Blog Post

Essential Tool Kit for Peer Learning and Peer Teaching

There are at least two important pedagogical motivations for open, peer teaching and learning.

  • First, open learning creates an atmosphere of mutual learning, contribution, and collaboration that not only enhances our engagement in the quality and content of the learning experience but provides a life-skill for future interactions--in the workplace, in everyday life, in the community at large.   
  • Second, open peer teaching and learning takes advantages of the affordances of digital tools available at a given moment, giving participants hands’ on experience in using these tools and also a practical and theoretical lesson in the possibilities, limitations, challenges, and even potential risks of open, public, online communication and interaction.  As such the method of open learning uses a digital toolkit and is constantly reflective, a meditation-in-action about the tools themselves and all the attendant issues the tools give rise to.


Below, are two appendices we've written that we will be adding to our open-source book on open peer-teaching and peer-learning:

Field Notes for 21st Century Literacies

A Guide to New Theories, Methods, and Practices for Open Peer Teaching and Learning  

We will post the book to and create a group on The History and Future of Higher Education for others wanting to contribute.  We'll also publish it on github, on Rap Genius, and as an Amazon book.   Here's a draft, and we're happy for your comments, additions, and feedback:


Appendix 1:   (Mostly) Digital Tool Kit for Open Peer Learning and Peer Teaching 

In our 21st Century Literacies class, offered in Spring 2014 at Duke University, we used an array of tools, some of them open source, some proprietary, almost all of them currently (and we stress “currently”) available to the public for free.  We decided not to invest in an expensive ePortfolio system since we found available tools that worked quite brilliantly for us.  We list them here since the proved useful to us and may well prove so to others.  We hope you will add to the list, and indicate what digital tools best serve your own open peer teaching and learning goals.  We also hope future users will update our list with whatever new comes along in future years.  

  • Wordpress  Our entire class website was built on a Wordpress site supported by our host institution, Duke University, and housed on the Duke server. You can visit our original site here:    We chose a theme, set up the original syllabus and structuring principles for the course on the site, and then gave every class member editing privileges so new tabs, topics, and other affordances could be added over the course of the semester.We also set some settings at “public” so that anyone could learn along with us, and other settings as “private” so that only those registered in the course could see the content. Important: For public blogs, students had the choice of blogging under their own name or under a pseudonym.   For FERPA rules on student privacy on public sites, please see this essential blog post:    

  •   Wordpress is relatively easy to use but not always intuitive. is a great online learning resource and includes many videos about how to build a Wordpress site:

  • Sakai   We did not use Duke’s Sakai site very often but occasionally we did for communication purposes (it has a useful email tool) and for posting those few book chapters that were not available online from legal sources.  Sakai negotiates agreements for “fair use” for limited size groups (we had only eight students in our class).  

  • Books   Are books a “digital tool”?   Good question.  We had four or five books that we all read together and some of us preferred to purchase physical books, others read on Kindles or other devices.   When we read McLuhan, we used a reprint of the original so that we could see the physical layout, the artistry of the text, the artifact itself.  Our most technologically proficient users were also our most dedicated book readers.   Given all the digital parts of book production, it is important to remember and to think about books as a “digital tool” as well.

  • Group  Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory (HASTAC or “haystack”) is an 11,000+ network and user community that charges no dues, supports no advertising, and does not sell its data.  Cathy N. Davidson is one of HASTAC’s cofounders and she is its principal administrator (with a central administering team located at Duke).   Any HASTAC network member can create a group on HASTAC for a class, a topic, internal and external communications, and use all the functionality of the site plus link to its large network membership.   Class members created a number of Groups on the site and we will soon be sponsoring an open Group on “History and Future of Higher Education” in which this text will be hosted as an open, free textbook that others can use and remix.

  • Google Drive, Google Docs Google Docs allow for collaborative, synchronous and asynchronous writing and editing.   This entire book was written on Google Docs.  Lots of them.  We also took real-time notes (editing one another’s typos, adding content one person may have missed, and so forth) during class discussions, some of which became the basis for chapters.   We made some of the Google Docs open for viewing by the public, some open for editing by the public, and some private, just for sharing within our group.

  • Qualtrics  At several points, to get the “temperature read” on the class, we created surveys using a Qualtrics site offered by Duke University.  It was a quick and easy way to see ideas, differences, contributions, opinions, and attitudes.   

  • Skype   We used this online telecommunications tool for real-time face-to-face distance conversations with a number of visitors and, occasionally, with class members who could not be physically present for our meetings.

  • Projector   We had the luxury of being able to project from a  laptop to a larger screen that all could view.  We did this almost every class, including projecting the Google Doc that we would then each edit on our laptops.

  • Laptops   We all came to class with laptops, a luxury that not everyone can afford.   It is important, given the issues of digital divide, digital inclusion, and digital exclusion, to note the cost here.   For collaborative online teaching, laptops proved far more useful than iPads and other tablet devices which are configured to be far better for downloading than uploading and co-creating content.   Also, one member of our group--significantly the finest programmer in the course-- proudly (even lovingly) has the same pc laptop on which he learned to code in high school, and has constantly upgraded it over the years.  We mention that here because it is not necessary to have the shiniest new, expensive computer for open learning and teaching.   What is important is to have the most open system possible.

  • Space  We thought we would have our class meetings in the new PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge but, at the last moment, the building out of that Lab had to be cancelled for financial reasons.  Again, it is important to realize that technology is social--it is not about machines, but about humans wanting to work together.  We held our class in a standard, old-fashioned classroom whose one affordance was a flat-screen projector and a cabinet in which we could lock the remote and other devices for protection and safety.  We could have done what we did without the flat screen, although it certainly enhanced our work together.

  • Time   We had to fight against the university calendar to schedule the class as one three-hour weekly slot.   Institutions are not yet designed for collaborative open learning.   The longer period is necessary for setting up and not wasting time each time in doing so.   Also, because our class was made up of students from Duke, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University, meeting once a week allowed greater convenience for those traveling half an hour or more.

  • Food and Refreshments  Because we met over the dinner hour and because three hours is a long time, we tried to provide refreshments (including wine sometimes, since all class members were over 21) and even a light dinner for each class.   Technology is social.  That also means bodies.    

Appendix 2:  Useful Documents for Open Peer Teaching and Learning

Several different kinds of documents proved useful in helping to shape our collaboration and this experiment in open peer teaching and learning.  We offer these here as samples for you to remix for your own purposes.

  • Grading Contract   We ended up not using a formal contract in 21st Century Literacies, partly because it was clear from the outset the high degree of commitment each member had to the co-creation of a meaningful, important, exploratory learning experience. However, we studied a formal grading contract that Cathy Davidson used in the same semester (Spring 2013) with her undergraduate class co-taught with behavioral economist Dan Ariely, “Surprise Endings:  Social Science and Literature”:    In this course, every student signed a contract agreeing to completely successfully and on time a certain amount of work for the class.  If a student had a busy term and wanted to do less work, he or she could contract for a C, for example, and not do two or three of the required assignments.   However, if a student failed to abide by the terms of the contract (signed and co-signed by another student and by the professor), there was not just a lower grade but a penalty, lowering the grade a full level or, if the student failed in a collaborative project, two levels. The peer-grading component came in to play over what constituted “satisfactory” completion of the week’s work.  Since all the work was assigned by teams of students who created the weekly lessons for the class (setting the readings and video viewings, the writing or experimental assignments and so forth), those students were also responsible for determining if their classmates had successfully met their contract for the week and had to fill out a sheet indicating “yes” or “no” for contract compliance.  This method--How to Crowdsource Grading--has been described here (to much controversy!), “How to Crowdsource Grading”:     Here's the link to a sample grading contract:

  • Peer Evaluation Surveys  At several points in the semester, we brought in websites that we were developing for the class and for each participant’s own individual work.  We were motivated by a framing comment by architect and learning designer Ann Pendleton-Julian who visited our class:  ““Design has the capacity to shape contexts as frames for things to happen.”  You can read more about her visit here:    In order to help us “frame” our evaluation of one another’s digital work, to see if it truly was a “frame” that enabled “things to happen,” we used a peer evaluation forms that we then discussed as a group and passed on to the developer, in the form of an “art crit” session. 

  • Digital Badges   If you ask students what they hate most in a class they will often say “group work.”  No wonder!  Corporations spend billions of dollars in helping their employees learn how to “play well together” but teachers often throw three or four students into a group and expect them to just somehow know how to produce significant intellectual content to which everyone contributes equally (as if that happens naturally in every academic department!).   Collaboration is difficult.  One system that open source programmers came up with to reward those who contribute generously and consistently and wisely to a collaboration (often anonymous when coding over the Web) is by offering digital badges.  In 2012-2013, the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition sponsored several research and development competitions on peer badging and how they could be used for learning.  To learn more about digital badges, you can visit this annotated bibliography of nearly 200 sources on badges prepared by Sheryl Grant and Kristan Swago of the HASTAC team:   

In Cathy Davidson’s undergraduate Surprise Endings courses, students awarded one another badges. Each member of a peer learning team was asked to award a badge (only one) to any member of the peer team who had contributed significantly in an area.   Approximately twelve areas were defined.   The members then came together and looked at who had been awarded badges to whom.   In some cases, the results were remarkably balanced and it was clear each member was contributing according to the jobs and tasks they had been assigned by the group(they also wrote out task descriptions for each team member, with one assistant peer leader to help for each task).   Badges were also awarded for leadership, implementation, creativity, and other characterological and management practices essential to good collaboration.  The team of four assistant instructors (TAs who were also learning how to engage in peer teaching) worked with each team to help evaluate the badge systems and use that as a useful rubric to readjust collaborative practices where needed.


Here's the link for the peer-badging form:




No comments