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Patterns for peeragogy

Here is our index of the main patterns (and later on below, the anti-patterns) that we've found in the Peeragogy Project, thus far. I will be rewriting them to match the following template.

Title: Encapsulate the idea - possibly include a subtitle

The Definition: Explain the idea and the context in which it is meaningful.

(You can link to other patterns, if they are useful for clarifying the relevant context.)

The Problem: Explain why there’s some issue to address here.

The Solution: Talk about an idea about how to address the issue.

Challenges Arising in Practice: Talk about what can go wrong.

What’s Next: Talk about specific next steps.

(Again, link to other patterns, if they are useful for clarifying the relevant context.)

Patterns can also include these optional elements:

[Objectives: Explain the purpose(s) of the proposed solution’s functioning, if they aren't fully specified by the description of the solution itself.]

[Examples: Present example(s) that have been encountered, if this aids comprehension.]

[References: Citations, if relevant.]

Wrapper - Consolidate and summarize.

The Definition: The wrapper role can be taken on by a project participant who summarizes everything going on in the project, making the project comprehensible to participants who haven't been following all of the details.

The Problem: Joining the project that is already going can feel like trying to get aboard a rapidly moving vehicle. If you've joined and then taken time off, you may feel like things have moved on so far that it's impossible to catch up. In a very active project, it can be effectively impossible to stay up to date with all of the details.

The Solution: Charlie Danoff suggested that someone take on the "wrapper role" – do a weekly pre/post wrap, so that new (and existing) users would know the status the project is at any given point in time. The project's landing page also serves as another sort of "wrapper", telling people what they can expect to find.

Objectives: In fulfilling the wrapper role, we must check the public summaries of the project from time to time to make sure that they accurately represent the facts on the ground.

Examples: In the first year of the Peeragogy project, the "Weekly Roundup" by Christopher Tillman Neal served to engage and re-engage members. Peeragogues began to eager watched for the weekly reports to see if our teams or our names had been mentioned. When there was a holiday or break, Chris would announce the hiatus, to keep the flow going. In the second year of the project, we didn't routinely publish summaries of progress, and instead, we've assumed that interested parties will stay tuned on Google+. Nevertheless, we maintain internal and external summaries, ranging from agendas to press releases to quick-start guides. Regular meetings provide an alternative way to stay up to date: see the Heartbeat pattern.

Challenges Arising in Practice: According to the theory proposed by Yochai Benkler, for free/open "commons-based" projects to work, it is vital to have both (1) the ability to contribute small pieces; (2) something that stitches those pieces together [1]. The wrapper performs this intergrative function, which is often much more challenging than the job of breaking things down into pieces or just doing one of the small pieces.

What’s Next: We're maintaining a Landing Page for the Peeragogy Accelerator, but people have said that they find the "backstage" information about the Accelerator confusing. We need practices of wrapping things up at various levels.


  1. Benkler, Y. (2002). Coase's Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm, Yale Law Journal 112, pp. 369-446.

Discerning a pattern - Found a pattern? Give it a title and record an example (woah, meta!).

The Definition: Discerning patterns helps us build our vocabulary or repertoire for peer-learning projects. (The classic example of an architectural pattern is “A place to wait” -- a type of space found in many architectural and urban design projects.)

The Problem: We might notice an underlying pattern if something repeats, and if we're paying attention. However, unless we make a record of the patterns we notice, others cannot will not learn from our experience, and with time, we'll forget what we learned.

The Solution: Writing down patterns achieves at least two things: it helps us pay attention and notice patterns in the first place, and it provides a concrete summary of collective experience that is relatively easy for others to engage with and extend. Once a pattern is detected, give it a title and write down how the pattern works.

Challenges Arising in Practice: People may not be in the habit of writing down patterns that they observe, and they are not likely to do it if the task is not made easy and painless. Some projects that use the design pattern methodology have developed detailed templates to gather information, but this then needs to be processed by experts. We've tried to use a simple template that is not much different from what you'd find in any short textual abstract, to help make it easy to contribute new patterns. Understanding how a given pattern relates to other patterns already listed in in the catalog -- or to the wider context -- is not something that can be easily encapsulated with templates. But it is still well worth trying to express.

What’s Next: What do the patterns we've observed say about the self-selection processes of the group? For instance, it's possible that a widespread interest in organic gardening, say, may indicate the participants are oriented to cooperation, personal health, or environmental activism. What can we learn about the Peeragogy project from our collected patterns?

Polling for ideas - Invite brainstorming, collecting ideas, questions, and solutions.

The Definition: Polling for Ideas can happen at many junctures in a peer learning experience. We could poll for ideas like "what's missing?", "who might like to join our group?", and "what are the right tools and resources for us to use at this point?"

The Problem: We recognize that we don't always know the answers in advance -- particularly if we're trying to come up with an answer that satisfies other people.

The Solution: Others might have an important or useful idea. Even if all you can supply is the question and a context for discussion, they may be willing to contribute these answers.

Example: Near the start of the project, Howard suggested that we use the forum categories he set up, but opened the floor to other ideas, in this way: “At the beginning, until we all know the ropes well enough to understand when to create a new discussion forum topic and when to add to an existing one, let's talk in this topic thread about what else we want to discuss and I will start new topic threads when necessary.”

Challenges Arising in Practice: In the Peeragogy in Action Google+ community, and in our earlier Social Media Classroom forum, both of which have been open to any suggestion at all, we've many different ideas appear and then roll by without being catalogued. When you have too much data, it can be necessary to take separate steps to organize it. At the other end of the spectrum, people don't always respond to surveys, and you can end up with less data than you'd like.

What’s Next: We've considered asking new members of the project to do an “entry survey” as part of joining the project, to describe their aims and understanding of what they hope to contribute. This could establish a context of contribution, and help new members to feel like full “peers”.

Creating a guide - Expose the lay of the land.

The Definition: Meaning-carrying tools, like handbooks or maps, can help people use an idea, collecting content and stories.

The Problem: When the idea or system is only “newly discovered”, the associated meanings may not be well understood, and indeed they may not have been created. Even if a topic is only “personally new”, it can be hard to find ones way around.

The Solution: In such a case, the process of creating the guide can go hand-in-hand with figuring out how the system works. Thus, techniques of knowledge cartography and meaning making are useful for would-be guide creators.

Example: We started the Peeragogy project by collaboratively making an outline for the Peeragogy Handbook. We recommended this handbook-making practice to others, as a way to learn collaboratively and build a strong group.

Challenges Arising in Practice: Remember that “the map is not the territory,” and map-making is only one facet of shared human activity. For instance, a pattern description can be thought of as a “micro-map” of a specific activity. These maps are not useful if they are divorced from practice.

What’s Next: We've been talking with collaborators in the Commons Abundance Network about how to make a Pattern Language for the Commons. One of the challenges that arises is how to support ongoing development of the Pattern Language itself: a “living” map for a living territory. We're refining the Peeragogy Pattern language and template as a seed for this.

Newcomer - Create a guide for "beginner's mind" and help avoid need to introduce new members each “meeting.”

The Definition: Unless there is a new person to talk to, a lot of the "education stuff" we do could grow pretty stale. Many of the patterns and use cases for peeragogy assume that there will be an audience or a new generation of learners.

The Problem: Some of the problems are well summed up with a quote:
Régis Barondeau: I joined this handbook project late, making me a "newcomer". When I started to catch up, I rapidly faced doubts: Where do I start? How can I help? How will I make it, having to read more than 700 posts to catch up? What tools are we using ? How do I use them? Etc. Although this project is amazingly interesting, catching the train while it already reached high speed can be an extreme sport. By taking care of newcomers, we might avoid loosing valuable contribuors because they don't know how and where to start, and keep our own project on track.
The Solution: It is good to try to become aware of what a newcomer needs, and what their motivations are. Another quote can illustrate:
Charlotte Pierce: Joe was working a lot on the book, and I thought "this is interesting hard work, and he shouldn't have to do this alone." As a Peeragogy newcomer, I was kindly welcomed and mentored by Joe, Howard, Fabrizio, and others. I asked naive questions and was met with patient answers, guiding questions, and resource links. Concurrently, I bootstrapped myself into a position to contribute to the workflow by editing the live manuscript for consistency, style, and continuity.

Challenges Arising in Practice: Newcomers in the Peeragogy project have often complained about feeling confused, suggesting that our project roadmap may not be sufficiently clear, and that more work has to be done the project accessible. Even in the absence of actual newcomers, we need to try and look at things with a "beginner's mind.

What’s Next: We recently revised the “How to Get Involved” page, listing the top ten sites we use. Another reasonable thing to post would be a top-ten list of activities, so that people can get an easier view on the kinds of things we do in the project.

Roadmap - Dynamic plans for future work, direction towards a goal.

The Definition: It is very useful to have an up-to-date public roadmap for the project, a place where it can be discussed and maintained. The Roadmap exists as an artifact with which to share current, but never complete, understanding of the space.

The Problem: Without a roadmap, there will not be a shared sense of the project's goals or working methods. It will be much harder for people to volunteer to help out, or to assess the project's progress.

The Solution: Keeping a list of current and upcoming activities, as well as goals and working methods can help newcomers and old-timers alike see where they can jump in. As we cross things off the list, this gives a sense of the accomplishments to date, and any major challenges that lie ahead.


  • In the Peeragogy project, once the handbook's outline became fairly mature, we could use it as a roadmap, by marking the sections that are "finished", marking the sections where editing is currently taking place, and marking the stubs (possible starting points for future contributors). After this outline matured into a real table of contents, we started to look in other directions for things to work on, and created a roadmap for further development of the website and peeragogy project as a whole.
  • There can be a certain roadmappiness to "presentation of self", and you can learn to use this well. For instance, when introducing yourself and your work to other people, you can focus on highlights like these:
    • "What is the message behind what you're doing?"
    • "How do you provide a model others can follow or improve upon?"
    • "How can others get directly involved with your project?"

Challenges Arising in Practice: Unless the roadmap is easy for people to see and to update, they are not likely to use it. In the Peeragogy Accelerator phase of the project, we've included a roadmap in the “behind the scenes” version of our landing page, we're using it as a way to link to other documents we're working on. Accordingly, people participating in the accelerator frequently encounter the roadmap as a “first level” object. All of this said, sometimes it's impossible to know in advance what will happen! A roadmap that's not quite right will feel burdening. Sometimes it's better to become more open to the unknown.

What’s Next: Our roadmap document, which currently includes many sub-sections, needs refining and re-outlining. We're hoping that our work in the Accelerator will inform the 3rd edition of the Peeragogy Handbook, so it's useful to think about the roadmap as a table of contents for the book. However, since we are not just interested in writing activities, the current roadmap will develop in different ways than the first one did. A shared roadmap is very similar to a Personal Learning Plan, or "paragogical profile". We made some examples of these as we worked on the Free Technology Guild, but more work would have to be done before we have a rich ecosystem of peer learning profiles that people can use to develop a peer learning plan.

Roles - Specialize and mix it up.

The Definition: Educational interactions tend to have a number of different roles associated with them. Everything could bifurcate from the "autodidact", as in, (1) Autodidact, (2) Tutor-Tutee, (3) Tutor-Tutee-Peer, etc., until we have bursars, librarians, technicians, janitors, editors of peer reviewed research journals, government policy makers, spin-off industrial ventures and partnerships, and so on.

The Problem: Even the autodidact may assume different roles at different points in time - sometimes building a library, sometimes constructing a model, sometimes checking a proof. The decomposition of "learning" into different phases or polarities could be an endless theoretical task. The simpler problem is to be aware of the roles that you and your teammates have in the projects you're working on.

The Solution: We've described some exercises on “metacognition” that you can apply when thinking about the roles that you're taking on and those that you'd like to take on in your project.

Challenges Arising in Practice: Roles are often present "by default" at the start of a learning process, and that they may change as the process develops. Both of these features can be challenging, but they also present learning opportunities.

What’s Next: We've listed some of the roles for which we're seeking volunteers in the Roadmap: Volunteer Coordinator, Seminar Coordinator, Usability Guru, Activities Master, and Tech lead. As with everything else in the roadmap, this list should be reviewed and revised regularly, as the roles are understood relative to the actual happenings in the Peeragogy project.

A Specific Project - Lightbulb moment: Most projects involve learning!

The Definition: Being concrete about what you'd like to do, learn, and achieve, takes you from thinking about a topic to becoming a practitioner.

The Problem: It's easy to think about issues that matter: there are many of them. The problem is figuring out what you're going to do about it.

The Solution: Specificity is relatively important in order for things to happen. Values -- and even metrics -- tend to be less concretely meaningful than acts. At the same time, while actions speak louder than words, it's important to act in a coherent way if you want to be understood by others.

Example: In the January, 2013, plenary session, Independent Publishers of New England (IPNE) President Tordis Isselhardt quietly listened to a presentation about how we created the Peeragogy Handbook. During the Q&A, he spoke up, wondering if peer-learning effort in IPNE might be more likely to succeed if the organization’s members "focused around a specific project." As this lightbulb illuminated the room, those of us attending the plenary session suggested that IPNE could focus the project by creating an “Independent Publishing Handbook.” (Applause!) In the course of creating the IPNE Handbook, peer learners would assemble resource repositories, exchange expertise, and collaboratively edit documents. To provide motivation and incentive to participate in "PeerPubU", members of the association will earn authorship credit for contributing articles, editor credit for working on the manuscript, and can spin off their own chapters as stand-alone, profit-making publications.

Challenges Arising in Practice: As often happens, you may realize that your specific goal is great, as a goal, but too large to tackle directly. It this case, you may have to find a smaller piece of the project to focus on. There will, eventually, be the problem of putting together the little pieces in a coherent way.

What’s Next: In the third year of the Peeragogy project, rather than just keep working on the handbook, we've been working on building a Peeragogy Accelerator, as a peer support system for projects related to peer learning and peer production. Not only does specificity help member projects, being clear about what the Accelerator itself is supposed to do will help people get involved.

Carrying capacity - Know your limits.

The Definition: There's only so much any one person can do in a project.

The Problem: At times, a facilitator or participant in the peer-learning enterprise may feel he or she is over-contributing -- or, perhaps more likely, that others are under-contributing -- or that someone else is railroading an idea or dominating the discussion.

The Solution: If this happens, take a step back and observe the dynamics of involvement. Ask questions and let others answer. Especially if you start to feel the symptoms of burnout, it's important that you find the level of engagement that allows you to participate at a level that is feasible for maintaining progress toward the project's goal. Lead by example -- but make sure it's someplace you, and others, actually want to go! This could be a good time to revisit the group’s roadmap and see if you can figure out and clarify to others what concrete goal you're working towards. Remember that you can also change the "landscape" by making it easier for other people to get involved -- for example, by explaining what you're trying to do in a clear manner. Be on the look out for opportunities to step back, watch, and listen. Try to be mindful of phases when active or quiet involvement would be more helpful to the individual and the group. It's also helpful to let anyone who has taken on a facilitation role know if you're stepping back temporarily. Then, when the time is right, step back in and get to work!

Challenges Arising in Practice: Even though your project may be very important, you won't always make it go better by working harder.

Alvin Toffler: If overstimulation at the sensory level increases the distortion with which we perceive reality, cognitive overstimulation interferes with our ability to 'think.'

If you notice yourself caring about the outcomes more than other participants, investigate why this is. Are you all affected by the outcomes in the same way? Working smart requires you to focus on your goals, while relating to others who may have a different outlook, with different, but still compatible goals.

What’s Next: This pattern catalog has been rewritten in a way that should make it easy for anyone to add new patterns. Making it easy and fruitful for others to get involved is one of the best ways to redistribute the load (compare the Newcomer pattern).

Heartbeat - The "heartbeat" of the group keeps energy flowing.

The Definition: The project's heartbeat is a recurring activity, something that makes it so that people experience a “there, there.”

The Problem: Without someone or something acting as the heartbeat for the group, energy may dissipate.

The Solution: People seem to gravitate to regularly scheduled activities. Sometimes people need a little extra prompt to join in.

Examples: In the "Collaborative Lesson Planning" course led by Charlie Danoff at P2PU, Charlie wrote individual emails to people who were signed up for the course and who had disappeared, or lurked but didn't participate. This kept a healthy number of the people in the group to reengage and make positive contributions. In more recent months, Charlotte Pierce has been running weekly meetings by Google Hangout to coordinate work on the Peeragogy Handbook. Not only have we gotten a lot of hands-on editorial work done this way, we've generated a tremendous amount of new material (both text and video footage) that is likely to find its way into future versions of the book.

Challenges Arising in Practice: Meetings that happen for the sake of having a meeting are almost a bad joke. Be aware of the energy that's there before and after meetings. If the energy isn't sustaining you or your group, think about what needs to change.

What’s Next: When the project is bigger than more than just a few people, it's likely you'll get several heartbeats -- for instance, we've recently been running two weekly meetings in the Peeragogy project, for members with slightly different interests and slightly different availability. Finding ways to communicate across these different “camps” is useful.

Moderation - moderator serves as champion and editor.

The Definition: Moderation seems to have a double meaning: there's moderation as in moderation in all things and moderation as in keeping a discussion going smoothly. Actually, both of them are about the same thing.

The Problem: Participation in online forums tends to follow a "power law," with vastly unequal engagement.

The Solution: If you want to counteract this tendency, one possibility would simply be for the most active participants to step back, and moderate how much they speak. This is related the the Carrying Capacity pattern and the Misunderstanding Power anti-pattern: check those out before you proceed.

Examples: Occupy Wall Street used a technique that they called the “progressive stack.” There are lots of other strategies to try.

The Co-Intelligence Institute: Why is a fishbowl more productive than debate? The small group conversations in the fishbowl tend to de-personalize the issue and reduce the stress level, making people's statements more cogent. Since people are talking with their fellow partisans, they get less caught up in wasteful adversarial games.

Challenges Arising in Practice: In a distributed project, there are many side-conversations, and it is impossible (and would be undesirable) for any one person to moderate all of them. The difficulty occurs if one of these conversations becomes uncomfortable for one or more participants, for whatever reason. Rather than depending on one central moderator, it's useful for everyone in the project to be aware of the principles underlying effective moderation, and apply them together even in small side-projects.

What’s Next: We recently ran a Paragogical Action Review to elicit feedback from participants in the Peeragogy project. Some of them brought up dissatisfactions, and some of them brought up confusion. Can we find ways to bring these concerns front-and-center, without embarassing the people who brought them up?

Use or make? - Repurposing, tinkering, or creating from scratch?

The Definition: Peer production, as the name indicates, is about "making stuff." And making stuff can be fun and worthwhile. But we should also ask ourselves, how much new stuff do we really need? Is there something around that we could already use? There's not a hard and fast answer to this question.

The Problem: Usually we end up working at both levels -- for example, writing something new using an existing wiki, or creating a piece of software that builds on someone else's API. Sometimes we have to dig deeper, and recreate a system in a more bottom-up fashion. The main issue at stake is to try to become clear about where you do and do not need to start from scratch (and also, be aware of the fact that we almost never really start from scratch).

The Solution: A lot of "learning" is really "remix" -- that is, re-use and recycling of other people's ideas and techniques. Understanding and negotiating the tension between reuse and creativity is the key to the art of remix!

Challenges Arising in Practice: We've had interseting conversations recently about the role of open source software in peeragogy. Most project participants agree that the open source ideals are more important than strictly using open source software for everything. Some feel that it would be best if we create an open source alternative for any proprietary systems we use. The debate has been an interesting and largely fruitful one: it's mentioned here to point out that there's usually no one right answer to “reuse” questions.

What’s Next: “Platform” debates can be frustrating but can also add something to a project in the long term, since they help people become aware of their priorities. As mentioned in the Newcomer pattern, developing a more clear picture of the activities that we engage in in the project will help make it comprehensible to others. It will also be useful for us to have a clearer picture of what we do, and what we make.

"Praxis, a noble activity, is always one of use, as distinct from poesis which designates fabrication. Only the former, which plays and acts, but does not produce, is noble." [1] (p. 101)


  1. Baudrillard, J. (1975). The mirror of production. Telos Press

Frontend and Backend - preserve complexity, while keeping it out of the way

The Definition: In order to design a collaborative system, you want to bring in enough messiness to let new and unexpected features emerge, and you want to facilitate meaningful engagement at every level -- but you also need to be aware of the user's experience, including requirements related to simplicity. As an analogy, imagine a butcher shop. There are reasons for leaving the butchery work to the pros. There's a similar phenomenon, even with open source systems. The part of the system users experience is often connected to a “backend” that they don't interact with, at least not as much. The process of working with a system's frontend is often relatively formal (following specific straightforward rules) whereas the process of working with the backend may be very informal.

The Problem: The idea of Frontend and Backend is related to the “Newcomer” pattern: typically one will not expect the user of a system to know how to, or to be motivated to, work with any of the backend features of a system until they have mastered at many of the frontend features. “Users” tend to expect a level of service provision. New users often require some hand-holding.

The Solution: As with the example of a butcher shop, the pattern of frontend and backend lends itself to standard service provision and transactional models of exchange. However, it can also be part of more peer-driven activity. For example, sophisticated and committed users of a community website can focus energy on supporting individual newcomers, by helping them develop a high-quality sub-site on their topic of interest. This helps newcomers stay within their comfort zone: having supportive human involvement as part of their frontend experience makes things go more smoothly. At the same time, through a process of reflection on the part of the oldtimers, this effort can simultaneously inform the development of backend features. In addition, the new content can help to raise the profile of the site as a whole. The pattern is in this way associated with Focusing on a Specific Project (in this case, following the interests of the newcomers) and with the Roles pattern, since it requires a committed and knowledgeable mentor who can translate between the user experience in the frontend and the system features in the backend.

Example: David Cavallo wrote about an "engine culture" in rural Thailand, in which structurally open systems made some of the "backend" features of internal combustion engines a part of daily life. Cavallo felt that people who were familiar with tinkering with engines tended to be able to learn how to tinker with software, suggesting that there are some common underlying informal reasoning skills.

Challenges Arising in Practice: Mentoring newcomers while also working on system features to support them better constitutes a major commitment. If this work can be spread out among several volunteers -- or possibly paid staff -- this could have some advantages. On the other hand, depending on the nature of the process, providing a single point of contact for the user may still be the most straightforward.

What’s Next: At PlanetMath, we have an "open engine", but not necessarily an “open engine culture”. In addition to directly running the pattern described here by focusing on individual users, we want to build pathways for more user involvement in working with the software system. This may involve its own significant outreach and teaching efforts.

Spanning Set - follow the paths in the grass to get where you're going

The Definition: With a well-constructed information access system, you may be able to get what you need without digging. If you do need to dig, it is very good to get some indication about which direction to dig in. At the level of content, this may be achieved by using high-level "topic articles" as narrative map to the content. In general, the Spanning Set may include people as well as less dynamic media objects. In a standard course model, there is one central node, the teacher, who is responsible for all teaching and course communication. In large courses, this model is sometimes scaled up:

Anonymous study participant: [E]veryone's allocated a course tutor, who might take on just a half-dozen students - so, they're not the overall person in charge of the course, by any means.

In general, a spanning set is comprised of a set of fundamental actions and fundamental relationships between resources.

The Problem: People need to know what can be done with a given resource, and this isn't always obvious. Relying on a single knowledgeable guru figure isn't always possible.

The Solution: A spanning set of a system's features, categories, and relations can be comprised of many different kinds of components: for example, a "start menu" or pop-up window showing keyboard shortcuts that shows what can be done with a given tool; a schedule of office hours so that people know how to find help; and topic-level narrative guides to content.

Examples: One social version of a Spanning Set is the classical master/apprentice system, in which every apprentice is supervised by a certified master. In the typical online Q&A context, these roles are made distributed, and are better modeled by power laws than by formal gradations. A "spanning set" of peer tutors could help shift the exponent attached to the power law in massive courses. For instance, we can imagine a given discussion group of 100 persons that is divided according to the so-called 90/9/1 rule, so that 90 lurk, 9 contribute a little, and 1 creates the content. This is what one might observe, for example, in a classroom with a lecture format. We could potentially shift this precentage by breaking the group up into smaller groups, so that each of the 9 contributors leads a discussion section of 10 persons, at which point, chances are decent that at least some of the former lurkers would be converted into contributors.

Challenges Arising in Practice: In practice, principles -- like the paragogy principles or like the rules of tennis -- are not entirely sufficient for understanding what to do or how things work. Principles and features may be visible as part of a system's "frontend" -- but the actual spanning set of relevant behaviors is emergent.

What’s Next: As a project with an encyclopedic component, PlanetMath can be used to span and organize a significantly larger body of existing material. We have come up with a high-level design for a “cross-index” to the mathematics literature. We're working on a prototype for Calculus.

Minimum Viable Project - ask: when does it work?

The Definition: The Minimum Viable Product approach to software development is about putting something out there to see if the customer bites. Another approach, building on the notion of a Spanning Set, is to make it clear what people can do with what's there, and see how they engage. A Minimum Viable Project is something someone can and will engage with.

The Problem: In general, it is an open question to know what will make a given project engaging. We can point to some likely common features, based on the features of viable systems in general -- but typically, the proof is in the pudding, so we need a methodology for trying things out.

The Solution: This “solution” is largely theoretical -- taking a project-oriented view on everything, proposing to understand actions and artifacts as being embedded within projects, modeling projects in terms of informal user experience and formal system features (see Frontend and Backend). Where possible, project updates can be modeled with a language of fundamental actions (see Spanning Set). We make the philosophical claim that projects themselves model their outcomes to some degree of fidelity -- and that they are made viable by features that connect to the motivations and ambitions of potential participants. The practical side of the proposed solution is to build systems that can express all of these aspects of projects, and study what works.

Challenges Arising in Practice: It's not clear if a unified view of this sort will be broadly useful. The features that make a project in one domain viable (e.g. basketball) may have little to do with the features that make another project in another domain viable.

What’s Next: As we mentioned in the Frontend and Backend pattern, one way to strengthen the PlanetMath project as a whole would be to focus on support for individual projects. The front page of the website could be redesigned so that the top-level view of the site is project focused. Thus, instead of collecting all of the posts from across the site - or even all of the threads from across the site - the front page could collect succinct summary information on recently active projects, and list the number of active posts in each, after the model of Slashdot stories or StackExchange questions. For instance, each Mathematics Subject Classification could be designated as a "sub-project", but there could be many other cross-cutting or smaller-scale projects.


  1. Ries, E. (2011). The Lean Startup: How today’s entrepreneurs use continuous innovation to create radically successful businesses. Crown Pub.
  2. Stafford Beer (1981). Brain of the firm: the managerial cybernetics of organization. J. Wiley

Anti-patterns for Peeragogy

Some "anti-patterns&quot. Note that we use the same template to talk about anti-patterns: in this case, the proposed solution might look like a good idea, but it doesn't work well. Pay particular attention to the “Challenges Arising in Practice”.

Isolation - A tale of silos, holes, and not-invented-here.

The Definition: Many projects that are ostensibly oriented towards "the commons" nevertheless want to funnel participants into "their way" of thinking about things. Be careful with that, it's a slippery slope to total isolation.

The Problem: This problem is actually dual: with a too-narrow focus, collaboration is impossible. However, with an overly-wide focus, things are chaotic in other ways.

The Solution:
Félix Guattari: Imagine a fenced field in which there are horses wearing adjustable blinkers, and let’s say that the “coefficient of transversality” will be precisely the adjustment of the blinkers. If the horses are completely blind, a certain kind of traumatic encounter will be produced. As soon as the blinkers are opened, one can imagine that the horses will move about in a more harmonious way. (Quoted by Andrew Murphy, himself quoting Gary Genosko)

Like the underlying problem, the solution is dual: you can avoid isolation by becoming highly transversal -- or avoid noise and chaos by blinkering yourself and shutting out other everything else.

Challenges Arising in Practice: A moderate interpretation of Guattari's quote is that it's good to be open, but not too open. We need to allow for uncertainty, but not be completely vague. (See also: Navel Gazing.)

What’s Next: We recently submitted an abstract called “Escape from Peeragogy Island” to a geography conference talking about the spatiality of peer production. The idea behind this article is that we feel like we've come up with something great with the Peeragogy project, but we're going to be a bit isolated if it's not transparently useful to others. If we can't explain why it's a great idea, then it's not entirely clear how great of an idea it actually is.

Magical thinking - “One meeting will (not) change everything!”

The Definition: While we could imagine an ideal information processing system that would (magically) come with all solutions pre-built, a more realistic approach recognizes that real problem solving always takes time and energy.

The Problem: Given a difficult problem, we usually want to take a shortcut.

The Solution: Magical thinking robs a context of its "process" or "motion". The more completely we fall back on "traditional" modes of doing things (including magical ones) the less we stand to learn. It's also true that traditions and habits can serve a useful function: they can massively simplify and streamline, and adopting some healthy habits can free up time and energy, making learning possible. But if we try something new and imagine that things work the way they always have (e.g. sign up for a course and get told what to do, then do it and pass), we can run into trouble when the situation doesn't match our preconceptions.

Example: Joe Corneli's 2011 DIY Math course at P2PU went quite badly. Students signed up hoping to learn mathematics, but none of them had very concrete goals about what to learn, or very developed knowledge about how to study this subject. This was what the class was supposed to help teach. However, it seemed as if the students felt that signing up for the course would “magically” give them the structure they needed. Still, it's not as if the blame can be placed entirely on the students in this case. Building a learning space with no particular structure and saying, “go forth and self-organize!” is not likely to work, either. The one saving grace of DIY Math is that the course post-mortem informed the development of the paragogy principles: it was not a mistake we would repeat again.

Challenges Arising in Practice: If we already "knew", 100%, how to do peeragogy, then we would not stand to learn very much by writing this handbook. Difficulties and tensions would be resolved "in advance". We know this, but readers may still expect “easy answers”.

What’s Next: Fast-forwarding a few years from the DIY Math experiment: as part of the PlanetMath project, we are hoping to build a well-thought-through example of a peer learning space for mathematics. One of the ideas we're exploring is to use patterns and antipatterns (exactly like the ones in this catalog) as a way not only of designing a learning space, but also of talking about the difficulties that people frequently run into when studying mathematics. Building an initial collection of Calculus Patterns may help give people the guide-posts they need to start effectively self-organizing.


  1. Dias-Ferreira, Eduardo, et al. "Chronic stress causes frontostriatal reorganization and affects decision-making." Science 325.5940 (2009): 621-625.

Messy with Lurkers - What happens when joining is low-cost and completion is low-benefit.

The Definition:

Gigi Johnson:(1) Co-learning is Messy. It needs time, patience, confusion, re-forming, re-norming, re-storming, etc. Things go awry and part of norms needs to be how to realign. (2) Co-learning is a VERY different experience from traditional teacher-led learning in terms of time and completion. It is frustrating, so many people will lurk or just step in and out, the latter of which is very different from what is acceptable in traditonal learning. Online learning programs are painted with the brush now of an "unacceptable" 50% average non-completion rate. Stanford's MOOC AI class, which started out with +100,000 people, had 12% finish. If only 12% or 50% of my traditional class finished, I'd have a hard time getting next quarter's classes approved!

The Problem:

Tomlinson et al.: More authors means more content, but also more words thrown away. Many of the words written by authors were deleted during the ongoing editing process. The sheer mass of deleted words might raise the question of whether authoring a paper in such a massively distributed fashion is efficient.

The Solution: People have to join in order to try, and when joining is low-cost, and completion low-benefit, it is not surprising that many people will "dissipate" as the course progresses. The "messiness" of co-learning is interesting because it points to a sort of “internal dissipation", as contributors bring their multiple different backgrounds, interests, and communication styles to bear.

Challenges Arising in Practice: If we were to describe this situation in the traditional subject/object, sender/receiver terms of information theory, we would say that peer production has a "low signal to noise ratio", and we would tend to think of it as a highly inefficient process. However, it may be more appropriate (and constructive) to think of meanings as co-constructed as the process runs, and of messiness (or meaninglessness) as symptomatic, not of peer production itself, but of deficiencies or infelicities in shared meaning-making and "integrating" features.

What’s Next: What comes out of thinking about the anti-pattern is that we need to be careful about how we think about “virtues” in a peer production setting. It is not just a question of being a “good contributor” to an existing project, but of continually improving the methods that this project uses to make meaning.


  1. Tomlinson, B., Ross, J., André, P., Baumer, E.P.S., Patterson, D.J., Corneli, J., Mahaux, M., Nobarany, S., Lazzari, M., Penzenstadler, B., Torrance, A.W., Callele, D.J., Olson, G.M., Silberman, M.S., Ständer, M., Palamedi, F.R., Salah, A., Morrill, E., Franch, X., Mueller, F., Kaye, J., Black, R.W., Cohn, M.L., Shih, P.C., Brewer, J., Goyal, N., Näkki, P., Huang, J., Baghaei, N., and Saper, C., Massively Distributed Authorship of Academic Papers, Proceedings of Alt.Chi, Austin Texas, May 5–10 2012 (10 page extended abstract), ACM, 2012,
  2. Yochai Benkler, and Helen Nissenbaum (2006). "Commons-based Peer Production and Virtue." Journal of Political Philosophy 14.4 : 394-419.
  3. Paul Kockelman (2010). "Enemies, parasites, and noise: How to take up residence in a system without becoming a term in it" Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 20.2: 406-421

Misunderstanding Power - The workload is almost never evenly distributed.

The Definition:

Wikipedia: Zipf's law states that given some corpus of natural language utterances, the frequency of any word is inversely proportional to its rank in the frequency table. Thus the most frequent word will occur approximately twice as often as the second most frequent word, three times as often as the third most frequent word, etc. [1]

Related formulations, called power laws, model the size of cities, and describe energy use in animals and social network effects. Creativity and other social network effects -- like crime -- are more prevalant in large cities. Power laws also describe the forces governing online participation. But it is easy to forget this.

The Problem: How many times have we been at a conference or workshop and heard someone say (or said ourselves) "wouldn't it be great if this energy could be sustained all year 'round?" Or in a classroom or peer production setting, wondered why it is that everyone does not participate equally. "Wouldn't it be great if we could increase participation?" But participation in a given population will fall off according to some power law (see Introduction to Power Laws in The Uncertainty Principle, Volume II, Issue 3). It would be an illusion to assume that everyone is coming from a similar place with regard to the various literacies and motivations that are conducive to participation.

The Solution: It can be tempting to adopt a "provisionist" attitude, and say: "If we change our system we will equalize participation and access."

Challenges Arising in Practice: Power laws are an inherent epiphenomenon of network flows. If you can adjust the way the way the network is shaped, for example, through moderatation, then you may be able to change the "exponent" in the power law. But even so, "equality" remains a largely abstract notion. Note, also, that participation in a given activity tends to fall off over time. It's easy to imagine writing a hit song or a best selling novel, but hard to pull this off, because it takes sustained effort over time. See the anti-pattern Magical Thinking.

What’s Next: As Paul Graham wrote about programming languages -- programmers are typically "satisfied with whatever language they happen to use, because it dictates the way they think about programs" -- so too are people often "satisfied" with their social environments, because these tend to dictate the way they think and act in life. Nevertheless, if we put our minds to it, we can become more “literate” in the patterns that make up our world and the ways we can effect change.


  1. Zipf's law. (2013). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
  2. Graham, P. (2001). Beating the averages.

Navel Gazing - "I have this really great idea..."

The Definition: The difficulty breaks down like this:

  1. Certainly we cannot get things done just by talking about them.
  2. And yet, feedback can be useful, i.e., if there are mechanisms for responding to it in a useful fashion.
  3. The associated anti-pattern is a special case of the prototypical Bateson double bind, "the father who says to his son: go ahead, criticize me, but strongly hints that all effective criticism will be very unwelcome" [1], p. 88.

The Problem: Criticism is not always useful. Sometimes it is just "noise".

The Solution: It's tempting to create “open” systems that inadvertantly replicate the double bind -- by being open to criticism, but unable to act on it effectively.

Challenges Arising in Practice: A long list of criticisms that haven't been dealt with is maybe better than no communication at all, but it's also a tell-tale sign of deeper dissatisfaction. It's better to make sure you have enough bandwidth (see Carrying Capacity) for dealing with a given class of problems and issues. Adjust your focus accordingly, but be careful (see “Isolation”).

What’s Next: We have hinted that, in this project, effective criticism is very welcome! But understanding what makes criticism effective is, in general, still a research problem.


  1. Deleuze, G., and Guattari, F. (2004). Anti-oedipus. Continuum International Publishing Group.

Stasis - What is the driver behind open source, commons-oriented collaborative projects? (Because, let’s face it, they don’t always work so well.)

The Definition: Actually, living beings are never really in stasis. It just sometimes feels that way. Other anti-patterns like Isolation and Navel Gazing have described different aspects of the experience of feeling like one is in stasis. Typically, what is happening in such a case is that one or more dimensions of life are moving very slowly.

The Problem: When important things are moving slowly or not at all, and when they are mostly or entirely out of your control, this can be frustrating.

The Solution: It's tempting in this case just to be upset and to feel disempowered.

Example: We were not able to get programming support to improve the first version of the Social Media Classroom, since all developer energy was allocated to the next version of the system. It becomes frustrating if a specific small feature is desired, but unavailable.

Challenges Arising in Practice: Of course, it's very unpleasant to be frustrated all the time. The hint to pick up is that there is always some dimension on which you can make progress. It might not be the same one you've been working on -- you might have “over-harvested” that niche (see Carrying Capacity).

What’s Next: We're working on a new handbook chapter about the relationship of open source software and peeragogy. This will include some more specific ideas about ways of making change.

Stuck at the level of weak ties - Can we deepen the connection?

The Definition: Knowing how to make good use of "weak ties" is often seen as a “personal strength”.

Nancy Darling: [S]trong and weak ties tend to serve different functions in our lives. When we need a big favor or social or instrumental support, we ask our friends. We call them when we need to move a washing machine. But if we need information that we don't have, the people to ask are our weak ties. They have more diverse knowledge and more diverse ties than our close friends do. We ask them when we want to know who to hire to install our washing machine. [1]

The question is less to do with whether we are forming weak ties or strong ties. We can be "peers" in either a weak or a strong sense. The question to ask is whether our needs match our expectations!

The Problem: In the peeragogy context, this has to do with how we interact.

One of us: I am learning about peeragogy, but I think I'm failing to be a good peeragogue. I remember that Howard once told us that the most important thing is that you should be responsible not only for your own learning but for your peers' learning. [...] So the question is, are we learning from others by ourselves or are we helping others to learn?

If we are "only" co-consumers of information then this seems like a classic example of a weak tie. We are part of the an "audience".

The Solution: Perhaps especially in an online, mediated, context, it is possible to stay at the level of "weak ties" -- although you will not be able to draw on the benefits that "strong ties" offer. (Cf. Isolation.)

Challenges Arising in Practice: This strategy reveals its problems directly, if you ever need help moving your washing machine.

What’s Next: If we are actively engaging with other people, then this is a foundation for strong ties. In this case of deep learning, our aims are neither instrumental nor informational, but "interactional". Incidentally, the "One of us" quoted above has been one of the most consistently engaged peeragogues over the years of the project. Showing up is a good step -- you can always help someone else move their washing machine! -- as is constructive self-critique.


  1. Nancy Darling (2010). Facebook and the Strength of Weak Ties, Psychology Today.