A couple of months ago, I shared a few ideas for applying the idea of “crowdsourcing” in the classroom. Last month, Dan Cohen, director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, experimented with crowdsourcing using Twitter, asking his Twitter followers to work together to solve a “historical puzzle,” which they did in just under half an hour. Cohen’s experiment started me thinking about similar uses of Twitter in the classroom, and I’ll share those thoughts below after summarizing the experiment.
You can read all about Cohen’s experiment on his blog, but here’s the short version: He posted an image of an object found at a Victorian archaeological dig on his blog at the start of a talk he gave at a recent conference. At the same time, he “tweeted” an invitation to his 1,600 Twitter followers to help each other identify this object. His Twitter followers jumped right in, making observations about the object. They also “retweeted” Cohen’s invitation, which allowed their followers to enter the conversation, too. Everyone contributing to the conversation was asked to tag their tweets with a particular hashtag so that anyone could search Twitter for that hashtag and follow the conversation. Cohen, meanwhile, displayed the live Twitter conversation on the screen behind him during his presentation.
It took the “crowd” all of nine minutes to come up with a preliminary answer to Cohen’s puzzle and 29 minutes for “a fairly rich description of the object to emerge from the collective responses of roughly a hundred participants.” (I’m quoting Cohen’s blog entry here.) It’s worth noting, as Cohen does on his blog, that some participants in this crowdsourcing experiment engaged in what Cohen calls “scholarly discussion,” drawing on their own knowledge and skills to contribute to the conversation. Others took a “Google knows all” approach (to use Cohen’s term), relying on their search skills to ferret out information on the image in question.
How might crowdsourcing-via-Twitter be used in the classroom? I can imagine giving students a challenge along the lines of the one Cohen used and letting the students be the “crowd” that tackles the challenge. (We’ll assume each student has access to Twitter during class via a laptop or smart phone.) It’s worth noting that Cohen already knew the answer to the question he posed in his experiment. A question posed to students would likely be one with an answer known to the instructor, but a more open-ended question would be potentially useful, too.
One of the key ingredients in Cohen’s experiment was what he calls the “Twitter multiplier effect”–not only were his Twitter followers invited to contribute, but as they retweeted his invitation, their followers were invited, as well. Since many Twitter users read and respond to tweets regularly throughout the day, this multiplier effect can happen very quickly. In a classroom situation, this effect would mean that students might be able to draw on their own social networks to help tackle their instructor’s challenge. Some instructors would welcome that since that’s how problems are often solved in the “real world.” Others wouldn’t be comfortable with it, preferring that students work “on their own.” Twitter is designed to be a public forum, however, so instructors really bothered by this would need to seek an alternate, closed system.
The fact that Twitter is a public forum has implications for students, as well. A student might not want to have his or her contributions to a class discussion made public to his or her social network on Twitter. For that matter, one of the advantages of teaching with clickers is they allow students to voice their perspectives anonymously during class. Contributions to a Twitter discussion during class would not be fully anonymous were students to use their usual Twitter accounts. Instructors could, however, instruct students to create new Twitter accounts for the purpose of contributing to class discussions. This would allow students to retain some degree of anonymity while also reducing the impact of the Twitter multiplier effect described above (for better or worse).
The “Google knows all” approach Cohen describes would also be an issue. If the goal is to create a “scholarly discussion” among one’s students, what role should Google jockeys play in that discussion? Some instructors prefer to keep student access to resources beyond course resources limited, perhaps because they want a more accurate assessment of what students themselves bring to the table or because they want to better scaffold their students’ learning experiences. Others, like Michael Wesch for instance, prefer to have students bring the outside world into the classroom and to help students make sense of that outside world. I suspect the launch of Wolfram|Alpha (a “computational knowledge engine”) tomorrow will only complicate this issue.
A few other issues, largely inspired by lessons learned from teaching with clickers, come to mind: How might an instructor monitor, respond to, and participate in a Twitter discussion during class? (There’s no bar chart to aggregate results.) What kinds of students would be more likely to participate in a Twitter discussion than in more typical class discussion? Clickers allow students to respond to questions before they hear their peers’ perspectives, which encourages independent thinking–would that benefit be lost in a Twitter discussion? And what kind of questions, challenges, or tasks would best motivate students to engage in meaningful dialog via Twitter? I think it’s important that Dan Cohen didn’t just ask for general discussion in experiment; he presented his Twitter followers with a very concrete task.
I’m glad Cohen tried this experiment and that he shared its results on his blog. Given the increasing use of Web-enabled smart phones by students, crowdsourcing (via Twitter or other systems) in the classroom is an ever more possible opportunity for instructors to engage students.