college, crowdsourcing, crowdsourcing grades

Is Crowdsourcing the Future of College Education?

August 18, 2009 04:30 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
A course at Duke University will allow students to take over aspects of teaching and grading. How will it influence future college courses?

Putting Faith in Her Students

This fall, Duke University students in professor Cathy Davidson's "This is Your Brain on the Internet" course will explore the use of crowdsourcing—when a group takes over a task typically performed by an individual—in education, putting collaborative learning methods and peer review to the test. Her undertaking could significantly change the way teachers, students and parents approach learning, and provides a powerful opportunity to link technology and the Web to the classroom.

According to Eric Ferreri in an article for The Charlotte Observer, Davidson's concepts question the role of the professor. Is she an information dispenser, or simply a manager who guides students "as they figure out things for themselves?" Students in Davidson's class will use a "contract grading" system that spells out exactly what they must do to earn a certain grade. Each class session will be led by two students, who will be responsible for choosing the readings and writing assignments, and for evaluating their peers' work.

"If the real essence of a college education is to become a learned individual, grades really are inconsequential," Todd Zakrajsek, executive director of the UNC-Chapel Hill Center for Faculty Excellence, told Ferreri. But Zakrajsek also notes that education is used to gauge whether a student is truly learning, and "he does wonder whether students are qualified to decide whether class work is satisfactory," according to Ferreri.

Davidson goes into further detail regarding her Duke course and provides the full syllabus in a post for HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory). She notes that students will be able to read each other's blogs to judge whether the work is satisfactory. As for student effort, Davidson asserts, "every study of peer review among students shows that students perform at a higher level, and with more care, when they know they are being evaluated by their peers than when they know only the teacher and the TA will be grading."

Opinion & Analysis: Why use crowdsourcing?

According to Bob Sprankle, writing for PBS Teachers' Media Infusion, "many of our students' future jobs will involve some level of crowdsourcing or collaboration." Crowdsourcing includes users "in the process of the creation of the product," a phenomenon resulting from the rise of the "prosumer-consumers who now want to help produce or shape the product," Sprankle writes.

When applied in the classroom, crowdsourcing democratizes the experience, as teachers are forced to ask students how they want to learn something. "Just like businesses, schools will increasingly face competition from alternative learning environments (such as online/virtual schools)," and must adjust appropriately, according to Sprankle. 

Background: Teachers casting larger nets

The blog Education Innovation, written by educational administrator Rob Jacobs, discusses the difference between a "Typical Teacher Network" and what is known as the "Professional Networked Learning Collaborative" (PNLC) in a series of graphics. A Typical Teacher Network involves curriculum, colleagues, popular media, print and digital resources, and family/local community. A PNLC takes this concept a step further, bringing networks together via crowdsourcing and allowing teachers to "move between the physical and virtual networks to communicate, collaborate, and share ideas, data, strategies, and information."

Often, teachers have great ideas that layer subjects—English Language Arts with English Language Development, for example—but don't have the time or resources "to research all these curriculum areas and find areas to layer and connect," Jacobs writes. But tapping into the "crowd" can help teachers attain loftier goals. "Hundreds of people with an interest in literacy and lesson design could choose areas of interest and create amazingly interesting, deep, connected, and focused lessons," he explains. 

Related Topic: Crowdsourcing summer school and science classes

The cancellation of summer school in the Los Angeles Unified School District prompted a project called SOS Classroom. The site presents "a directory of free online educational resources for K-8 Language Arts and Math" collected by parents, students and teachers and "organized by students in a USC writing course." The project aims to utilize Web 2.0 tools for collection, organization and redistribution of "free online educational resources," a form of crowdsourced education that has brought together hundreds of people, including many volunteer editors, in pursuit of a high-quality learning experience.

A site called is an effort by the Nature Publishing Group "to extend its reach to the college-aged crowd," according to Damian Joseph in BusinessWeek. The free site utilizes crowdsourcing, along with elements of social media and "peer-reviewed science for educational purposes." There are scientific journals posted on the site, and Scitable acts as a forum for social networking between students, professors and "professional scientists around the world," allowing them to ponder scientific queries and even discuss the life of a professional scientist, according to Joseph.

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