In the quarter-century since the first website was published, the internet has changed our lives. Amazon puts access to over 500 million products before us, Spotify lets us stream over 30 million songs and Facebook allows us to connect with over 2 billion people around the world. We know that the web has transformed the way we shop, consume media and socialize. But how much has the power of the online network changed education? In this article, we explore the impact of crowdsourcing on different modes of learning.
What is crowdsourcing?
Like open innovation, crowdsourcing is based on the premise that expertise can be found in a variety of places, not just within a closed institution. Crowdsourcing draws on the knowledge of the ‘crowd’ to reach a common goal – answer a question, design a new product, or solve a problem. The practice is not new, but new technologies are helping individuals and communities across the world to connect.
Until now, education has been relatively slow to take up the opportunities offered by crowdsourcing. A traditional model – ‘the sage on the stage’ – still prevails. To help imagine the possibilities, we have looked at three different models of how crowdsourcing might influence – and enhance – the education model.
1. Informing policy and process
Perhaps the easiest way to test the applicability of crowdsourcing to education is to use it to gather ideas on policy, process and procedure. The approach calls for stakeholders – students, teachers, staff, families – to share their ideas to help improve a particular aspect of the educational institution or approach.
In Ethiopia and Tanzania, the UNESCO project, ‘Education for All’, used a crowdsourcing approach to lower drop-out rates in secondary schools. The project encouraged girls and their families to propose solutions to the many obstacles to completing secondary education. It focused on building girls’ competencies in life skills; putting peer support in place; involving boys in the importance of girls’ learning; and asking the girls what the main obstacles for studying were, and how they could be solved. Outcomes of the discussions led to changes in designing education policy, and closer connections with the community.
UNED – Spain’s National University of Distance Education – saw the opportunity to use crowdsourcing to gather ideas about the future of the university, as it moved towards its 50th anniversary. ‘Horizonte UNED 50’ was launched as a platform to collect the views of the community – students, staff, teachers and researchers – on courses, processes and research themes. Over 1,000 ideas were submitted, the majority from students, and winning ideas and participants received a small financial prize.
Universities in the US are beginning to take advantage – from Columbia University asking students to contribute ideas about ‘What to Fix’ on campus, to Georgetown University creating opportunities for staff and students to share their views through a digital roundtable platform. Suggestions have been implemented at both universities, saving time and money, and improving the student experience.
2. Informing research and knowledge generation
Using the crowd to gather information is an idea that is being explored more and more extensively by researchers and organizations around the world. In the UK, the BBC’s Springwatch programme promotes a ‘Do Something Great for Nature’ campaign, encouraging viewers to get outside and get involved. Suggestions include reporting sightings of different wildlife to track patterns and populations.
Researchers within universities are also embracing this approach, recognising the value that the crowd can bring. The Great Sunflower Project was started by a San Francisco State University researcher, Gretchen LeBuhn, in 2008 to begin to track urban, suburban and rural bee populations in her region. Since then, the project has grown to involve over 100,000 members, leading to the creation of ‘pollinator maps’ for the United States – and a growing awareness of the importance of bees.
In Texas, medical data is being collected through a smartphone game, leading to the early diagnosis of dementia. Researchers at the Simulation and Game Application Lab at the University of Texas, Austin, designed the game. Sea Hero Quest players navigate their way through the game, answering questions along the way to generate rich data sets.
Gamers are also being used to answer scientific questions. Gamers using foldit contribute to knowledge about protein structures, which are key to understanding how a protein works and how it can be targeted with drugs. Foldit draws on the crowd’s puzzle-solving expertise and competitive nature to create the best protein structures. Players can design brand new proteins, adding to the library of possible structures and helping to solve one of the hardest problems in biology today.
3. Using the crowd to redesign learning
Given the traditional approach most countries and institutions take to education, it’s no surprise that crowdsourcing is only beginning to impact the way we learn. But there are innovative examples of how the crowd is being used to develop new and more personalized learning journeys, broadening access and providing different opportunities for people at all education levels to engage.
MOOCs – or massive open online courses – have now been around for some years, and offer an alternative approach to building up credentials in relation to different subject areas. Options like Udacity’s ‘nanodegrees’ bring together resources from experts in academia and business, enabling students to learn online, at a time and pace that suits them. Other providers, like Udemy, EdX, Coursera and, in the UK, FutureLearn, all design courses that draw on a range of expertise, tools and resources.
The Khan Academy uses expertise from across the world – individuals and institutions – to develop learning resources “that empower learners to study at their own pace in and outside of the classroom”. Partners in Khan’s ‘crowd’ include NASA, MIT, and the Museum of Modern Art, as well as a large number of content specialists. Online resources are aimed at learners, teachers, and parents, covering math, science and engineering, computing, economics & finance, and arts & humanities. Based on multiple studies, Khan claims that its students achieve greater-than-expected learning outcomes.
Peer 2 Peer University provides another model. Founded in 2008, P2PU has created a network of experts – educators, librarians, policy makers and technologies – and developed a new approach to navigating the ever-growing range of online learning resources. The model combines online learning and offline ‘learning circles’, recognising the social nature of learning, and providing a way to ‘curate’ the available resources. Learning circles have a trained facilitator, but the learners gain their content-knowledge from course materials (sourced from open access online resources, or created by a community in conjunction with P2PU), their own studies, and from their interactions with their peers.
On campus, educational institutions are also starting to see the value in working with the crowd to solve particular problems. Examples of students working together with experts from beyond their school or university include High Tech High K-12 schools in California, the d.school at Stanford, Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, and the EPICS project, run from Purdue University. All provide innovative examples of how crowdsourcing can help bring different participants together to answer questions.
Is crowdsourcing changing education?
While it’s fair to say that these are early days, it’s also clear that education institutions are starting to recognise the value of the crowd for their organizations, their research, and their students. Sharing examples and good practices about how crowdsourcing can contribute to enhancing educational standards will help to encourage this innovation.