Commons-Based Peer-Production: A New Way of Learning


The Internet and with it the rise of social networks have enabled a radically innovative way of producing knowledge-related goods. Software can now be jointly written by thousands of developers as the operating system ‘Linux’ shows. The encyclopedia Wikipedia is updated by roughly 1.7 million contributors worldwide. Law professor Yochai Benkler has coined the term “commons-based peer-production” to describe this development. He has defined some of the characteristics intrinsic to this phenomenon.


Commons-based peer-production is “radically decentralized, collaborative and nonproprietary, based on sharing resources and outputs among widely distributed, loosely connected individuals who cooperate with each other without relying on either marked signals or managerial commands”, he wrote in his 2006 book “The Wealth of Networks” (Benkler 2006:60).


A Wikipedia article is an organic text produced by hundreds of ‘peers’. This free text is not controlled by one formal editor-in-chief, but is, instead, a unifying construct. The document might be conceptualized by a student in Germany, revised by a farmer in Bolivia, and fine-tuned by a professor in South Africa. The article is ruled by a commons-based license. This means that the end product of this co-production is, in turn, available to readers and additional editors through an open license, ensuring that all future versions can be shared, traced back to the author and further improved.


Learning is, in fact, the core of commons-based peer-production (Schmidt 2009) and is most participants’ primary motivator (Ghosh et al. 2002: 45).


How Learning Propels Commons-Based Peer-Production


  1. More freedom to know: Open collaboration drives large-scale learning: commons-based peer-production widens the dissemination of existing codified knowledge. It also opens up the production and innovation process itself – enhancing the freedom to learn and to know (Schmidt 2009; Wikimedia Deutschland e.V. 2011).
  2. More appropriation of tacit knowledge: Open peer-production is “learning by doing and making” in an enhanced version: It furnishes a rare and valuable appropriation of implicit, tacit knowledge of the unspoken practices and norms of established practitioners in a given profession. Thereby it enables “learning to be a full participant in the field” (Brown/Adler 2008).
  3. More self-sustainability of learning systems: The open source sharing of resources and the co-creation of outputs contributes to a self-sustainable peer-production system [More information on mechanisms to sustain a “knowledge commons” over time in Dulong de Rosnay / Le Crosnier 2012 or Benkler 2006 p. 91- 132]. In this system, new learners drive innovative production of commons goods and thereby stabilize the learning system. Future learners are guaranteed standardized open (and low cost) access to the learning process and outputs produced, as the “knowledge commons” cannot be privatized or otherwise misappropriated.
  4. More motivation to learn: The joy of contributing to a ‘public or commons good’enhances the intrinsic motivations of learners, a core ingredient of education (see also Table 1).


But what are specific examples of commonsbased peer-to-peer learning? Let us look at Agnes, a 13-year-old from Norway, Zuizui, a 17-year-old student from Vietnam, and Nadjetey, a Ghanaian computer-science graduate. All three are jointly learning how to build a website at the “School of Webcraft”, offered by the peer-to-peer university (P2PU). P2PU is arguably the most radical peer-to-peer experiment to date. It is strictly peer oriented, with no formal instructor heading the courses. They seem to live by their motto: “We are all teachers and learners”. At the “School of Webcraft”, no one is paid to tutor Agnes, Zuizui, and Nadjetey. They support one another through the various trials and “challenges”. With over 3,000 participants in the School of Webcraft alone (as of June 2013), there is always someone who can help. Nadjetey is one of over 50 participants who act as tutors, or “peers who have offered their help”. This university does away with the traditional hierarchy between professor and students, but instead puts emphasis on “open exploration and transparency”, according to education writer Audrey Watters:


"(The Point is to) Put out ideas that are half baked ... (and) build them through a network of people."


This example shows that self-guided peer-to-peer learning processes are working on a global scale. They are the result of a radical paradigm shift that requires new pedagogical methods, the availability of technologies and concepts that are free enough to allow commons-based peer production. But why does Nadjetey from Ghana want to help Agnes from Norway build a website? Research suggests that there is a whole set of motivations that makes people share their knowledge, a mixture between altruistic and self-serving motives summed up in the following table:


14 Reasons Why Peers Help Peers to Learn: Why Do They Share Their Knowledge? (Table 1)


  1. Because you learn yourself through co-production and tutoring
  2. Because you win recognition and prestige from your peers
  3. Because you might further your own interests through the co-production of knowledge, such as testing new solutions, benchmarking, mastering a technology, etc.
  4. Because you can solve a problem that you can only solve by collaborating with others
  5. Because you might gain power of persuasion within your organisation, network, or peer group
  6. Because you are proud to co-own a tangible “product”
  7. Because you have the freedom to co-create knowledge or goods, which increases autonomy and self-direction, and thereby motivation
  8. Because you build emotional bonds with people and things
  9. Because you feel “meaningful” by supporting the community, giving back through reciprocity (putting values such as fairness, solidarity, and altruism into practice)
  10. Because you know that the result of your commons-based peer activities will be available to others over time, and cannot be monopolized or privatized
  11. Because you feel good being associated with a trendy and innovative community
  12. Because you get continued access to knowledge, news and services
  13. Because you enlarge your personal and professional networks
  14. Because you can freely choose topics according to your interests

Sources for table above: GTZ 2006: 43; Wenger et al. 2011; Preece/Shneiderman 2009; Wikimedia Deutschland e.V. 2011: 125ff; Ghosh et al. 2002: 43-50; own considerations; Pyne 2010 [3. Pyne, Becca; Stephenson, Abi; Cognitive Media (2010) “The surprising truth about what motivates us” (2010, April 1), RSA Animate – Drive, Retrieved June 27, 2013]



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