The Future of Crowdsourcing in the Classroom

If we let students create content, they make connections we couldn't.

Posted Apr 29, 2015

Most educational systems, largely borrowed from models of industrial efficiency, are not about what is in students' heads before they show up to the classroom.  

Instead, the model most often employed looks more like a clinical cloning procedure: remove the offensive information from the nucleus (i.e., the brain of the student) and insert the new information.

This might be OK, if it worked. But essentially all models of learning that we know of, from constructivism to neural network models, involve learners using prior knowledge to leverage new understanding.  

Even when these lead to analogies that are wrong, they are where understanding starts. The atom as solar system, the mind as computer, circuits as water flow, the eye as camera: metaphors are powerful because they are how the mind works to understand things.1

If you can't connect with what students or children already know, then what you teach is likely to be so abstract that it is equivalent to teaching a foreign language by starting with words that have no translation.  

A classic example is one documented by Geoffrey Saxe2 about sophisticated out-of-school mathematics understood by young kids in Brazil. In the marketplace, where many of them worked, they had a sophisticated understanding of math. In schools, their understanding was marginal, at best. Moreover, they could use what they knew at the market to help them in the classroom, but they had extreme difficulty going from school to market.

Just try doing anything outside of the classroom with the quadratic equation.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Technology not only creates the opportunity for personalized content, it can also help the rubber meet the road.

Crowdsourcing on a global scale is one of the most salient phenomena of the last decade. Open-source software (Linux), collective archives (Wikipedia), consumer-driven content (Lego mindstorms), crowdsourced finance (Zopa) and even group-managed sports teams (Ebbsfleet United FC) are all examples of this, and each rests on the hypothesis that groups can outperform individuals under a variety of circumstances. 

We can take a similar approach in the classroom.

Over the last several years I've been trying this out in a university course on Persuasion and Influence.3 The goal has been for the students to create the content in the course. That content is the place where the concepts they learn (like reciprocity, scarcity, and negotiating from weakness) happen in their lives.

They document this in an online blog called Propaganda for Change, which is designed specifically to deconstruct persuasion and influence as it experienced in students' lives. I invite you take a look here.

Because the exam largely comes from the blog, the students are motivated to read it. And because the content is public (and associated with students' names) the posts are of servicable quality, and generally edifying.

With technology, we are creating the capacity for customized education on par with Neil Stephenson's The Diamond Age: a science fiction tale of a young girl who, with her personal and virtual book/tutor, leads a revolution. 

If we find the content in our lives, we are more likely to encounter it again, be reminded of it, understand how it works in the world, and be able to use it when we need it.  

We are already living our own education. Educators just need to connect the dots, and students can help them accomplish this.

Though technology has been stumbling into the classroom for decades now, the student-as-producer and similar approaches based on learner-centered educational approaches are different from the learning as consumption mythology that has become widespread in our modern classrooms. The notion that we live in an increasingly consumer-based culture is not new, but the capacity for computers to reduce students to point-and-click robots in complicated virtual Skinner boxes should not be lost. Students are at risk of being increasingly met with boilerplate environments that are designed to reduce knowledge to its most clickable form. But it doesn't have to be that way.

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1Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (2008). Metaphors we live by. University of Chicago press.

2Saxe, G. B. (1988). Candy selling and math learning. Educational Researcher,17(6), 14-21.

3Hills, T. T. (2015). Crowdsourcing content creation in the classroom. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 27(1), 47-67.

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