Meet the 5PH1NX

[NOTE:  This is one from the archives. I originally wrote this on December 27, 2012 as a draft of a chapter for the Peeragogy Handbook. Today I dusted it off when a colleague asked for ideas. Cracks me up to remember that everyone who interviewed me in the early days of Open-Source Learning worried that I might get fired for encouraging students to use the public internet. Enjoy. dp]
5tudent Peer Heuristic for 1Nformation eXchange
(A slightly transmedia use case in peeragogical assessment.)
David Preston, Ph.D.
Over the last several decades, technology has driven massive shifts in the way we communicate and collaborate.  Information technology, socioeconomic trends, an increasingly complex and uncertain future, and school’s failed brand are contributing factors in an emerging discourse that seeks to align learning with our rapidly changing culture. 
Open Source Learning and Peeragogy, two emerging theoretical frameworks in this discourse, leverage end-to-end user principles of communication technology to facilitate peers learning together and teaching each other.  In both traditional and liminal learning communities, one of the major points of contact between education and societal culture is the purposeful use of feedback and assessment. 
The processes of giving, receiving, and applying constructive critique makes learners better thinkers, innovators, motivators, collaborators, coworkers, friends, relatives, spouses, teammates, and neighbors.  However, mplementing peer-based assessment can be problematic in schooling institutions where evaluative authority is traditionally conflated with hierarchical authority, and where economic and political influences have focused attention on summative, quantitative, standardized measurement of learning and intelligence.  
This is the story of how one learning community adopted Open Source Learning and Peeragogical principles to decentralize and enrich the assessment process.
Knowledge is acquired when we succeed in fitting a new experience into the system of concepts based upon our old experiences.  Understanding comes when we liberate ourselves from the old and so make possible a direct, unmediated contact with the new, the mystery, moment by moment, of our existence.  
 -Aldous Huxley, Knowledge & Understanding (1952) 



A growing tide of popular and academic attention heralds the promise of education technology.  The problem is that tools and strategies such as MOOCs, videos, virtual environments, and games are only as good as the contexts in which they are used.  Even the most adept practitioners quickly discover that pressing emerging technology and culture into the shape of yesterday’s curricular and instructional models amounts to little more than Skinner’s Box 2.0.  

So what is to be done?  How can we use emerging tools and culture to deliver such an amazing individual and collaborative experience that it shatters expectations and helps students forget they’re in school long enough to fall in love with learning again?

A world in which work looks more like this

PSFK Future of Work Report 2013 from PSFK

…requires a learning environment that looks more like this


and this.
Education in the Information Age should enable and empower learners to find, analyze, evaluate, curate, and act on the best available information.  Pursuing an interdisciplinary path of inquiry in an interest-based community doesn’t just facilitate the acquisition of factual knowledge (which has a limited half-life).  Active engagement with information brings learners closer to understanding their own habits of mind and gives them practice-based confidence and identity in the culture they’ll be expected to join after they graduate.  
Meeting the needs of today’s learners requires new literacies and a curriculum that emphasizes mental fitness, physical fitness, spiritual fitness, civic fitness, and technological fitness.
Models of assessment that emphasize self-directed Paragogical and collaborative Peeragogical principles enrich the learning experience and accelerate and amplify deep understanding.  Because these approaches are pull-based and generate tens of thousands of multi/transmedia data points per learner each academic year, they generate multi-dimensional portraits of learner development and provide feedback that goes far beyond strengths and weaknesses in content retention. 
The long-term benefit is exponential.  Learners who can intentionally direct their own concentration are empowered far beyond knowledge acquisition or skill mastery.  They become more effective thinkers and–because they are vested– more caring people.  This learning experience is of their own making: it isn’t business, it’s personal. The inspiration to recreate the process for themselves and for others is the wellspring of the lifelong learner.
As Benjamin Disraeli put it, “In general the most successful man in life is the man who has the best information.”  It is a widely accepted truism in business that better data leads to better decisions.  We now have the ability to generate, aggregate, analyze, and evaluate much richer data sets that can help us learn more about helping each other learn. 
Sharing different kinds of data in different ways will have the same game-changing effect in learning that it has in professional baseball, basketball, and investment banking.
Self-directed, collaborative assessment generates an unprecedented quantity and variety of data that illuminates aspects of learning, instruction, and overall systemic efficacy.  Even a cursory examination of readily available freeware metrics, blog/social media content, and time stamps can provide valuable insight into an individual’s working process and differentiate learners in a network.





In the larger scheme of things, Peeragogical assessment provides direct access to and practice in the culture learners will be expected to join when they complete their course of study.  Collaboration, delegation, facilitating conversations, and other highly valued skills are developed in plain view, where they can be critiqued and validated by peers, experts and the public. 

Learners responded to the assignment with real-time commentary and created a finished product in 24 hours.  The map also attracted contributors outside the original learning community who lent perspectives on content, design and working process.  Although there was no formal assessment process, it was easy for each viewer to see exactly who did what and how well.
But tall trees don’t grow by themselves in the desert.  Peeragogical innovation can be challenging in organizational cultures that prioritize control and standardization; as Senge et al have observed, the system doesn’t evaluate quality when dealing with the unfamiliar – it just pushes back.  In schools, this inflexibility is so typical that it doesn’t merit comment in traditional media.  The world notices when Syria goes dark, but restricted online access in school is business as usual.
Cultural constraints can make early adopters in technology-based Peeragogy seem like Promethean risk-takers.
Learners are not fooled by the rhetoric of in loco parentis or vision statements that emphasize “safe, nurturing learning environments.”  With notable exceptions, today’s school leaders do not know as much about technology as the young people for whom they assume responsibility.  Still, learners understand survival: they are fighting in unfavorable terrain against an enemy of great power.  Innovating is impossible and even loudly criticizing school or advocating for change is a risk.  As a result, many learners do just enough to satisfy requirements without getting involved enough to attract attention.  Some learners have also internalized the critical voices of authority or the failure of the formal experience as evidence of their own inability: I’m just not any good
at math
How do we know when we’re really good at something?  Standardized testing feedback doesn’t help learners improve.  Most of us don’t have a natural talent for offering or accepting criticism.  And yet, as Wole Soyinka put it, “The greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism.”
Peeragogical interaction requires refining relational and topical critique, as well as skills in other “meta” literacies, including but not limited to critical thinking, collaboration, conflict resolution, decision-making, mindfulness, patience and compassion.  Interpersonal learning skills are undervalued in today’s schooling paradigm.  Consequently there is an operational lack of incentive for teachers and learners to devote time and energy, particularly when it carries a perceived cost in achievement on tests that determine financial allocations and job security.2
Nevertheless, some educators are introducing peer-to-peer network language and even introducing peer-based assessment.  But the contracts, syllabi and letters to students still stink of the old ways. These one-to-many documents are presented by agents of the institution endowed with the power to reward or punish.  To many students this does not represent a choice or a real opportunity to hack the learning experience.  They suspect manipulation and they wait for the other shoe to drop.  Learners also don’t like to be told they’re free while being forced to operate within tight constraints.  Consider this reaction to a policy that is highly regarded in the field:
“Students may choose to reblog their work in a public place or on their own blogs, but do so at their own
risk.” What? Did I read that correctly? “Students may choose to reblog their work in a public place or on
their own blogs, but do so at their own risk.” Risk? What risk? The risk of possibly helping someone understand
something that they didn’t before or get a different opinion than they had before? Someone please help me
make sense of this.
To effectively adopt Peeragogical assessment in the schooling context, the community must construct a new understanding of how the members in the network relate to one another, independently of their roles in the surrounding social or hierarchical systems.  Renegotiating agreements requires trust, which in school requires
significant suspension of disbelief, which–and this is the hard part– requires actual substantive, structural change in the learning transaction. 
This is the defining characteristic of Open-Source Learning: as the network grows, changes composition, and changes purpose, it also changes the direction and content of the learning experience.  Every network member can introduce new ideas, ask questions, and contribute resources than refine and redirect the process. 
Designing a learning environment that encourages the unexpected runs counter to the general training and culture of professional educators.  A member in this network must forget what she knows about school in order to test the boundaries of learning that shape her relationship to content, peers, and expert sources of information and feedback. 
Unlearning is how the cogs in the machine become the liminal heroes who redesign it.  Having rejected the old way, having let go of obsolete content, attitudes, norms, and values, lead learners (formerly known as educators) and learners (formerly students) must now create the rituals that will come to define the new.  They are following in the path of Oedipus, who took on the inscrutable and intimidating Sphinx, solved the riddle that had killed others who tried, and ushered out the old belief systems to pave the way for the Gods of Olympus.
Imagine if Oedipus had the Internet. 
Enter 5PH1NX
On Monday, April 2, 2011, students in three English classes at a California public high school discovered
anomalies in the day’s entry on their course blog.3  The date was wrong and the journal topic was this:
In The Principles of Psychology (1890), William James wrote:
The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a
wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character
and will. No one is compos sui if he have it not. An education which should
improve this faculty would be the education par excellence
How have your experiences in this course
helped you focus your attention?
What do you still need to work on?
What elements of the following text (from Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84)
draw your attention and help you construct meaning?
The driver nodded and took the money. “Would you like a receipt?”
“No need. And keep the change.”
“Thanks very much,” he said. “Be careful, it
looks windy out there. Don’t slip.”
“I’ll be careful,” Aomame said.
“And also,” the driver said,
facing the mirror,
“please remember: things are not what they seem.”
Things are not what they seem, Aomame repeated mentally. “What do
you mean by that?” she asked with knitted brows.
The driver chose his words carefully: “It’s just that you’re about to do something
out of the ordinary. Am I right? People do not ordinarily climb down the emergency
stairs of the Metropolitan Expressway in the middle of the day– especially
“I suppose you’re right.”
“Right. And after you do something like that, the everyday look of
things might seem to change a little. Things may look different
to you than they did before. I’ve had that experience myself.
But don’t let appearances fool you.
There’s always only one reality.”
Find the jokers.


The jokers were real4 and hidden (without much intent to conceal) around the classroom and in students’ journals.  Students found them and asked questions about the letters in blue; the questions were ignored, met with silence, and left unanswered.  Some students thought it was just another one of their teacher’s wild hair ideas. Although they didn’t know it yet they were playing the liminal role that Oedipus originated in mythology.  Solving the riddle would enable them to usher out an old way of thinking and introduce the new. 
The old way.
An authority figure sets the rules, packages the information for a passive audience, and unilaterally evaluates each passive, obedient student’s performance.  In that context, peeragogical assessment might be introduced with a theoretical framework, a rubric, and a lesson plan with input, checks for understanding, and guided practice as a foundation for independent work.
            The new way.
             In Open Source Learning the learner pursues a path of inquiry within communities that function as end-to-end user networks.  Each individual begins her learning with a question and pursues answers through an interdisciplinary course of study that emphasizes multiple modalities and the five Fs: mental Fitness, physical Fitness, spiritual Fitness, civic Fitness, and technological Fitness.  Learners collaborate with mentors and receive feedback from experts, community-based peers, and the public.  They are the heroes of learning journeys. Heroes don’t respond to syllabi.  They respond to calls to adventure.
Open Source Learning prepares students for the unforeseen.  By the time they met the 5PH1NX, students had learned about habits of mind, operating schema, digital culture and community, self-expression, collaboration, free play, autonomy, confidence/trust/risk, and resilience.  These ideas had been reinforced through nonfiction articles and literary selections such as Montaigne’s Essays, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Bukowski’s Laughing Heart, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Sartre’s No Exit, and others. 
The first poem assigned in the course was Bukowski’s “Laughing Heart”: The Gods will give you chances. Know them.  Take them.  So it is with knowledge and understanding.  Today we are presented with an overwhelming, unprecedented quantity and variety of data in our physical and virtual lives; to cope we must improve the ways we seek, select, curate, analyze, evaluate, and act on information. 
On the back of each Joker card was a QR code that linked to a blog page with riddles and clues to a search.  At this point students realized they were playing a game. A tab on the blog page labeled “The Law” laid out the rules of engagement:
This is
The Law.
1.  You cannot “obey” or “break” The Law.  You
can only make good decisions or bad decisions.
2. Good decisions lead to positive outcomes
3. Bad decisions lead to suffering
4. Success requires humanity
5. For the strength of the Pack is in the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack” – Rudyard Kipling
6. “The way of the sage is to act but not to compete” – Lao Tzu
7. Be honorable
8. Have fun
9. Question
10. Sapere aude.  (*Did you roll over this with your cursor? Why not? Don’t you want to READ it?)  .
This is
The Law. 
After a second set of on-campus and blog quests, students noticed a shift in 5PH1NX.  A couple of weeks before the first clue was published, during a Socratic seminar on Derrida’s concept of Free Play, a student said, “We learn best when adults take away the crutches and there is no safety net.” The quote was used in the next clue; students began to realize that the game was not pre-determined.  5PH1NX was evolving in response to their contributions.  

            The student’s comment was a call to action. The Feats of Wisdom were designed to engage learners over a vacation break in fun, collaborative, social media-friendly missions that required engagement in the community, expansion of their personal learning networks, and documentation on their blogs.  For example:

Feat #1:
Buy a ticket to “The Hunger Games” (or any other
movie that’s likely to draw a large, young, rowdy audience).  Before the
lights dim and the trailers begin, walk to the screen, turn to the audience,
and in a loud, clear voice, recite the “To be, or not to be…”
soliloquy from Hamlet (don’t worry if you make a couple mistakes, just be sure
you make it all the way to, “Be all my sins remembered.”).
Capture the event on video & post it to your blog.
            Students had been using the Internet without an Acceptable Use Policy all year; such policies are one-to-many artifacts of a central authority and far weaker than community norms.  So rather than introduce “rules” 5PH1NX simply provided a reminder of the client-side responsibility:
The Emergence of Peeragogical Assessment
The third page on the Feats of Wisdom blog was entitled Identifying and Rewarding Greatness, where learners were greeted with the following
you see something that was done with love, that pushed the boundaries, set the
standard, broke the mold, pushed the envelope, raised the bar, blew the doors
off, or rocked in some previously unspecified way, please bring it to the
attention of the tribe by posting a link to it [here].
No one did.
Instead, they started doing something more effective.  They started building.  One student hacked the entire game and then created her own version.
Other students began to consider the implications for identifying and rewarding greatness.  They realized that one teacher couldn’t possibly observe how 96 students were working over vacation out in the community and online to accomplish the Feats of Wisdom. In order to get credit for their efforts they would have to curate and share their work process and product.  They also realized that the same logic applied to learning and coursework in general; after all, even the most engaged, conscientious teacher only sees a high school or college student a few
hours a week in artificial conditions. The learner presumably spends her whole life in the company of her own brain.  Who is the more qualified reporting authority?
With these thoughts in mind students created Project Infinity, a peer-to-peer assessment platform through which students could independently assign value to those thoughts and activities they deemed worthy.  Because the 2011-12 5PH1NX was a three-week exercise in gamification, Project Infinity quickly evolved to include collaborative working groups and coursework.  This was learner-centered Peeragogical assessment in action; learners identified a need and an opportunity, they built a tool for the purpose, they managed it themselves, and they leveraged it in a meaningful way to support student achievement in the core curriculum.
Project Infinity 2 & Implications for the Future
            Alumni from the Class of 2012 felt such a strong positive connection to their experience in Open Source Learning and Peeragogical assessment that they built a version for the Class of 2013.  They created Project Infinity2 with enhanced functionality, they asked the teacher to embed an associated Twitter
feed on the course blog, and they came to classes to speak with current students about their experiences. Everyone thought the Class of 2013 would stand on the shoulders of giants and adopt the platform with similar enthusiasm.
            They were wrong.
            Students understood the concept and politely contributed suggestions for credit, but it quickly became evident that they weren’t enthusiastic. Submissions decreased and finally the Project Infinity2 Twitter feed disappeared from the course blog.  Learners’ blogs and project work (here and here) suggested that they were mastering the core curriculum and meta concepts, and they appeared generally excited about Open-Source Learning overall.  So why weren’t they more excited about the idea of assessing themselves and each other?
            Because Project Infinity wasn’t theirs.  They didn’t get to build it.  It was handed to them in the same way that a syllabus is handed to them.  No matter how innovative or effective it might be, Project Infinity was just another tool designed by someone else to get students to do something they weren’t sure they wanted/needed to do in the first place.
            Timing may be a factor.  Last year’s students didn’t meet 5PH1NX until the first week in April, well into the spring semester. This year’s cohort started everything faster and met 5PH1NX in November.  Now (in January) they understand the true potential of their situation and they’re taking the reins.  As students realized what was happening with the clues and QR codes they approached the teacher and last year’s alumni with a request: Let Us In. 
           They don’t just want to design learning materials or creatively demonstrate mastery, they want to chart their own course and build the vehicle/s for taking the trip.  Alumni and students are becoming Virtual TAs who will implement the peer-to-peer advising and grading processes.  In the Spring Semester all students will be asked to prepare a statement of goals/intentions, and they will be informed that the traditional teacher will be responsible for no more than 30% of their grade.  The rest will come from a community of peers, experts and members of the public.
            On Tuesday of Finals Week 5PH1NX went from five players to two hundred.  Sophomores and freshman have jumped into the fray and hacked/solved one of the blog clues before seniors did.  Members of the Open Source Learning cohort have also identified opportunities to enrich and expand 5PH1NX.  A series of conversations about in-person retreats and the alumni community led to students wanting to create a massively multiple player learning cohort.  Imagine 50,000-100,000 learners collaborating and sharing information on a quest to pass an exam—by solving a game that leads them to a “Learning Man Festival” in the Summer of 2013.  

            When 5PH1NX players return from Winter Break in January they will transform their roles relative to the game and the course. Several have already shared “AHA!” moments in which they discovered ways to share ideas and encourage collaboration and peer assessment.  They have identified Virtual Teaching
Assistant candidates, who will be coached by alumni, and they have plans to provide peer-based assessment for their online work.  They are also now actively engaged in taking more control over the collaboration process itself. 

 On the last day of the semester, a post-finals throwaway day of 30-minute class sessions that administrators put on the calendar to collect Average Daily Attendance money, hardly anyone came to campus.  Except for Open-Source Learning. We were all there.  Learners have uncoupled the experience of learning from the temporal, spatial, and cultural constraints of school.  They understand how democracy works: those who participate make the decisions.
No one knows how this ends, but the outcome of Peeragogical assessment is not a score; it is learners who demonstrate their thinking progress and mastery through social production and peer-based critique.  This community’s approach to learning and assessment has prepared its members for a complex and uncertain future by moving them from a world of probability to a world of possibility.  As one student put it in a video entitled “We Are Superman,” “What we are doing now may seem small, but we are part of something so much bigger than we think.  What does this prove?  It proves everything; it proves that it’s possible.”
1.     Whenever the author gives a talk or an interview someone asks if he’s in trouble.
3.     Reminder: not so long ago this sentencea would have been rightly interpreted as science fiction. 
a.     And its structure.
4.     In [this year’s version] students initially assigned symbolic literary value to the blue letters before the solution dawned & the comment thread ended with,