Crowdsourcing is a term that was invented by Wired magazine’s Jeff Howe in 2005(Safire, 2009). It is a portmanteau of the words; crowd and outsourcing. According to Wikipedia(2014), “[c]rowdsourcing is the process of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people”. The concept is used in different ways in different contexts however it has yet to have a big impact on education.
Saskatchewan is lacking a well organized and comprehensive lesson plan database. Crowdsourcing is the solution. Much of our time is spent reinventing lessons and units because it is time consuming to search online for high quality resources that cover our curriculum’s outcomes and indicators. In the past ten years, curriculums have been renewed and brought up to date. It is time that our system for sharing and validating lesson plans is brought into the 21st century as well.
1.1 Our current ‘system’ is broken
Currently in Saskatchewan, there are a few ways to search for ready-made lesson plans that cover our curriculum. The first is to check the Stewart Resource Centre which is a well maintained if limited database of teacher made lessons and units. Next would be to check a division website for resources of which few are easy to navigate or search. Finally, the solution for many teachers is to turn to non-professional online lesson plan databases which do not align well to our curriculum outcomes and indictors, but have lessons that can be adapted. The result is a lot of time spent creating lesson plans that have already been created by Saskatchewan teachers.
The Saskatchewan curriculum website is an aesthetically well organized website, however it has few, if any, linked resources. The traditional model where a small number of curriculum designers evaluate lesson plans, recreate lesson plans to align with outcomes and indicators, and post lesson plans on a database, is not practical and does not fit with the ideals of collaboration.
Teachers themselves are a largely untapped resource when it comes to lesson planning. We need to start trusting the collective knowledge that the teachers of Saskatchewan have. As professionals in the classroom, teachers understand the needs of students and the needs of colleagues. High quality lessons are being taught each and every day in classrooms around Saskatchewan and yet we do not have a professional database in which to share these lessons with our colleagues.
Teachers spend a large amount of in school prep time and out of school time planning lessons. It is understandable that teachers tend to go back to what is tried and tested when lesson planning becomes too time consuming and overwhelming. When teachers are overwhelmed, they stop being innovators and start doing the best they can with what they have. A lesson plan database would relieve a lot of time and stress from lesson planning and allow teachers to be innovators again.
1.2 Learning from Nupedia
Prior to Wikipedia, an online peer edited encyclopedia called Nupedia existed and lasted from 2000 to 2003. The demise of Nupedia was caused by too rigorous of a review process for new and edited content. It required high quality reviewers and editors to review and edit each new piece of content which put too much pressure on a small group of people. Wikipedia’s model does not require editors to be professionals, in fact, any user can edit content. As Wikipedia has built up a large body of volunteers who review edits and new content, the quality of the content has continued to improve and is now regarded highly by users.
The lesson is that, in lesson plan compiling, the users (teachers) are already professionals in their field and understand their content area well. A rigorous review process is not required by a small body of curriculum designers before the content is shared. The benefit of a wiki model is a simple process for contributing and for editing content.
Crowdsourcing is a strategy that has been used in many industries successfully. Crowdsourcing, at its base, is allowing users to determine what has value based on a rating system, a comment system, a tagging system or other systems that allow good content to rise to the top of a search page and poor content to stay at the bottom. The model has had huge success in numerous industries.
2.1 Crowdsourcing on the web
Familiar crowdsourcing websites include; hotels.com, yelp.com, amazon.com, wikipedia.com, quora.com, and pinterest.com. These websites cover diverse industries such as hospitality, commerce, knowledge databases, and social bookmarking. These websites are popular, not because they have perfect information, but because they have gathered, rated and sorted through information from people like us.
The websites, hotels.com, yelp.com, and amazon.com, are commercial websites that allow the consumer to read reviews from real people on the products or services offered. For most of us, we trust these reviews and feel knowledgeable about a product or service after reading a few reviews. These websites also have star rating systems which are easy to understand and hard to ignore. A common feature of commercial crowdsourcing websites is an aggregator that brings the most highly rated products or services to the top of the search page.
The websites, wikipedia.com and quora.com are knowledge databases. They are curated by the public and yet have created a high quality product. Wikipedia is a wiki based website that allows anyone in the world to edit its content. After content has been edited, it is reviewed by a number of volunteers who have devoted their time to ensuring high quality content. Useful features of wikipedia include a system for tagging questionable content and the ability to review changes.
Quora is a question and answer website where users can ask any question and get responses from any user. Quora effectively uses tagging to sort through topics. Users can tag their question with any word they believe relates to the question and this allows users to discover relevant content easily. Questions are sorted by topic and answers are sorted by a rating system. The more traffic a question gets, the higher that question lands on a topic page. Users who answer many questions and consistently get high reviews become star contributors and are trusted more by users.
Social bookmarking websites like pinterest.com are simply for bookmarking interesting pages by topic. Pinterest pages are user created and do not have a rating system. Pinterest is a worthwhile concept to draw from because it is already well used by teachers around the world to gather educational content.
2.2 Crowdsourcing in education
Crowdsourcing has some precedence in education. Crowdsourcing is being considered as a model for creating post-secondary curriculums. One model proposed by Washington Helps and Emmanuel Grant (2013) is based on wikipedia.com where users are free to contribute and edit content. Their project began with a clear framework so, although it sounds as if users may change content so that it no longer follows the goals of the curriculum, it is highly unlikely that users would do so deliberately. The result of a collaborative curriculum project is a curriculum that meets the needs of many and can be continuously renewed.
The open education movement is a loosely connected movement that is trying to provide cheap or free education to people who need it most. The movement relies on an army of volunteers who are also professionals to share high quality content for learners around the world to access and use.
In education, crowdfunding is a new buzzword as well. A quick google search shows how many educational ventures are using crowdfunding to accomplish their goals from raising money for post-secondary scholarships to raising money for art projects in lower income schools.
Even the idea of a crowdsourced lesson plan database is not a new idea. BetterLesson.com is a website that was created in 2009 by Alex Grod, a sixth grade teacher. BetterLesson.com is a crowdsourced database of lesson plans that have been submitted by teachers around the world. It is based on the American Common Core framework although it has users from around the world and a variety of lessons on diverse topics. Lessons can be searched by key word or topic via a search bar or can be searched by math and English outcomes. Lessons follow a basic guideline and media can be added. Lessons also show which indicators have been covered. BetterLesson.com has a user feedback section for each lesson plan and a simple ‘like’ rating system. It currently has more than 350,000 users and it would not be feasible for a small group of teachers to curate the content however the website has managed to continue to provide high quality lesson plans through crowdsourcing.
Uclass.io is another crowdsourced lesson plan database. It is created with school divisions in mind. School divisions may purchase a copy which allows their data to only be available to their teachers. It has numerous features that support collaboration such as a link to share content with other users and editable content. Uclass.io allows users to create, share, and analyze content. The website is very professional looking and easy to navigate. Uclass.io is a very worthwhile site to consider as a model for a Saskatchewan lesson plan database.
3 A lesson plan database in Saskatchewan
A lesson plan database is needed in Saskatchewan. There are different models to look at and pros and cons of each. BetterLesson.com and Uclass.io are both excellent examples of successful crowdsourced databases. By drawing on successful crowdsourcing ventures, we will find a solution that works best for our province.
As with any venture, there are some features that are necessary and some that are nice but not required. Teachers must have a clear lesson plan framework to follow that includes applicable outcomes and indicators. If teachers have a clear framework for lesson plans, each lesson will be high quality and easy for others to use. Teachers and curriculum designers must be able to edit content to make it align with the curriculum better. A useful model for this is a wiki which also tracks changes. It would be useful but not necessary to be able to upload any media type.
There must be a system to rate content based on cross-curricular competencies and the broad areas of learning. There must be a comment section for each lesson for teachers to evaluate and recommend the lesson. These systems allow good content to rise to the top of search pages. Curriculum designers must have the ability to tag questionable content and delete poorly made lesson plans.
A crowdsourced lesson plan database also needs to have multiple ways to search for content. This would include tagging, keyword searching, and searching by outcomes and indicators. Searching by outcomes and indicators also encourages creators of lesson plans to be aware of the curriculum.
A useful feature would also be a way of distinguishing users. On online message boards, users gain status by the amount of contributions they make. In a database it would be easy to include a simple descriptor, such as ‘star contributor’ or ‘curriculum consultant’, after certain names.
Saskatchewan needs a lesson plan database. We need to tap the great resource we have at our fingertips. Many teachers in our province already post lessons and ideas online, we need to share the knowledge that we have, on a professional crowdsourced database. We need to trust our teachers to create and evaluate lesson plans so that we can have a resource that is second to none.