Р2Р approach in education and project work

The Р2Р (peer-to-peer) approach is about:
  • personal FREEDOM, which means self-fulfillment rather than willfulness ;
  • RESPECTING others, which is the other side of self-respect ;
  • TRUST and ability to treat others as equals;
  • RESPONSIBILITY for one's own actions, which is the essential part of personal freedom.


It offers a new operating model, which has a number of advantages compared to the project-oriented principle we are familiar with. It suggests a new approach towards civil education as well.

The classical project-oriented approach implies that the goals and objectives are determined by leaders, the roles are precisely distributed, and there are clear criteria for assessing the success (e.g., KPI). With all the obvious merits, this approach is not effective in all projects, at all times and for all the people.

The Р2Р approach provides an alternative. Like any other approach or instrument, it has its own limitations, and its success depends on one's goals and objectives. It is important to understand what projects it is applicable to and what kind of participants it requires to be feasible.

We have tested the Р2Р principles and developed our own understanding of this approach and its practical application. In the sections 'Berlin and Hamburg' and 'Workshop in St. Petersburg,' you can find out how exactly we used the Р2Р approach in education and in the project work of civil urban activists.

The following section summarizes the conclusions that result from our experience with the Р2Р approach, including our vision of the essence of this approach, its principles and limitations.


The term 'p2p' came from the world of computer technologies and the Internet. Most people have heard of 'peering networks,' which are also known as decentralized networks. In these networks, there is no central server, and the computers exchange the data directly, each of them being able to serve both as a server and a receiving client. Such a system is independent of the 'main' server that is usually present in typical centralized networks. A Р2Р computer network can be equally efficient with any number or combination of users, as each user's potential is fully leveraged. It makes peer network more resilient to any changes or failures, more flexible, efficient and productive.

The current interest in the Р2Р approach both offline and in IT represents a response to and a protest against hierarchical project structures and approaches, which lack flexibility and are vulnerable to sharp and frequent changes of our modern world. This is due to the fact that the traditional structures applied in education and project work cannot unleash the potential of the participants. They create alienation from the project and its final results, reduce the effectiveness and lower the motivation, not allowing to implement new ideas. What do we need in practice to escape the omnipresent hierarchy and create an efficient model based on the Р2Р principles?

In the ICT field, this model gained popularity in the form of the 'agile approach'. While the Р2Р principles become more and more popular in the offline world, there are no clear algorithms or models of their application. We have tried to formulate them.

  • horizontality and equality (peer qualities): rejection of the top-down model and hierarchy among the participants;
  • acknowledging the value of each participant for addressing both common and personal challenges;
  • respect, responsibility and trust as the fundamental principle of relations in team work.

In project work, the P2P approach means joint tasking, participation and a sense of belonging for all the participants at all stages of the project. It also means respecting all the participants, providing opportunities for their self-fulfillment.

In education, P2P means recognizing that each participant can potentially hold some information that is important and valuable for others, and that this information can inspire everyone who takes part in the process. All participants can be both 'students' and 'tutors'. Thus, the amount of gained knowledge and skills significantly increases in comparison to the traditional scheme with one tutor and many learners.

The 'learning by doing' principle allows to combine education and project-oriented approach. This can be also applied to P2P.

There is a demand for alternative models. Why?

  • Because people are not satisfied with the classical 'tutor-learners' model of education, where the role of learners is reduced to passive reception of knowledge, while their personal responsibility as well as creativity degenerate. Such a system can bring up and educate obedient executants, but to a far lesser extent encourages the development of creative, responsible and independent people. Hierarchy creates borders and inequalities between listeners / lecturers/ organizers of educational process, which provokes protest and rejection.
  • Because the educational system and project models based on the top-down/hierarchical principle do not work, as hierarchy becomes an obstacle to efficiency. Meetings where people of a higher status dominate can hamper successful group discussions and cross-fertilization of ideas, because an "experienced expert" or a superior can simply impose their point of view on the listeners.
  • Because every person has knowledge and experience. These are not the exclusive qualities of selected experts/ lecturers/ tutors / superiors. We can gain knowledge, skills and information from many people, such as our colleagues, 'peers', 'equals', rather than receive the information from one source — from a mentor or an expert. Thus, the p2p model allows us to obtain much more new useful and interesting information, as this model creates appropriate conditions for it.
    Voices of participants

    This is not a general-purpose approach. However, there are situations where it is most efficient.

    • Creative challenges and aspiring towards peculiar and unpredictable results. For instance, creating a new model or setting a new goal instead of reproducing ones that are already known and verified.
    • Joint formulation of the objective that implies further team work within the same group, and there is a need to.
    • Interdisciplinary work that requires a variety of expertise and competences. Working with complex things. For instance, the 'city' as a focus of effort demands such an approach.
    • Personal development of participants during the work process and in communication with colleagues.
    • When the process is not less (or even more) important than its results, i.e. the process of collaborative work, educating each other, self-education, self-discovery.
      Voices of participants
      / WHO CAN USE P2P?

      Not everyone, since it requires specific personal qualities and attitudes for successful implementation.

      • P2P is for people who are flexible, candid, reflective, ready to learn and change, take on new roles and qualities.
      • P2P is for those who are ready to perceive other participants of the project/process not as useful tools to reach their goals or even fulfill common project objectives, but as interesting people with inherent worth and intrinsic value, who have the right to self-actualization.
      • P2P is for those who accept others as equal to themselves without taking into account any status indicators such as age, gender, experience, etc., neither worshipping other participants nor playing down one's own merits and qualities, without any prejudices that p2p is trying to overcome so as to clear the path towards direct exchange and enrichment with expertise.
      • P2P is for those who are ready to listen and hear, helping the speakers to deliver their thoughts and trying to see the value and worth of other people's knowledge, thoughts, ideas, experience, etc.
      • P2P is for people with leadership skills who can delegate their responsibility and control, trust their team partners, treating them as equal to themselves even at the stage of objective setting goals.
      • P2P is for people who are ready to take personal responsibility for the project, their own objectives and their contribution to reaching the objective jointly articulated by all participants.
      • P2P is for those who value the process no less (or even more) than the expected results, those who do not only appreciate the achievement of the goal but enjoy the process itself.
      • P2P is for those who expect the unexpected and can revise initial goals and expected results according to new inputs.
        Voices of participants

        Successful application of this approach demands special training and time.

        • In order to use this approach, one needs conditions that unite all the participants, such as a common situation or a goal that everyone wants to attain, an agreement to work in accordance with the principles of P2P. People from the outside, who don't understand or accept the specifics of the P2P approach, can ruin the project or reduce its effectiveness.
        • The team should consist of people with various competences that are desirable when working towards a certain goal or objective. All the participants are recognized as equal experts ready to share their expertise.
        • A team must contain a limited number of participants (5–7 best). This will make discussions dynamic, enable more efficient role distribution and changes, ensure comfortable face-to-face work, and ease the process of consensus-building on different issues.
        • The rules of joint work are developed by all the participants of the team in accordance with individual features and needs. The rules may change in the course of work with the consent of other participants.
        • An important condition is a favorable climate for communication and work that would be comfortable for all the participants
        • The P2P approach demands time, negotiations and mutual adaptation of participants. It is not suitable for the projects that need a quick result with a familiar scheme.

        / HOW DOES P2P WORK?

        The P2P approach has its own specifics that has to be understood in order to avoid undue expectations and disappointment.

        Leadership vs. Hierarchy

        • The P2P approach does not suggest rejection of leadership. On the contrary, it attracts leaders but prevents the formation of hierarchy, usurpation of authority and top-down system-building.
        • Every participant of a P2P project has an opportunity to demonstrate leadership skills in solving particular project tasks. Everyone has the right to participate in articulating goals, objectives and methods, take on some of the common objectives and responsibilities.
        Voices of participants
        Function vs. Status

        • P2P is a horizontal approach free from hierarchy, i.e. from situations when several "chosen ones" are the project leaders, while the other participants have a lower "executant" status.
        • This does not mean that there is no distribution of roles in the project. The leading or convening role is aligned with a function that is taken on by different participants at different stages of the project.
        • The convening (managing) roles associated with the corresponding functions may be the following: moderator (of discussions and meetings), facilitator (timing, deadlines, dynamics, etc.), communicator (enables communication within the team and with the outer world), etc.
        • Any participant, regardless of the functions they accomplish, can set objectives.
        • There is no hierarchy between the functions, all of them are equally important, since they make group work possible and help achieve the goals agreed upon.
        • The managing function should not be assigned to an individual on a permanent basis in order to maintain leadership rotation. Thus, the participants of the project are not appointed to a position with a specific function, but volunteer, following the principles of voluntary participation and aspiring to contribute their best to the project. Other participants respect their decisions and accept them as managers that have a specific function in the project.
        • Regular avoidance of leadership by a participant is harmful for a P2P project as much as a persistent ambition to lead, because it violates the principle of equality in a P2P network or project.

        vs. Result

        • In a P2P project, the process and the result are almost inseparable.
        • The approach is distinguished by a high value of the process. A P2P project does not only involve exchanging ideas, setting objectives and looking for solutions, but also includes the process of personal development for each of the participants.
        • The work can continue until all the participants are content with the obtained result or the completed process and decide to finish the project.
        • The interim results can become starting points for creating new groups and launching new processes, searching for new original objectives and solutions not considered in the beginning of the work.

        Practice vs. Theory

        • The P2P approach allows to create unique combinations of participants providing all of them with an opportunity for self-actualization in the process of solving project tasks.
        • The participants may find many tasks or functions unusual. It is the opportunity to learn and try something new that attracts many of them.
        • The potential of interesting and valuable participants can be unlocked to the full extent only in the process of practice that requires group action, co-presence and joint participation. It is important to create a unique situation, where group actions bring forth specific group dynamics, which is followed by the emergence of new ideas and unique goal-setting.
        • In theory, it is impossible to explain in words what effect the P2P approach has on the participants. It is a know-how, and one needs to practice it in order to understand how it works.


        Although the term 'P2P' was borrowed from IT, the idea of horizontally distributed team work and management is almost an age-mate of human civilization.

        Aristotle wrote in his 'Politics,' 'One of the conditions of freedom is to rule and be ruled in turn'. This principle has developed over the years in republican political theories. To a certain extent, it can be regarded as a precursor of the modern P2P approach.

        • Leadership. Leadership does not necessarily mean hierarchy. However, some people can be more conspicuous as leaders than others: talented speakers, experts with more competent in some fields, experienced managers who take on convening roles more willingly and also like to set goals. The potential risk for the P2P approach is associated with the delegation of leading functions to these people on a permanent basis — or the seizure of these functions. It is crucial to create work conditions that ensure collective decision-making. This allows everyone to try the role of an organizer or an expert, to be heard and have a chance to contribute their viewpoints to the pool of ideas.

        • Equality. There is always a problem of equality (between peers). Who, when and on what basis is considered equal? What should I do if I don't share my peer's viewpoint and sometimes don't want to learn from them? What if equality hinders the work and slows down the process of decision-making? It is important to agree upon the criteria of equality within a specific project and obtain consensus regarding its goals at the very beginning. For example, people can be equal as professionals, citizens or users of the space. These parameters become a basis for team formation and define the main competences that the participants should have and exchange. Skipping this step invites chaos upon the project, blurs the borders/limitations for joining the project and carries the risk of inadequate.

        • Conservatism and egoism. Other risks of the approach include the unwillingness to compromise, to involve everyone equally, to change oneself as well as the goals and objectives of the project. There may also arise a situation where one or several people, having their own interest in the project, focus primarily on translating this interest into action. This can result in a conflict and ruin the project. The situation can be saved if this interest overlaps with the common goal of the project and receives support from other participants, if this interest does not conflict with the common goals and allows some of the participants to self-actualize as much as possible. Every participant has the right to self-actualization, if it doesn't contravene the goals of the project agreed upon and doesn't involve free-riding.

        • Trust and free-riding. P2P also cannot work in a situation when there is a free rider on the team — a person eager to use the advantages of the project but hardly contributes to it. All the participants of a P2P project assume by default that everyone contributes to the achievement of goals as much as they — "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need". This is the basis for mutual trust in the team. As soon as it is noticed that someone does not fully engage, the initial trust is undermined and the project starts to fall apart.

        • Team size. The more participants, the more risks for the P2P approach. It becomes more difficult to listen to and hear each other, to come to agreement and work out joint decisions. It seems that groups of 5–7 people are ideal for work in a P2P project. In case of bigger groups (e.g., educational tasks), it is better to split into smaller subgroups and arrange the exchange of information and people.

        • Communication fatigue. Unwillingness to communicate can become an obstacle for participating in a P2P project.

        • Result-oriented approach and goal-setting. A P2P project may seem "boring" and inefficient for people who tend to act rather than reflect and choose goals over processes. It is better to warn such people that a P2P project is all about attention to the process and that the idea of an adequate result may change in the course of work.