How To Use Crowdsourcing In The Classroom

The Connected Student Series

Crowdsourcing is an important information literacy skill.  Jeff Howe was the first to coin the term “crowdsourcing” in Wired Magazine in 2006. In his article, Howe describes how the internet has created a virtual crowd that allows us to share our passions and interests. This is important for students because the idea of crowdsourcing will allow them to utilize personal learning networks to gain a diversity of opinions, find outside experts and use the wisdom of a network or crowd to find more thorough answers and ask better questions.

Howe feels there are two important components to crowdsourcing. There must be an “open-call”  (you allow everyone to participate), and it must be undefined (let the students ask the questions). The person you think might be the best person, is not necessarily the best person for the job. This forces students to think of each other as potential partners and together, by utilizing the strengths of everyone or the crowd, they can create a much better product or expand an idea. It is what Howe calls “Wikipedia with everything.”


Our students write reports from information they find on the internet, not a library book. They need to understand this type of new information source and the network it comes from. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Beyond the Echo Chamber by Alex Pentland, calls for business leaders to do what our students should be learning to do in class. He asks for them to be making connections with many different kinds of people, actively looking for and soliciting different points of view, and “finding the decision making sweet spot.” This sweet-spot comes from understanding who the experts are in the crowd and then using a “blend of personal and social information” to predict the best solution,create the best content and ask the best questions.

Students can develop these important skills by being allowed to crowdsource their learning. When they need something more than our classrooms can provide, they need to know how to find it. They need to be allowed to work together and to use the internet to form very important personal learning networks.

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Source: Students in Danielle Dattalo Heyde’s class at San Diego Jewish Academy use Skype to network with another kindergarten class in Indianapoli

Although crowdsourcing is a new term-du-jour, it is a critically important information literacy skill that we must be teaching our students. If they are to become life-long learners, they need to learn how to work together in digital environments and to effectively collaborate with others. If you value this type of literacy – like the Harvard Business Review describes – here are a few simple ways to begin this important journey with your students.

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Q&A With Google Docs

This can be done by asking the question on a google doc and then opening it up to the class to post ideas or answers. This is a crowdsourcing strategy that most teachers can do with little effort. To do this: create a google document and then share the link with your students. Allow them to contribute in real-time, all on one document, and show them how to use the wisdom of their crowd to collaborate on an idea or to find an answer.

Collaborative Annotation  

A good place to start is with tools like Diigo and Subtext. Students can annotate notes, websites, or PDFs, and then quickly share their notes with others. This type of collaboration allows students to help each other to an understanding in a way a teacher can not. They help each other in their own words and offer strategic contextual clues to each other in a way that help each other learn. I call this strategy “crowdsourcing comprehension,” and students are naturals at it.

Collaborative Research

Have students follow one expert on Twitter (finding the expert by googling possible names until selecting one person that seems to have a definite digital footprint on the subject) and then have them use Storify  to keep a log of important tweets by this person. They can analyze the content  of the tweets to decide if this person is a credible authority and someone they would want to use as an information source.

Google Forms and Twitter Crowdsourcing

Remember the old science report where you asked parents and friends to fill out a survey? It is time to do that 2013-style. Make a Google Form and then post it with a certain hashtag on Twitter. A hashtag is simply a way for people to search for tweets that have a common topic and to begin a conversation. My students might have used a hashtag like #surfing (remember we are from San Diego). By aggregating knowledge from a large population, the value of the responses will vary. Some contributors might bring about “light-bulb” moments for students with the quality of their responses. The skill of sifting through that information is what is important, and knowing how to solicit the right experts to become part of your crowd. Like Alex Pentland says in his Harvard Business Review article, it is learning how to find that “sweet-spot.”

Student Created PLN  

Have students follow five important thought-leaders on a subject. Every Friday, have them quickly analyze the information they received from these five sources for authenticity and if the information the person posted impacted the students knowledge base. Students make decisions on whether or not to continue following the person based on their “knowledge-impactability.” Again, this may help them understand the idea of the “sweet-spot.”

With a few small adjustments in the classroom and by making sure students are not always working alone, we can teach them an important information literacy skill of understanding and utilizing the “wisdom of the crowd.” In the end they must realize, if they are the smartest person in the room…its time to find a new room!