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Dr. Barbara Kurshan

Dr. Barbara Kurshan

Posted: November 6, 2009 10:56 AM

The Wisdom Within the Crowd

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This past summer, former Google executive Paul Buchheit announced that he wanted to give away “a bunch of money” and that he wanted a social networking community to make suggestions as to what organization he should give to. As the Executive Director of Curriki, a non-profit that helps educators around the world eliminate the cost of curriculum by collaboratively sharing teaching materials on an open source platform, I immediately got my team focused on this challenge. In just a few days, we had nominated our organization and emailed our community, encouraging them to support our work by voting for us. Within a few weeks we had shot right to the top. We put out the call and our members had answered. Not to be outdone, the deep-pocketed Clinton Global Initiative had former President Clinton post a note on his Facebook page, and they surged back into the lead. Since then, our small mission-driven dot org has remained a steady and respectable #2.

After our experience with this sort of crowd-sourcing this summer, challenges like this seemed to be popping up all over. Google’s Project 10 to the 100 enlisted 150,000 submissions for ideas to change the world by helping “as many people as possible.” Submissions came in from 172 countries which were narrowed down to 16 finalists. An open voting period ended back on October 8th. The program’s Web site says they will announce which efforts will split the program’s $10 million award “in the near future.”

Some of the credit for popularizing this phenomenon probably goes to New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki, who coined a phrase with the title of his book, The Wisdom of Crowds. Surowiecki writes, “Under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them….  even if most of the people within a group are not especially well-informed or rational, it can still reach a collectively wise decision.” Think Zagats or Digg.

The ripple effects on this solicitation for democratic participation extends from countless fundraising efforts to a recent call from the International Society for Technology in Education for their membership to vote on the selection of keynote speakers for an upcoming educational technology conference.  

What are the limits on this kind of thinking? And to what extent does the fact that something is sourced by its audience add or subtract from its legitimacy? In the 1960s, humorist Tom Lehrer quipped that, “the problem with most folk songs is that they were written by the people.” He goes on to note (tongue firmly in cheek) that if they had instead been written by professional song writers, things might have turned out considerably different.  

Many traditional school administrators would certainly agree with Lehrer when it comes to curriculum development. For the last 100+ years, textbooks and supplemental materials have been the domain of professional publishing organizations with their professional writers and their professional editors. But now organizations such as Curriki, that empower educators everywhere to collectively share teaching resources at no cost, are beginning to define a new publishing paradigm. Using the power of the Internet, anyone can contribute their curriculum to our repository of nearly 35,000 resources and then use our simple tools to assemble a customized curriculum out of their own contributions and those of the global open and shared content community. 

The power of this new model is tremendous. But is it an example of the wisdom of crowds? Several months ago, Curriki launched a feature that allows our community to rate, on a 5 star system, each curricular resource on our site. While the early data is interesting, we haven’t seen the crowd voting as much as we might have liked. This experience echoes numerous others that we’ve had over the past 4 years running an open-source education site – our community loves what we do, but so far, the great things that are happening are not the result of collective efforts, but the results of a large and growing community of great individuals who see value in sharing with and supporting the collective.  Is this “crowd sourcing”?

What the current zeitgeist of the Wisdom of Crowds is adding is credibility to something that we have known for as long as our site has been available for teachers to use - there is incredible wisdom within the crowd.  What we have seen, as our site has organically grown from a couple of hundred members in 2006 to 40,000 members in 2008 to close to 100,000 members today, is that there is an incredible number of people in the world that have an expertise but are never recognized as experts.  Every school has a few teachers who get singled out for their excellent teaching practices. But in fact, there are many more teaching professionals who also have tremendous expertise but for one reason or another simply lack an outlet. The wisdom within the crowd has always been there - in greater numbers than many might think. Now they finally have an open platform for sharing their work.

Now if we could just get a call from Paul Buchheit saying he’ll support the wisdom within our crowd with his bunch of money... 


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