Everyone knows about the Napster peer-to-peer computing phenomenon, but what's it got to do with online learning?
Anyone who lives outside of a cave has heard of Napster, the Redwood City, Calif.-based company that brought down the wrath of the recording industry because of its file-sharing capabilities. Napster, which allowed 30 million users to swap digital music files (MP3s) for free, was scheduled to be shut down by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) until it signed an agreement to charge for its files.
What's less familiar to many people is the fact that the Napster craze goes beyond adolescents trading Backstreet Boys MP3s , it's part of a larger movement called peer-to-peer computing. And like any other sweeping consumer trend, it's starting to catch the eye of the business world.
The idea behind peer-to-peer computing is pretty simple. Computers today are much more powerful than they were when local area networks (LANs) were designed. For years, out of necessity, the LAN has connected individual computers to a central server. In the peer-to-peer model, individual computers bypass the central server to connect and collaborate directly with each other. (See "How it works," p. 52.) And if they're capable of doing it, why not let them?
Judy Brown, emerging technology analyst for the University of Wisconsin system, says anyone interested in online learning should take a good, hard look at peer-to-peer computing. "The train's already going down the track," she says. "You'd better get on."
Connecting the dots
So you've got a bunch of computers connected to each other, rather than through a network. Your next question is probably "Who cares? What does connecting computers to each other without a server have to do with learning?"
First off, there are at least three distinct peer-to-peer computing models, so there are at least three answers.
Distributed computing is the first model and, at the moment, perhaps the least applicable to learning. One company on the edge of this is Entropia (www.entropia.com) in San Diego, which creates software that connects computers in order to solve vastly complex computations such as climate simulations and astronomical calculations. One example of this model's power, says Jim Madsen, president and CEO, is a recent agreement with the National Science Foundation and the Partnership for Advanced Computational Infrastructure to provide 200 million hours for research scientists who normally have to wait months for supercomputing time.
"Up to now, how could a student in a classroom directly work with the best researchers in the world?" says Madsen. Of course, they couldn?t. But the more computers join what Madsen calls a "distributed grid," the more teachers and course designers will be able to use its power. "I can imagine that in 12 to 24 months, regular schools will be able to write applications to take advantage of this distributed grid," Madsen says.
Peer-to-peer computing can also be used for knowledge management. "People generate valuable content in projects that they work on. They leave it on their desktop, neglecting to put it on the server," says Andrew Mahon, strategic marketing director for Beverly, Mass.-based Groove Networks (www.groove.net), a peer-to-peer platform company founded by former Lotus Notes creator Ray Ozzie. "If anyone across my whole organization has some of that wonderful content, I could take a search engine like Napster and find it."
The most likely use of peer-to-peer computing, however, is digital collaboration. Mangomind, a file sharing product made by Mangosoft (www.mangosoft.com) in Westborough, Mass., is one product that fits into this category. It allows an instructor to remotely set up a drive for a student project, says Scott Davis, Mangosoft's chief technology officer. Students can post drafts remotely, and instructors and other students can mark them up or make comments.
Groove, too, allows for collaborative work. Let's say you're teaching an online course in international law. Instead of using a traditional threaded discussion board and emailing files back and forth, you could use a central platform like Groove to edit drafts with a group of students in real time, allowing everyone to see and discuss the changes instantly. A group of people could use a central platform like Groove to research tax laws together over the Internet, or they could synchronously discuss criminal law in China and save the discussion for future reference.
Peer-to-peer products could free up bandwidth, too. Let's say you have an online new-hire orientation program that resides on a server in Miami. New hires in Los Angeles and New York will have to view the program over the Internet, and its quality will rely heavily on your bandwidth.
However, if you could copy the course and store it in each location using a peer-to-peer network, new hires could use the company's intranet (which is usually much quicker) to access it. Better yet, they could interact with each other while taking the training.
Mahon says this kind of thinking can solve storage problems as well. When someone puts something on a server, it's often hard to figure out who's responsible for that data and when it can be deleted, he says. "Take a course offering, for instance. When do you delete [course material]? When the course ends? A year later? And who owns it?" says Mahon. "Peer-to-peer answers those questions."
Since peer-to-peer networking allows files to reside simultaneously on everyone's hard drives, he says, people can keep course material as long as they want and delete it when it's no longer relevant.
And those are just the basics. Since Groove is first and foremost a platform tool, a course designer could create material to take advantage of that extra level of interaction. In fact, in order to be successful, Groove needs people to do exactly that.
The University of Wisconsin's Brown thinks products like Groove are bound to catch on. "Students are going to find ways to use it even if we don?t," she says. "This collaborative team-based learning is just so powerful."
Andy Johnson, a junior computer science major at the university, has tried Groove and says he can see the practical use of a product like it. "You lose the abstraction," he says. Since you can view files with a group of people and edit documents together on your screen, "you can actually see what people are saying instead of trying to interpret their words."
Groove Networks? Mahon does admit that traditional servers are still the best option for many projects. "If there's going to be an online lecture that 500 people are going to see, put it on a server. There's no need to make 500 copies of that very large object and distribute it to 500 people," he says. "Peer-to-peer makes sense for stuff that's going to be shared in a small group and that lends itself to direct interaction."
Running from the law?
Even if this peer-to-peer stuff could be useful for learning, isn't this tool just like Napster , another high-tech General Lee giving those outlaw Dukes of Hazzard an unfair advantage from the law? Mangosoft's Davis doesn't think so. Collaborative shared spaces require invitations, he says, unlike Napster, which allowed anyone on the network to access the content.
Because peer-to-peer platforms like Groove allow you to select participants, you can invite consultants or experts into online course discussions without having them take the course themselves, Mahon says. "The person who sells the courseware might say, "Well, why would I want that?" But [the invited consultants or experts] are only seeing a portion of the test or project. They're not matriculating without you knowing it," he says.
Bringing experts into online courses can add value for everyone, he says. Learners get expertise without having to pay extra. Experts get free exposure to potential clients. And e-learning providers get to show their courses to an industry expert who otherwise might never see them.
Mahon and Davis say abuse is possible but unlikely. "I suppose I could go to a directory and send a million people an invitation to a work space, but I don't think peer-to-peer for small groups lends itself to massive problems in the way a Napster style of sharing does," Mahon says.
Mangosoft's Davis agrees. "Just because a technology can be used illegally doesn't mean it will be."
They both say the key issue is not peer-to-peer computing itself, but digital rights management , a problem that already exists on the Internet because of people sharing files through email, Web servers and peer-to-peer networks. "Very smart people are working on [intellectual property rights], and this is an issue we have to address," says Brown. "But I think it will get solved, hopefully sooner rather than later."
No matter what happens with Groove and other peer-to-peer technology vendors, the idea of sharing knowledge directly from one computer to another may be an idea whose time has come. In other words, don't be surprised if an obnoxious buzzword like "P2P learning" rears its ugly head any day now.
-Chris Jones (firstname.lastname@example.org) is assistant editor of Online Learning Magazine.
What's in a peer?
Peer-to-peer computing can be confusing because people tend to think of it as one concept: computers connecting directly to each other without going through a server. There are, in fact, at least three distinct models for peer-to-peer computing.
The multiple peer relationship is the type of system Napster (www.napster.com) and Gnutella (www.gnutella.com) use. Anyone on a multiple-peer network can collect certain types of files from anyone else on that same network. This type of collaboration, though potentially quite powerful and useful, lends itself to massive security and intellectual property concerns.
The distributed peer relationship is promoted by companies such as Entropia (www.entropia.com), InfraSearch (www.infrasearch.com) Popular Power (www.popularpower.com) and SETI@home (www.setiathome.com). The basic idea is that a computer's capability is wasted when it's not in use. If you connect a group of off-duty computers in a grid, you can combine their computing abilities to search the Internet better or solve very complex problems such as climate simulations and astronomical calculations.
The collaborative peer relationship is the system Groove (www.groove.net) and Mangomind (www.mangosoft.com) offer. The idea has been around for a long time in the computer gaming industry, but it's now starting to take hold in business circles. In this model, a small group of people agree to collaborate through a common interface.
- C. Jones
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