Peer teaching website
A peer teaching website could be a shared website for peer evaluation and accomplishment that many different applications, courses, and tests could reference.
This page outlines a framework for multiple distinct websites and communities, each organized around some topic. The topic might be a domain of knowledge (math, writing, gardening, etc), or might be geographic or organized around just about anything.
This idea meshes with some of the other ideas of a general role-playing environment for users to build identity, reputation, and skills while telling and experiencing shared stories.
 Individual domains
In this domain there are a series of tasks presented, at increasing levels of difficulty. For instance, a botany website might have tasks like:
- Take (and upload) a picture of a plant around your house
- Take a picture of both a deciduous and coniferous tree, and label each one
- Do the colored water carnation experiment (cut the stem in half, etc)
- Estimate the ratio of trees to people in your neighborhood
Generally the tasks are organized serially, and you go through them one by one. In some cases the task might take some time to complete (e.g., actually grow a plant), so serialized tasks wouldn't be good -- there should be multiple available or optional tasks at some levels.
Each task results in the student reporting something on the website. In some cases it might be the answer to a problem (e.g., on a math-related website, you would give the correct answer). In other cases it might be evidence that you did something (take a picture of the carnation). In still other cases it might be a story about the task -- a log, or just a report. Or even just a claim that you did as the task requested, and the site trusts you not to lie.
The evaluation is always done by another member of the site. This is part of what allows for flexible tasks and flexible goals, because it is always a person doing the evaluation. Even when automated evaluation is possible, the website doesn't do anything to support that. The website *can* provide source material for the child to work from, and that material can be self checking (primarily dependent on the activity). But there is no specific support for this.
As a result, incorrect answers or confused attempts at a task are likely to show up on the site. This is a feature. This gives an opportunity for other children (probably older children) to give feedback and help, and try to correct the problems. Short of claiming to have responded to a task, a variety of these help mechanisms should be allowed -- each task should have a talk or forum page attached. Task-related chat should be encouraged, including possibly chat rooms or simply IM-style chat.
Once a student has completed a task they can see all the other solutions to the task. They have also raised their level on the system. The direct mapping of levels and tasks would be a local policy for the website -- there may be a combination of score received from tasks, tasks that are blockers to completion, and non-task website participation. There is no single score attached to levels (unlike RPGs), but instead each level has its own criteria.
As a child goes up in level on the system they can check tasks below them (perhaps with a buffer to ensure mastery, e.g., a level 6 user can check level 4 problems). At higher levels you can also create new tasks for other users. Peer review may take place for some of these actions, particularly creating new tasks (checking for accuracy alone is important enough to require peer review). At lower levels children can annotate tasks that they've solved to provide links to extra learning material that might be useful, or perhaps hints if they are not too leading.
Not absolutely everything will be based on peer evaluation. For instance, it might be required to get past a certain level that you actively evaluate a certain number of tasks, or provide help on some level. This can be scored in an automated way, though ultimately the aggregated data from that automated scoring should be evaluated and more importantly acknowledged by a real person.
 Advantages to peer evaluation
- Problems can be on any subject, and take any form. This applies to any media, or domains that aren't naturally tied to any media at all.
- Successful completion of a task leads to praise by one's peers; even with the most cursory review there is still someone who is acknowledging your work (and in better examples there will be specific praise).
- The praise is not baseless or diluted, it is directly attached to actual objective success.
- Because the tasks are of increasing difficulty, "success" is still relative and has a low barrier of entry, while also being flexible for advancement at different speeds.
- Checking problems has education value for the person doing the checking. It also serves as a review process for the person doing the evaluation.
- Directly human feedback when problems are wrong is valuable. Checking incorrect problems or evaluating the problems with a task report is particularly education for the checker, and they can provide useful assistance to the child to correct their problems. A person can infer underlying problems that a computer cannot see.
- Evaluation will typically be done by older children, who the younger children naturally look up to. Being looked up to is itself motivating.
 Advantages to leveling
- Improvement is specifically valued. Games often reward doing one thing right, then repeating that indefinitely. In this model there is no direct reward for doing the same thing over and over. If repetition is truly desirable, many similar tasks should be constructed; peer evaluation will also serve as a review process for past tasks.
- The group of higher-level users will form a tighter peer group with each other. Ideally they will take on management activities in the site, and provide conflict resolution.
- The presence of a strong peer group is attractive to outsiders, drawing them into the community.
- Leveling up is just naturally appealing.
- Revealing the tasks gradually is enticing, and avoids presenting an overwhelming amount of material.
- Limited access material produces a sense of "inside". That in turn leads to a sense of place, and a focus for a community to build
- Levels confirm status, and many of the tasks (like evaluation) that open up with higher status put children in a more nurturing role, asking them to use their status in a constructive way.
Community building is often a difficult issue with these kinds of sites. Initially the site will not have many tasks, and the peer and instructor groups will be small. Some deliberate seeding will be required. Adults can most usefully participate at this stage as mentors and creating interesting tasks and accompanying instructional material. Ultimately the core group will have to be passionate about the site to keep it healthy and balanced; this group will possibly be made up of teachers, people who are enthusiastic about the domain, and some people who simply enjoy the instructional process and community. Much of this is similar to what is required for a healthy wiki community.
Scaling the sites up may prove challenging. If there is a steady increase in the numbers of people at each level, this will help balance. If there are sudden influx of people this could overwhelm parts of the system. School schedules may cause these kinds of imbalances.
Unhealthy interactions are likely to occur, and some process needs to be in place to help correct these. The process need not be overly formal, but simply implies a way for problems to be noticed and addressed in a fair way. Some possible disfunctions:
- Creating tasks that are far too difficult, in an effort to deliberately foil other users and appear smart. (I've never seen children *not* do this when creating tasks for each other, but peer review should largely resolve the problem)
- Being mean or negative towards other users, especially younger children (e.g., calling an answer "stupid"). Also likely to happen, but gentle and private responses should resolve most of these, combined with a conscious politeness and positiveness in the community and among its leaders.
- Showing favoritism in evaluation. E.g., if you want to get a friend up to your own level quickly. In many ways this is not that big a deal, but it will sorely offend children's sense of fairness. Maybe best resolved through public discussion.
- Cheating on a task. I don't see this as a terribly big problem, as the results are not particularly important (levels don't actually *mean* anything). Being overly protective here can lead to a situation where gaming the system is seen as entertaining or clever.
- Passing a task, with a later evaluator feeling that the task shouldn't have passed. Even if it is just a difference in opinion, it can put the child who did the task in an awkward or uncomfortable situation. It's best to keep these discussions of concrete evaluation considerations private from the people you are discussing, and best to use them as examples for better later evaluations without actually revisiting the specific decision that was made.
- A child who refuses to be corrected, and responds to corrections or help in a hostile and/or defensive way. I don't know any good resolutions here. Bring in other members of the community that the child may respect more, so that they will be more likely to accept correction? Simply insist that this attitude is not compatible with the purpose of the site?
- While the website is largely an opt-in community, if a teacher decides to use a site as a conscious tool in the classroom then it takes on a lot more importance. Children may be participating reluctantly, or may have external expectations placed on them that puts more pressure on the system.
 Similar Sites
Some similar sites, or sites that inspired some of these thoughts:
- MMORPGs feature obsessive leveling up.
- Sites like deviantart.com have well-developed and constructive communities around content creation.
- MUDs are probably the most directly related system. In that system there is leveling, leveling eventually leads to world creation, peer groups emerge, and explicit guidance and community building is something that the more experienced players participate in (especially in successful worlds).
- MySpace features both a sense of "inside" vs. "outside", and though it doesn't have "levels" it has popularity metrics which people specifically build up.
- Self-regulating peer groups have emerged in places like Wikipedia.
- Older children, off the web, can be very successful at teaching younger children, with positive results for both.
- add yours here
- Slashdot, karma, and moderation.
- Most formal reputation systems are empty feeling and hard to trust.
- How people actually spend their time in MMORPGs.
- Second Life has content creation and peer interaction without leveling. It's not nearly as fun as a result.