small staff—each working remotely from different cities and countries around the world—P2PU relies in large part on its community of volunteer contributors, allowing it to keep costs low. To date, thirty-three people have developed code, design, or translations. Philipp is beginning to explore opportunities for earned income as well as a way to grow user contributions, both to diversify P2PU’s funding, and to further enhance the connectedness of users to its overall mission and growth. To reduce its reliance on grant funding, he has likewise developed a number of revenue-generating streams, wherein companies and users pay to develop and utilize the assessment system. In just two years, P2PU has quickly grown to 23,000 registered users, serving thousands actively each month, and is quickly moving from early adopters to a more mainstream audience.

The Person

Philipp’s involvement in the open education space dates back to 1994 and the early days of the Internet. A university student at the time, he was mesmerized by the opportunity to connect in real-time with people from all over the world, and by the new possibilities for sharing and transparency. He switched to a degree in computer science, and upon graduation, began working for a large consulting firm, focusing on building on open communication systems.

Frustrated by the lack of big vision and tired of working for large corporations to advance their bottom line, he founded a business with several friends in his native Germany, selling Internet security products, built off open source software. While the company was a success, he continued to feel there was something lacking: having worked for a large firm and built a small one, he sought a bigger purpose than merely selling more products. So he joined an organization focused on enhancing IT in developing countries, and moved to South Africa.

While there, he began teaching at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), focusing on open education and collaboration tools. Philipp is possessed of a lifelong thirst for learning, and an ability to dream big: qualities he attributes to his mother, an elementary school teacher. It was as a teacher himself, and as a volunteer chef cooking with high-school youth in a nearby township, that he came to realize that what held back many of the brilliant young South Africans he met was a lack of that deeply engrained self-confidence. He sought to create a space where anyone could realize their passion through learning, and launched a project allowing students to record, edit, and share their lecture notes openly within course communities. He noticed that participants were more engaged, taking charge of creating learning opportunities not just for themselves, but also for students who were struggling.

Philipp soon became a frequent conference contributor and was invited to join the Board of MIT’s OpenCourseWare Consortium, where he continued to promote the open publication of education materials. He co-authored the Cape Town Open Education Declaration in 2007—put forward by the Open Society Institute and credited as the first international statement on open access—and is regular keynote presenter at the International Open Education Conference and related events, helping him reach those ready to embed P2PU into their own coursework and institutions.

Here Philipp met a group of like-minded collaborators from MIT and UC-Berkeley, and began exploring ideas for a new type of learning community. He and two others set out to study psychology, using materials they found online. Upon discovering how hard it was, they sought to improve the experience, piloting seven courses among friends using a simple wiki. Philipp received a grant from the Hewlett Foundation to formally launch P2PU, and took the idea to UWC. He found the university overly bureaucratic and hesitant to let go of instructor- led control, and left his position to begin working on P2PU full-time, giving himself six months in which to live off savings. Today, P2PU remains the embodiment of the values Philipp holds dear: a deep appreciation of and respect for diversity, a curiosity for new ideas and people, and a strong sense of community.

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