K-12 Districts, Groups Turn to Mobile 'Crowdsourcing' to Solve Problems

K-12 districts, education groups, and companies deploy 'crowdsourcing' to identify better approaches

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California's Poway Unified School District tried an experiment this year: district officials used crowdsourcing to find the best and most innovative ways to improve safety and security in the district.

Using a sophisticated online platform, open to all of Poway's 4,000 employees and accessible via cellphones, tablets, PCs, and other digital devices, the district challenged staff members to contribute, discuss, and evaluate new ideas for keeping staff members and students safe and secure. The site generated more than 10,000 page views, about 500 comments, and nearly 1,000 votes on 97 new ideas proposed. At the end of the project, the district had a top-10 list of winning ideas to pursue, that came from employees as varied as a school counselor, an afterschool program supervisor, and a bus driver.

The power of the site, and of the technique of crowdsourcing via digital devices, is that it provides more and better avenues for pitching ideas to improve the district or build on the suggestions of others, says Richard Newman, the director II of learning-support services for the 33,000-student district in San Diego.

"In school districts, innovation is generally driven by the few and not the many. We really needed to expand that," Newman says. "We wanted to equal the playing field and let the best ideas win—not the loudest voices."

The ability to access the crowdsourcing site at any time of the day from a home computer, smartphone, tablet computer, or other digital device boosted participation, he says.

Crowdsourcing in its contemporary form is the use of technology to gather input from large numbers of people. School districts, education groups, and companies are starting to use this approach in sophisticated ways with a variety of technologies to do everything from raising money for classroom equipment to figuring out which social studies lessons work best for students.

It harnesses the power of large groups of people with vast and varied knowledge who may be spread across the globe with no other method of collaboration, says Daniel S. Weld, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington who has studied the use of crowdsourcing in education.

"The advantage is one of scale and the ability to get a large number of people anywhere on the planet with precisely the same expertise and interests to contribute together to something," he says. "You can also use it to gather large amounts of data that can be analyzed."

'Perspective of the People'

Throughout the 2011-12 school year the Mill Valley, Calif.-based Pearson Foundation, a nonprofit education organization that receives funding from the educational publishing giant Pearson, used mobile phones as a tool to collect crowdsourcing information for a series of international challenges.

The challenges revolved around ways to achieve the Education For All goals, a UNESCO project aimed at improving education in developing countries, says Jenny Raymond, the director of international programs for the foundation. The challenges were hosted by the mobile-phone company Nokia on its crowdsourcing platform and covered such issues as how to improve formal schooling, or strategies for educating students with disabilities, she says.

Because mobile phones are the most ubiquitous form of technology in many of the areas that participated heavily—including China, India, and some countries in Africa—the project aimed to use them as the conduit for collecting suggestions and information.

"We were reaching people who would be affected by these solutions or who would be implementing them on the ground," Raymond says. "It's much better to get the perspective of the people facing and solving the challenges day to day, rather than us in a conference room in California making these decisions."

In the Poway school district, officials worked with the Pleasanton, Calif.-based crowdsourcing company Spigit to design an interactive website that could collect ideas contributed by employees, create a social-networking aspect that allowed others to expand and refine those contributions, and let the ideas with the most support bubble up to the surface.

Dubbed InnovationU, the site created four tiers for ideas: freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior. Concepts that got the most likes and the most discussion progressed through the levels. Contributors could add to existing ideas, submit new ones, or create teams to work on ideas.

The overall winning idea—to build a K-12 comprehensive school-counseling and student-services support system in the district—was submitted by Sheila Hatfield, a student-services specialist who counsels high school and middle school students. Through the idea-generating process, she was able to pitch her suggestions directly to the district superintendent. Without InnovationU, she's doubtful her idea would have made it further than a lunch discussion with a colleague.

"To get the attention of the upper echelon in the district, I wouldn't even know how to do that," she says. "I don't think the everyday discussions make their way through."

The Poway school board is following through. In May, the board approved nearly $600,000 in funding to cover several ideas generated by the site, including new fencing and improvements to school gates, and hardware to allow classroom doors to be locked from the inside. The district plans to use the site regularly to generate ideas on many other topics.

Evaluation Required

Crowdsourcing is being used in a way that is familiar to anyone who has shopped on the Internet or tapped a recipe bank like Epicurious.

Alex Grodd, the co-founder and CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based BetterLesson, says the goal of his venture is to have teachers rate and review other teachers' lessons in a variety of subjects for students in pre-K through high school. The site currently has more than 300,000 lessons, activities, whole courses, or other submissions from teachers.

"The vast majority of effective teaching practices and content exist in teachers' brains, filing cabinets, flash drives, and on school servers," Grodd says. "We're leveraging the 'crowd' to build a body of knowledge and curriculum."

By "crowd," Grodd means teachers, who voluntarily submit their lessons to the site, which is free for teachers to use. Teachers like to submit their lessons, he says, in part to help their colleagues, but also sometimes to build their reputations as subject-matter experts.

"We have some teachers who have hundreds of thousands of views and are known in their field," he says.

But educators need to be selective when using crowdsourcing, cautions David Quinn, a 7th grade history teacher at King Philip Regional Middle School in Norfolk, Mass. Quinn does his own version of crowdsourcing through the personal learning network of peers he has created for himself online, but he says educators may not always know the motivations behind some of the content they're being steered to, particularly when for-profit companies are part of the mix.

"There's a complexity to it," he says. "You have to teach teachers, much like teaching students, how to comb through the offerings and not just take crowdsourcing at face value."

Quinn notes that there's money to be made in public education, and that it's a hot area for investors and tech-related startups.

Crowdsourcing "has great potential, but you can't turn your brain off and say, 'This is highly rated. I can use it,' " he says. "Public schools have a lot of money, and some folks have less-than-honorable intentions."

Still, crowdsourcing can be used in education to exert a positive influence over students and link people who would have been unlikely to collaborate otherwise.

Zoran Popović, a professor of computer science and the director of the Center for Game Science at the University of Washington, has already had success with his crowdsourcing game Foldit, a scientific-discovery challenge involving the folding of proteins.

Now Popović has created a new game called Algebra Challenge. The goal is to see if K-12 students in Washington state could solve 250,000 algebra equations in one week, from June 3 to 7. The University of Washington registered more than 11,000 students to play.

The game provides a competition element: schools at all levels with the highest percentage of mastery reached by students had an opportunity to win laptops.

The game also includes adaptive technology that collects data as students answer questions. That information will be helpful in determining the best ways to optimize learning. Popović has a similar project in the works with the majority of students in Norway.

"Every one of these new experiments is an effort to collect vast amounts of data on how students learn and do algebra, and learn how to improve mastery," he says.

"What research project has access to 10,000 students? There's nothing out there like that," Popović says. "Teachers will get to use many of the tools [that are developed from this] in the future."

Fundraising Tool

In other places, teachers are using crowdsourcing to help them purchase the tools they want for their students.

Brian N. Cohen, a math and technology teacher leader at The Academy @ Palumbo, a magnet high school in the 137,000-student Philadelphia school district, wanted laptops for each of his students to use in class. So he created a crowdsourcing project, using his own networks on Facebook and Twitter, as well as parents, friends, and family, to ask for donations. He raised $8,500.

A neighborhood crowdsourcing platform matched him with a company that sells refurbished laptops, and he was able to buy 33 machines.

More recently, Cohen and other teachers used a similar crowdsourcing technique through the website DonorsChoose.org, an online crowdsourcing charity that helps public school teachers raise money for projects or items they need in their classrooms. Cohen and other teachers raised enough money to buy five classroom projectors.

But Cohen cautions that relying too heavily on crowdsourcing for classroom materials and equipment can be tricky. "Some people have almost no resources in their schools, and they rely on it," he says of education-related donation projects.

"It has a good purpose, but it's just a stopgap measure," he says. "We need to fund schools better so this is only needed for extras."

Vol. 06, Issue 03, Pages 32, 34

Published in Print: June 12, 2013, as Powering The Crowd
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An earlier version of this story misstated the location of King Philip Regional Middle School. It is located in Norfolk, Mass.

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