Theresa Willingham

Creative Partner, Eureka Factory


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Using the Power of Collaboration to Crowdsource Learning

Coworking, crowdsourcing, citizen sourcing, collaboration - all these these familiar Web 2.0 terms for cooperative human engagement have been applied to everything from scientific inquiry into protein folding to mapping galaxies, to creating smarter government through initiatives like Gov 2.0. All these efforts affect knowledge acquisition in some way.

I'd like to propose that we can employ similiar collaboration techniques to essentially crowdsource learning, utilizing what Clay Shirky calls our "spare brainpower" to further deinstitutionalize education. There are already a lot of tools in place to make use of our cognitive surplus, from opensource learning initiatives to citizen science opportunities.

I think we can leverage our innate curiosity and the power of collaboration to create powerful social networks for learning, at both the community level and online. In our conversation on the "Curiosity Driven Life," one of the things discussed was "safe zones" that encouraged curiosity and child led learning. Working together, I think we can connect learners of all ages online and in person with mentors and learning guides via libraries, community centers, museums, parks, gardens and more.

What do you think about the potential for Crowdsourced Learning?

  • Mar 16 2011: I think that realizing that regarding people as students is part of the road block to making learning de-institutionalized. Thinking of people as enthusiasts, someone who is whole heartedly engaged in a particular practice, is the step towards allowing people to learn on they're own what drives them and inspires them to contribute to a better society.
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      Mar 22 2011: Or maybe we need to elevate the idea of what it means to be a "student". I'm a photography and a cooking enthusiast - I enjoy both of those practices immensely. But I believe I'm a student, however amateur or informal, of natural history, of literature, of philosophy, of world religions and cultural geography. These are things that require some factual understandings, and pointed study.

      Along those same lines, I think we also need to reimagine what it means to be a "teacher." Many teachers today are saying they feel undervalued and unappareciated. I think teachers are more important than ever, but I think we need to consider that some of the best teachers will not be "certified" teachers - but professionals, crafts and tradespeople who function as mentors and learning guides; people we wouldn't normally associate as professional educators, but who may hold the keys to a truly well educated society.
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    Mar 12 2011: Creating collaborative learning environments is very easy. In fact, love of learning seems to be 'built-in' to us and kids do it naturally through play. Keeping interest in learning is also easy as long as we feed the interests of the learners (individualized learning plan).

    Honestly, in order to truly be collaborative, we need to drop the words 'teacher' and 'education'. Those words create hierarchy and systematic control, putting the system and its officers above the learners. In a collaborative scenario, everyone shares on an equal footing, and learners choose their own unique learning paths. With the help of subject experts (who would replace teachers in this model), students gain mentors, coaches, and facilitators to keep their projects on schedule. Perhaps children work in small teams and contribute on aspects of a group project that most interests them.

    If we embrace this model, we are free to re-imagine how we measure success, too. We're free to document qualitative measures such as engagement with community, participation in music, science, poetry contests, publications, etc. Measures of success might be the quality of research papers written or the amount of money raised for a cause, or the impact a project has on the community (feel free to add your own measures).

    So, you don't teach people how to learn on their own, you simply let them.
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      Mar 12 2011: I wholeheartedly concur. While I do like the word "teacher" and will hold a lifelong appreciation and admiration of the many teachers in my life, I agree the focus on "education" holds us back. I believe children can be teachers, and in fact, that we can all be teachers to one another at various stages of our lives. But I think it's time to reimagine what it means to be "educated" and if, in fact, "being educated" is what we're really looking for, as opposed to being informed, being aware, being curious, being skilled, healthy, and safe. To that end, I believe being able to learn, fluidly, across a range of topics and fields, is far more important than being educated. "Education" sounds static, like something finite that once acquired, proceeds no further. Lifelong learning, on the other hand, implies a dynamic and adaptable nature better suited to 21st century needs. And I think we can be the crowd from which lifelong learning can be sourced!
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    Mar 30 2011: This great piece ran on Edutopia today -, and this paragraph, in particular, caught my eye: "...More and more of society at large, and consequently many students, are demanding an educational system that works for and with them. These students are not bored. They are very curious, eager to learn, and willing to do whatever it takes to learn. I believe that the student-centered learning environment enables an educator to deal effectively with all types of students in the same classroom. A student-centered learning environment encourages students to become independent learners and ultimately to be in charge of their own education.

    "Are teachers obsolete? Absolutely not. But, an educator's role is changing from the traditional "imparter of knowledge" to that of coach and consultant. "

    I've always believed that teachers should be "learning guides," bringing their experience and expertise to bear much like wilderness guides help hikers and explorers. Maybe an apropos analogy for the new role of teachers in the 21st century is as "sherpas" - experts in their fields who guide others on journeys of self-discovery. Perhaps our most important collaborators in learning should be the biggest stakeholders - those wishing to learn!

    What do you think?
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    Mar 24 2011: There's a great story in Take Part ( today, about the Musican Corps. Developed by former Americorp team member Kiff Gallagher, Musican Corps " trains musicians and places them to serve as teachers and mentors in low-performing public schools."

    "It just all came together for me," Kiff says. "I was in my basement, there was no exit strategy, I was 35 years old and said, 'I don’t know where I’m going, but if there's a HealthCorps, a Green Corps, and all this other stuff, why wouldn’t we create MusicianCorps?' "

    You can learn more about MusicanCorps here: I think this is a great example of crowdsourced , collaborative learning!
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    Mar 10 2011: I think that TED talks as an overall force and Salman Kahn have made a great start toward your goal.
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      Mar 12 2011: I agree and think Kahn Academy is a great collaborative learning resource. I was thinking also along the lines of the type of learning comunity - online and in our communities - where you can choose an interest, anything from cooking to understanding the theory of relativity - and browse through a collection of resources that include books, links, available experts or mentors, opensource classes or lectures, hands on opportunities, or apprenticeships to select the learning source or experience that works best for the individual. Essentially piecing together your own learning program.

      That would require people being as interested in sharing their knowledge as Salman Kahn and people with the self-discipline to learn things, and know how to ask questions and acquire the knowledge they need to achieve the things they seek. How do we best bring together those with knowledge to share, with those who most need that knowledge? How do we teach people to learn on their own - to see learning as integral to successful living? How do we make teaching and learning a sustainable and self-perpetuating experience?
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    Mar 10 2011: Theresa, at times, I wish for more than two thumbs :).

    If global citizenship is our goal, then the evolution of your idea is its premise.
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    Mar 8 2011: Hello Theresa,

    I have for the past 5 years been developing the theory that each of us is akin to a neuron in a vast collective brain, only now truly capable of reaching our potential to interact through the evolution of our technology. We are coming to understand this irrepressible power as we come together to develop this unprecedented unimind.

    What a time to be alive.

    I believe we have exponentially increased our ability to obliterate all current problems know to mankind if we apply ourselves properly (with wisdom, humility and proactive and constructive collaboration).

    To that end I would like to be the first to propose a few philosophies as guidelines for this new era of learning:

    1) "It is incumbent on all students and educators, to constructively challenge how and all we are taught, towards the goal of refining the methods we use to teach and the content of any subject matter in question. Teach the rules and define the exceptions."

    2) "It is in our very nature to manipulate that which we would understand, therefore our collective responsibility to collaborate towards creating a culture and legacy which supports our ability to do so."

    3) "Science, the summum bonum of our ability to define and thereby control our environment, must always work in tandem with morality, which is the root of our accountability.

    Forgive my presumptuousness, in this instance c'est plus fort que moi.
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      Mar 9 2011: What a time to be alive, indeed! :-) You're quoting yourself here from a response to another TED conversation, but I appreciate your insights. While I don't know if we can obliterate all our current problems, I agree we can surely make the world a much, much better place to live together if we apply ourselves, as you've suggested, "with wisdom, humility and proactive and constructive collaboration." It's a lovely vision!

      I agree, too, that we're all connected at a more visceral level than we probably often imagine, although there are moments when those connections become almost palpable. I think technology is helping us realized these connections and will provide us with unprecedented opportunities to collaborate in ways we're just now starting to envision.
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    Mar 31 2011: Here's another great collaborative effort underway - Flat Classroom:

    "The concept of a 'flat classroom' is based on the constructivist principle of a multi-modal learning environment that is student-centered and a level playing field for teacher to student and student to teacher interaction."

    The Ning worksite is here: This is just one example of many great collaborative projects underway working to contemporize, customize, and contextualize learning!
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    Mar 22 2011: @ Theresa, I'll bump this once more as critical to this conversation.
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      Mar 23 2011: Of course student-led learning is crucial to any collaborative learning intiative - students being anyone, of any age, with a stake in learning something. There are some great resources mentioned at the link you've shared, things like Sophia (, which like Khan Academy and Academic Earth and others provide free access to a variety of learning opportunities.

      And of course we can't dismiss Tony Kuphaldt's observation that "The crucial element scholars bring to the table is not just knowledge, but also wisdom." That's where the "crowdsourcing" idea can balance student-led efforts with real world experience and perspective.

      But I think we need to move beyond discussion to actual implementation - to try out some "formal" crowdsourced learning and measure the outcomes, not necessarily through assessment testing, atlhough there are various forms of those that could be helpful, but through student success and satisfaction in both the short and long term. I believe you've got some student-led projects under way? What are the long(er) term results of those efforts?

      I'd love to implement - and probably will try to do so soon! - a crowdsourced learning environment, anchored by a network of crafts and trades people, professionals and people with expertise in a variety of fields, who can supplement online and learning through TED Talks and other videos and interactive learning resources online and in person.

      How do others envision such a Crowdsourced Academy?
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    Mar 14 2011: My 18 year old son, a big opensource and creative commons proponent, just shared this website with me - . The site's premise fits right in with our discussion here: "We believe that open source methodologies have a lot to offer in the world of education. This is a forum for discussing how the open source way can be put into practice to improve the world of education: for teachers, children, parents, professors, administrators, and anyone who wants to learn or teach. " It's out there! We just need to connect all our resource dots!
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      Mar 24 2011: I blogged recently about some of the many "learn for free" resources out there including MIT's excellent open courseware and this very helpful link of all universities that offer opensource classes as well. What I like about the link is that it is sortable by language, institution or country.