Crowdsourcing: individual vs. public consumption
September 26, 2009, 8:29 pm
Filed under: Collaboration, mentoring, Web 2.0 | Tags: , , , , ,

A well-crowdsourced effort, for all I know, is applied towards projects that lend themselves to public consumption. Wikipedia is a project, like the public library, that exists in the first place only because of the benefits it can offer at the community level. A thesis project or dissertation, on the other hand, while arguably benefiting all of humanity in rare cases, exists mainly to gratify the author, and maybe a few related others.

This means that crowdsourcing, as it has been practiced, occurs only when collaborative inputs are assembled primarily for the purpose of public consumption. This leads me to my question: can or will be there be collaborative projects designed to primarily benefit individuals before publics? This could hypothetically entail crowdsourced psychotherapy services for the highly personalized needs of individuals. Imagine crowds of helpers processing highly personal histories that can lead the group to offering crowdsourced feedback back to the individual. It would be economically feasible if these producers within the crowd were to be subdivided into smaller taskforces and monetarily incented. There are already signs that it may be possible to funnel the work of crowds into the pinpointed needs of individuals. Please let me know if you can think of any other projects similar in spirit.


Being raised in the village: on distributed consciousness

The mobile device or the ubiquitous and real-time internet comes closer to connecting our raw thought to the network of minds, ideas and utterances. Simply speaking we have more bridges today to collective consciousness. Social media together are a clearinghouse where ideas are collected, played with, then buried, amplified, interwoven or transformed. The author and her individuality isn’t dead yet. Far from it. She must simply negotiate more frequently and in closer proximity to a massive episteme — the earth’s bazaar of interlinked ideas, the “noosphere”.

I am interested in the future of mental individualism in the face of this “distributed” or collective consciousness. Stevan Harnad points out that thought can only be “‘distributed’ within the heads of thinkers, but not across thinkers’ heads.” The global “brain”, therefore, is a metaphor, an illusion of an entity. I take this to mean that we will never become less of individual thinkers just because of some massive, inescapable sphere of mental activity that seems to overshadow everything else.

Yet we individual cognizers are being affected by the public sphere in ways we can only begin to understand. I co-founded Mindbounce, partly as an experiment, to see what happens if we accelerated the interaction our brains would have with an external hive of ideas in real-time. In the beginning there was physical and temporal distance separating our minds from the public sphere. You had to ride a horse or log into the internet to reconcile your thoughts with the external thinking public. Now the public is attached to our hip with a mobile device. Mindbounce would ideally accelerate this trend by letting a public of sorts proactively come into many separate individual mental spheres in real-time. Collective intelligence now whispers into your ear, if you let it.

See the tour on YouTube: “Text editor turned wisdom market”

End online plagiarism with dialogue (its free!)

Curbing student plagiarism doesn’t have to involve purchasing expensive software that detects academically suspicious writing. A simple curriculum design precludes the entire problem without having to spend money.  Simply divide the writing assignment into small sequences, having students write more frequently, in shorter bursts. Pair students together and have each student respond to the other’s latest writing. Evaluation of the ensuing dialogue now focuses on the ability for students to grasp and analyze concepts in an intellectual environment that is dynamic and modal. Not only is this a pedagogically interesting exercise in itself, as it efficiently maximizes critical thinking skills, but think about how difficult it would be for a student to plagiarize or outsource this type of an exercise to an online paper mill. The millers don’t have time fabricate verisimilitude in writing assignments that are contingent upon what another mind will be saying every other day.

Plagiarism and low-integrity writing thrives in a student-controlled soliloquoy. With zero human interaction as the typical writing assignment unfolds, the plagiarist is free to concoct a hermetically sealed system of claims and counterclaims, lending the document an air of intellectual rigor. In this game students can encrypt their plagiarism strategies with varying degrees of success, the most sophisticated attempts requiring the most sophisticated software to detect.

Yet, personally, I wouldn’t spend time blaming or punishing plagiarists when there is simply so much to reform in undergraduate programs that exploiting the writing assignment as a way to contain the frightful demand that huge numbers of students pose on a limited group of university instructors. That’s right, writing assignments don’t cause the instructor more work, they create the least amount of work possible because they position and reduce the role of instruction to  evaluating final products (instead of intermittent coaching + evaluation).

So often, and sadly, academia will respond by embracing an American Idol model for evaluating student performance. In it, the student is asked to present the intellectual work that is rehearsed in isolation and away from the evaluator’s eyes. In American Idol, it is only after the performance has been rehearsed to its fullest potential that the judges will observe the final product and voice their ephemeral feedback and stamp of judgment. It is the same in academia and, for lack of a better term, I call it the “product-over-process model” of academic correspondence. This model in academic evaluation conveniently eliminates the valuable, but costly moments that could be exploited between a student and a teacher as the writing assignment undergoes its formation. Also, it is a system that begs to be gamed. If teachers are going to continue to only ask for “final” and “processed” writing, then they risk being fed everything and anything. As a consequence, the liabilities and software detection bills keep piling up.  Let’s face it, undergraduate academia, with its emphasis on evaluating intellectual products over processes, is guilty of embodying and propagating  a system that values singular impressions instead of socratic experiences and as a consequence of that, deserves any mess that this would put them in.

Luckily, an undergraduate program that shrewdly exploits the peer-to-peer writing exercise proposed above can continue to preserve its evaluator resources in the face of large student populations and simultaneously maintain a pedagogy that upholds sustainable thinking.

Individuating student work in a collective think space

More and more, we can imagine an internet that is used daily by students to harness the powers of  “collective” or distributed intelligence for producing intellectual work of a higher caliber. The idea behind it is to plug oneself into a network of thinkers.  Ideas will be enriched by the dialogue of interweaving minds thinking and co-operating over universally shared academic problems. This process can be found in many peer-to-peer student networks strewn across the internet. Sometimes, the cooperative activity will be limited to the exchange of pre-packaged thought/”intellectual property” (tips, copies of old exams) in which case the project becomes perceived as a free, web 2.0 version of the internet paper mill.

Yet this type of peer-to-peer setup in itself does not tell us whether students are offloading intellectual labor (practiced by the “freeloader” in any student group) or actually assuming even higher cognitive responsibilities that can be associated with dialogic thinking activities (one who includes greater inputs into the ultimate analysis).   Either scenario could be the case since more cooperating inputs or voices in a room could lead to both more or less cognitive activity being performed by any individual thinker. Once again, it becomes helpful to see particular internet activities as a neutral tool that can yield both positive and detrimental pedagogical outcomes, depending on how they are used.

The perceived problem may stem from the fact that these collective student activities are performed away from the educator’s gaze.  These spaces existing outside the institutional sphere create yet another obstacle preventing the educator from assessing the individual’s contribution within the network. Moreover, since educators don’t typically have the time or means to monitor the cognitive progress of its individual students,  schools can only afford to create an even larger rift between the old and the new spaces of learning.


Clearly, the problem lies more with the limits to academia as an institution as it is a problem with emergent technologies on the internet. Since schools may not know how to interact with spaces and processes that lie beyond the scope of its control, they often address the problem with an inadequate, but easy-to-implement solution: all back-channel communication between students is to be perceived as suspect and subject to disciplinary measures.

So a question for educators and academic administrators: Do you really think that you will gain in the long run by continuing to shove these fecund  and technologically neutral spaces of student activity into the “cheating” box? Will there/should there be an intervention at some point to incent these popular websites to ban academically unpopular practices such as the wholesale transfer and exchange of pre-packaged ideas that don’t inspire cognitive follow up? How does one evolve the university-outside technology relationship to include oversight within these spaces given the economic and resource contraints of overseeing cognitive processes (as opposed to cognitive products)?  I have begun to see some universities, like UNC-Chapel Hill, partner with a start-up to create spaces of intellectual collaboration across departments. This may be the mayor’s equivalent of setting up a space for graffitti offenders to practice their craft within an approved space. The fact that these academically approved spaces haven’t opened up to wider audiences is beyond me.

Idea for a wiki: an object-driven historical project

I trapped an idea this morning and it makes me wonder if something like it might exist somewhere in the world of collaborative knowledge production:

A written history of the world that is driven by an online, collaboratively-assembled catalogue of the historical objects and sources that have formed the histories we have read. Its the idea that if every historical claim can be traced back to artefact evidence, then maybe a new historical project can begin to rewrite a history that catalogues all historical objects housed in public/private collections first, then used to fleshed out the narrative afterwards. I’m imagining this done on a wiki, where people can simply try to obtain as many available digital photographic evidence of vases, scrolls, hand-written accounts, whatever and then organize them into a master chronology within the wiki space. There can even be geopositional links that point readers to where these objects may be located (in addition, offering them information on how to access them, who has studied them, etc.) These images could also have trackback links to certain written accounts that have relied on the evidence to fuel their historical narratives. Text in the body associates itself directly and immediately to the sources which form the outline of the project. Text is principally used to describe how these sources have been used by historians. In later versions of this project, master historical narratives could be added as a way to lend “surfability” for student audiences.

I credit the inspiration for this idea, by the way, to an excellent grad-level methods course I took with Sandra Braman in 2006, who had me read Hayden White’s Tropics of Discourse.