Authored by: Bekka Kahn, Tyler Benjamin, Vanessa Gennarelli and the participants in the College Unbound 2014-2015 W4C course

One of our most exciting collaborative learning experiments in 2014 was a project called Writing For Change. In partnership with College Unbound, we wanted to see what would happen when we tried to replicate the unique stickiness of face-to-face learning in groups.

College Unbound, in Providence, Rhode Island, is a nonprofit which provides pathways to an accredited bachelor’s degrees granted by partnering colleges or universities. CU targets learners who began a degree program, but were unable to finish. Their curricula are flexible and personalized around the unique skills, knowledge, and needs of individuals. Coursework revolves around a professional or personal project that is designed and implemented by the student. Often these projects are community and systems oriented. The CU curriculum is designed to have its own integrity, shaped around a specific population, relevant to the student, the times, and the economy. P2PU is an online Open Ed non-profit, which builds online learning communities on the Web. CU and P2PU have long admired each other from afar - our working philosophies of community support and self-directed learning are complementary and what CU does in face-to-face experiences is what P2PU has long tried to replicate online. This year, we decided to collaborate to create Writing for Change, a free course to help learners develop their writing skills in order to enact social change.

CU + P2PU = ?

College Unbound has always struggled with the limitations of traditional online learning ecosystems - in their experience, traditional tools which simply deliver content were unappealing and actually ended up restricting the potential for people to tell their stories or find a community for support, collaboration and sharing. The result was that online component of learning became a chore, instead of a tool for opening up new possibilities. What College Unbound was looking for was an online experience that could match their in-person goals, and replicate the inspirational messiness of face-to-face learning experiences which CU cultivates for their students. The project needed to capture, reflect and expand on the College Unbound principle of transformational learning, and help learners develop a project of their designing which valued their previous experience, and respected and incorporated their other current full-time obligations.

P2PU, on the other hand, has worked hard over the years to develop online learning spaces that are as flexible, emergent and networked as possible. Through a potent mix of community, technology and learning design, we’ve tried to replicate the support, humour and serendipity that is found in face-to-face learning groups and scale it up for learning on the Web. However, we started to notice that much of our audience is drawn from a small sub-section of people who use the Web. This group tends to skew towards learners who are technologically savvy, comfortable with online behavioural norms and tools, early adopters, and who learn because they want to, rather than because they have to. They are great people to work with, but we’ve known for a while that if P2PU is to make a real change in the way people all over the world use the Web for learning, we’d need to find a way to reach many other different types of learners. These learners are often overlooked within EdTech conversations.

So when it came to the time for P2PU to run a writing course as one of the deliverables of our grant from the Hewlett Foundation, we thought long and hard about what kind of course we wanted to run, and who we wanted to run it with. Who could a writing course most benefit? What kind of writing would be appropriate for the learners we wanted to attract? Rather than simply provide a space for people who were already writers, it made sense to us to develop a course for people who were thinking about working on their writing skills. We decided to create a writing course that was an online version of a studio - to help folks become better writers in the service of what learners wanted to accomplish.

It seemed like the perfect way for P2PU and College Unbound to finally find a way to work together.

Course Design

At P2PU we try to bake the possibility for synchronous and asynchronous learning into all of our experiments. Writing for Change was no different - the College Unbound groups worked through the course in face-to-face groups on campus, while other participants from places as diverse as Kenya and Mexico City were able to move through the content at their own pace.

The content of the course was designed around eight modules, each of which investigated different aspects of building community projects. Learners worked through topics which included identifying issues they felt strongly about, researching background information on the problem, looking at how other writers found their voices and learning how to give valuable and thorough feedback. Each module had question, resource and activity components, and each module’s reading was designed to prompt thinking about the questions in preparation for the writing activity. These modules were supplemented by using Discourse, a forum-like tool, where each week online and offline learners were prompted to discuss the topic, share thoughts and ideas and post as many animal gifs as they could find:

Course participant presenting themselves.

The modules were designed to meet several goals - firstly to help develop the writing skills of all participants, but also to meet the learning goals of the participants, and of P2PU and College Unbound. We made sure there was enough flexibility in design to make sure that if certain aspects were not working, adjustments could be made.

The course was also designed to help both P2PU and College Unbound to test some of our hypotheses about learning, both online and offline. We’ve been interested for a long time in the role of communities and cohorts in online learning. Firstly, we wanted to find out how to build a sense of belonging in non-traditional learners. We also wanted to find out how a sense of belonging to a defined community might help improve the learning experience, and, finally, whether those communities work better when grouped around shared interests or by other criteria. We’d tested some of these hypotheses in our music remix course, but we wanted to be sure.

We ran a pre-course survey, which provided a rich data set to get started with, and helped us develop a sense of the community we were working with. However, as the course evolved, we found that it was the College Unbound crew who formed the core of the cohort, rather than the people who filled in the survey. This implies that there is an evolution of the cohort over the duration of a hybrid online/offline course as some people drop out and others loop back in. It may also mean that for learners who are taking this class for credit toward degrees, the motivation to “do the work” is focussed on aspects which, in their eyes, are directly connected to them earning credit. Completing a survey may not be a priority because taking surveys and surveys themselves are not considered grade-worthy in many of the institutions and systems that learners have known in the past.

Lesson # 1: Find What Matters to the Learner

Course participant presenting themselves.

Course participant presenting themselves.

Course participant presenting themselves.

One of the first tasks all learners had to complete was to introduce themselves and share what issues they felt most strongly about. The range of responses and breadth of topics was truly inspiring, with topics covering urban gardening, African American history, using education for social change and the Labour movement. It became clear quite early on that the stakes for many of the participants in this course were very high. We also realised that while many participants were based in far-flung places, for the College Unbound cohort, their sense of community is deeply rooted in place and the people in their immediate community. This was a first for P2PU, and really helped us to think deeply about how to ensure the course was relevant and useful to a less-dispersed community.

Lesson #2: Break Your Assumptions

We also realised really early on that our assumptions about how learners were using technology were completely wrong. The College Unbound crew were different to anyone we had worked with before, and did not have the same relationship with technology that most P2PU learners had. Tools like Unhangouts, Google docs and forums were simply not as relevant in their lives, and assuming familiarity with these tools risked making learners feel alienated. For time-poor students, the commitment required to tinker with new tools and develop fluency was a curiosity-killer. In order to keep the course relevant, we quickly adapted the technological component of the course, and started using many more face-to-face meetings and even sent Vanessa to Providence to work with the team there. However, the goal of the course, to serve as an avenue toward a bachelor’s degree that is relevant for students seeking an “unbound” college experience meant tapping into the nearly boundless potential of online communities. As a necessity, then, part of that experience had to include exploring online identities.

This highlighted the disconnect between those who design educational technology products, and the people who use them, and surfaced several key facts:

Lesson #3 Then You Can Start Building

At the time of writing the course is in the final stages, and we’ve asked learners to take a post-course survey in order to find out what has changed for them since Writing for Change launched. We don’t yet know what we’re going to find, but what we do know is that some of the learners are beginning to have an impact on their community through their writing, which is exactly what we had hoped:

“I honestly sat back and struggled with what could be considered an artifact for a non-profit barbershop. So I walked into the space that I used for this project and I saw it and it hit me like a ton of bricks….I thought it be a good idea to showcase some of the haircuts and the different styles me and my partner at the time did. The artifact part would actually not be the pictures of the haircuts but the smiles of the faces on the kids who received these cuts. Creating a space not only where positive conversation can happen but also a place where a community could be built. Instilling with this young men the importance of community and the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would do just that.” - Jose Rodriguez, participant.


We have emerged from Writing for Change having learnt more than we ever thought we would. These are our biggest takeaways, and we’ll be putting them into practice soon:

Unlearning - it’s not enough to expect learners to know how to work openly. A lot of work needs to be done to unlearn the one-way-to-do-things-right model which many learners take with them from school into the online learning space. This binary model is reinforced by many of the ubiquitous online learning tools, which are exclusionary, and keep people out. Helping learners leave that behind is a critical first step. At the same time, any replacement tools and platforms need to be able to both keep unhelpful people out, and be open enough to keep awesome people in.

“Open” is difficult to explain - Terminology can make things harder sometimes. “Open” is one of those terms, and for learners who have come out of the binary model, the idea of openness can be tricky. It’s important to think about when some terminology is useful, and when it might be better to frame things differently.

Online second to the offline - For non-traditional learners, the community is essential. Not just for learning, but also for daily life. The challenges in designing learning experiments is to find ways to replicate the value of communities in the online space, and make sure that offline communities can transition online with ease.

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