MOOCs and Crowdsourcing

I recently finished reading this nifty little book on the subject of crowdsourcing.

The term was first created by Jeff Howe in Wired Magazine who used it to describe a series of projects and strategies that involve lots of people pooling their sense organs, intelligence, wisdom, imagination or unused computer cycles to some type of creative or productive project.

Like MOOCs, crowdsourcing could only have come about during the Internet age.  And also like MOOCs, crowdsourcing has been difficult to define or pin down with regard to what falls into the category and what does not.

Some writers use the word to describe any effort to which multiple unvetted people lend their time, which would make Wikipedia (or even the pre-computer Oxford English Dictionary) a crowdsource project.  But Darren Brabham, author of the crowdsourcing book linked above, suggests this stricter definition:

I define crowdsourcing as an online, distributed problem-solving and production model that leverages the collective intelligence of online communities to serve specific organizational goals.

That “to serve specific organizational goals” is a key phrase in this definition, indicating that while many people may participate in a crowdsource project, the projects boundaries, goals and definition are set from above, making crowdsourcing a top-down affair (unlike Wikipedia where decisions regarding what to do as well as the work itself is performed by the crowd).

One example that meets these definitional requirements is the business strategy of the t-shirt company Threadless which lets its customers submit and vote on which shirt designs will be produced next, with cash rewards going to artists who submit winning artwork.

Other top-down efforts include Innocentive or Amazon’s Mechanical Turk sites where companies present problems (often related to science or business) to be solved and allow anyone to contribute a solution (again with winning submissions receiving cash rewards).  And citizen science programs (such as the Search for Extraterrestrial Life in the Universe or SETI project) give “civilians” the ability to lend their resources to major scientific undertakings.

So Mars candy asking its customers to vote on the next M&M color would not constitute crowdsourcing (since there is no problem being solved, just a relatively arbitrary decision being made), while Goldcorp’s asking the crowd to analyze geographical data and recommend where the next gold mine should be dug would be considered a crowdsourcing effort.

So where might the wisdom, energy, experiences and other resources of crowds fit in with massive open online courses?

Well some of the interesting class projects I’ve described in previous writing provide educational examples of crowdsourced education.

For example, my Duke University Argumentation class (the first MOOC I ever took) ended with an argument contest in which students were invited to submit their own arguments (either written or videoed) with the whole class given the opportunity to vote on the best ones.  And once votes were in, the professors analyzed a set of them in the final class.

In this case, it was the professors who set the rules for the game and made final decisions regarding the winners based on votes but also based on their own judgment regarding which mix of submissions best illustrated different points they wanted to illustrate.

Professor Cathy Davidson (also from Duke University) described another MOOC project she’s developing for her upcoming course on the history and future of higher education, one in which class participants will be asked to post local educational history to a common online timeline.

In addition to being innovative, educationally valuable and fun, these projects fit the definition of crowdsourcing outlined above since the creative direction for the project is set from above, allowing members of the crowd (or the class in the case of MOOCs) to express their energy and creativity in constrained, well-defined ways that ultimately contribute to a whole envisioned and ultimately directed from the top.

Given the definition we’ve been discussing, I’m not entirely sure if that paper I mentioned yesterday on using crowdsourcing techniques to create MOOC assessments (techniques that would leverage new ways to use and analyze forum comments) describe something that would fall under the definition of crowdsourcing I’ve been describing (although it seems quite interesting in other ways).

But David Cox, the Harvard Neuroscientist who will be launching his own edX MOOC next month, does include a citizen-science component to his class which could be described as falling into the same category as other crowdsourced MOOC assignments.

Which is one of the reasons I hope you’ll tune in to hear him describe what he’s doing on tomorrow’s Degree of Freedom podcast.



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