Peer Learning with Social Media

October 10, 2014  |  Online Education | E-Learning  |  Share

Peer learning is the concept of similar individuals teaching each other, as opposed to learning from an educated authority such as a teacher. Instead of lectures, peer learning uses discussions between two or more peers to further the understanding of everyone in the peer group. The heart of peer learning is the idea that teaching another person benefits both parties- the teacher and the learner both gain greater understanding of the topic. Peer learning is influencing new areas of education, such as virtual education. Furthermore, the rise of new social media platforms in the past decade has also contributed to the spread of peer learning as a tool for education.

Peer learning can be anything from a casual discussion to a formal group meeting. According to the National Training Laboratories, teaching others a topic is the best way to retain knowledge of that topic. This technique beats out popular methods like practicing the activity and reading about the topic. As a result, any form of peer learning is beneficial to both involved parties. The benefits of peer learning are twofold. First, the learner gains the benefit of a lecture from a knowledgeable person. Second, by fielding questions and doing research in preparation for the explanation, the teacher themselves also learns more about the topic. The result is a positive feedback loop in which both parties learn more as the discussion continues. In addition, some learners do better when learning from their peers as opposed to a formal teacher, due to the additional trust they place in their peer group. Overall, peer learning is a way for learners to benefit from each other’s knowledge, rather than passively sit and absorb facts from a professor.

In some cases, radical educational programs have incorporated peer learning into their plan of action. For example, the virtual learning system Khan Academy makes use of a peer learning style in its video lectures. Instead of a recording of a person standing in front of the camera and talking, Khan Academy produces videos composed of visual aids, equations, and graphs on a bland background. The goal of this style is to produce videos that look more like the way a friend would explain a topic to a peer, using pen and paper, than a teacher would lecture on the same material. As a result, Khan Academy has peer learning embedded into the presentation. Additionally, it is possible for users to submit suggestions and corrections, as well as engage in online discussions of each topic or skill. This brings peer learning further into the focus of Khan Academy; users will quite literally learn from and teach their peers as well as the educators Khan Academy selects to present the material.
Social media, like Facebook and YouTube, make peer learning easier than ever before. The problem of physical distance is no longer a barrier to peer learning. Anyone with knowledge of a certain topic can record themselves teaching it and upload the result to the Internet. Then their peers can comment on the video, offering corrections, asking questions, and discussing the implications of the material. This kind of peer learning doesn’t need a classroom or a textbook to communicate information- it only needs a few people willing to learn from one another. Peer learning in this space is freeform. Anyone can choose what format to use and what information they wish to convey. The “teachers” have no monetary incentive to modify their teaching. There is no formal curriculum. As a result, the teachers can be open to suggestions and are willing to engage in open and honest dialogue with the students.

Traditional education and training methodologies also make use of peer learning. For example, the age-old practice of breaking a large group down into discussion groups made up of peers allows for peer learning to take place among the group. When blended with traditional lecturing, this gives everyone the best of both worlds- the formal teacher can lay the groundwork for a particular topic, knowing the best way to convey the information. Then the peers work together to advance their understanding. It no longer matters if all the members of each peer group live in the same time zone. Messaging and video conferencing permit for such meetings across international barriers. This can apply either to corporate training or to distance learning.

With decentralized virtual learning as well as social media and networking technologies growing in prevalence, peer learning’s importance as a source for knowledge development will only increase. Peer learning as a medium is friendly, approachable, and doesn’t require much in terms of formality, which makes it ideal for massively open online coursework and the formation of virtual communities. Enthusiasts of a particular field or hobby already congregate in virtual groups to discuss their favorite hobby. This is a kind of peer learning- amateurs can become expert in a particular subtopic and educate others about it, learning more as a result. Peer learners in this context are motivated and interested, as well as willing to trust each other’s competence. This is not just a feature of hobbyist communities- discussion groups for high school and college-level math and science also exist, in which students in formal education ask each other questions about their material. Even traditional education now sometimes incorporates peer learning in the form of class discussion boards, where students in the class can talk about the course and relate it to current events or their own experience.
The primary benefit of peer learning, which is the feedback cycle of retention for both the teacher and the learner, is what makes it so attractive to every institution that educates. This accounts for the growing interest in peer learning methods among trainers, academics, and administrators. Peer learning is a powerful technique, and the ease with which it can be incorporated into other learning methods, especially when facilitated with technology, means that it will become an important part of the future of education.

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