11/06/2009 10:56 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Wisdom Within the Crowd

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
. 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...