Higher Education

when crowdsourcing comes to campus

I’ve written about crowdsourcing a few times here, but not in a while. Jeff Howe at has written about it for Wired, was a lead figure in their Assignment Zero project, and now has a book coming out later this month. Here’s a little video about it.

In the past when I wrote about crowdsourcing, the main response was how it was/is an exploitative labor practice. Essentially, what was once highly-paid, expert labor becomes deskilled work that is done either cheaply or for free. Howe often uses the example of iStockphoto. 10 years ago it was probably unthinkable that you could get good stock photography for a couple bucks. Few people had use for stock photography and many who might have (e.g. small business owners) couldn’t afford it. Now I use iStockphoto for images in slide presentations. Recently Getty Images, who owns iStockphoto, made a deal to license Flickr images as well.

Is this bad news for professional photographers? Yes and no. It certainly changes the nature of their profession. You can get professional grade images using prosumer digital slr cameras and photo editing software, but you still need to know what you are doing to produce consistently.

It used to be, and probably still is, unthinkable that college curriculum could be crowdsourced. But look at something like Supercool School. Yeah sure it’s not accredited or anything, but how do you think colleges got started? The earliest classes at my alma mater, Rutgers, were held in a tavern. That Facebook app is hardly a model for a college course but it does demonstrate the idea that users can propose courses, find a volunteer willing to teach the course, and deliver a curriculum.

Obviously there are important differences here. If you like a photo on iStockphoto is doesn’t really matter who took it. It doesn’t matter if it was a lucky shot and the only good pic that photographer will ever take. Teaching, however, requires expertise, mainly b/c as a student you are signing up for something that hasn’t happened yet rather than buying an existing product. As a non-expert you probably aren’t qualified to look at a syllabus and know for certain if the course is appropriate, and even then a syllabus only tells you so much. So you really need to go on reputation. Traditionally we’ve addressed reputation with qualifications and institutional review. A crowdsourced program though might try to address reputation through other social media means.

That said, I could envision creating a crowdsourcing site where prospective teachers sign up and maybe even pay a modest fee to have their bona fides checked. Then you set them free to propose and design any course they want. You can establish a pricing structure with different levels for those who want to audit and those who want significant feedback, evaluation, or perhaps even a grade. Teachers would get a cut of the collected tuition.

Now there’s an obvious problem. Assuming you couldn’t get accredited as a college doing this, you might say that you’d need to be able to make these courses transferable for credit at such an institution. Why? Because the only reason people take classes is to get credit in order to get a degree.

But maybe that isn’t true.

Maybe people would take classes if they thought they were worthwhile for them professionally or personally, AND they didn’t cost a ton of money AND they didn’t require participating in the whole college culture business and time and psychic energy required of it.

Maybe they’d even take writing courses! Imagine that you’re a thirty-something mid-level manager and your bosses are continually underwhelmed by your reports and your presentations. Maybe your corporation has recently started using a wiki or blogs and you just don’t get it. Maybe your company is doing a lot of business with China, and you don’t know a damn thing about China. Maybe you want to change careers. Maybe you’ve always wanted to write a novel or a memoir.

I realize that we think of higher education as something more "serious" than that. And I agree that for many traditional professions there are significant bodies of knowledge to be learned. I also look at many of the jobs out there in Central NY and I wonder why people go to college to do those jobs. What I mean is that it doesn’t seem like there’s a specific body of expert/disciplinary knowledge required to do some of these jobs.

There’s another point here too. In higher education we expend a great deal of energy on underprepared students. We also spend a lot of time giving lectures and making sure students have read textbooks. Maybe there is a more cost-effective way to do these things through crowdsourcing.

I realize there’s a lot of worry about the future of higher education and our profession. But the reality is that we aren’t going to get anywhere trying to hold back the tide. As a professional photographer you can complain all you want about iStockphoto and such things. And maybe you have valid complaints! But that still won’t change the fact that your industry has been transformed. Like the music industry has. Like cottage industries in the 18th century were. And so on and so forth.

However, just because an industry changes that doesn’t mean that there won’t be new opportunities, new markets, new practices and so on. Higher education is big business! There’s plenty of money out there and careers for creative professionals. I think a quality education will always be valued, in the future more than ever as the cognitive demands placed on us are not likely to relent. And in simple economic terms, a quality and valuable education will be one that separates you from others. It won’t be the one that you can get for free or on the cheap.