Crowdsourcing Authority in the Classroom

“A wacko holding forth on a soapbox.  If Ms. Davidson just wants to yammer and lead discussions, she should resign her position and head for a park or subway platform, and pass a hat for donations.”

That is an example of some of the negative comments I received when I wrote a blog on grading in my “Cat in the Stack” column on a website for the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory( HASTAC). I titled the post How To Crowdsource Grading and its premise grew out of a course I taught last year at Duke called “This Is Your Brain on the Internet”

In the course, we looked at everything that had to do with individuals and groups thinking together, on ways of managing collaboration, and on what collective thinking is, in terms ranging from the cognitive to the sociological. However, when I taught this course, I ended up using quite conventional grading methods. It was the students themselves (and the A students, not the B or C students) who, in their course evaluations, wisely suggested that I had to rethink grading. 

They were right.

So I posted a blog where I advocated a peer-to-peer system where the students leading our discussion for a class would also decide if the blog responses posted by the other students were satisfactory and, if not, would offer feedback on how to make them better.  Every study of learning says that you learn best by teaching someone else.  Why not make evaluation, standards, feedback, collaboration, and interaction yet another aspect of our brains on the internet, another area to explore together?

The point of “This Is Your Brain on the Internet” is to show how, in Internet culture, we are often judging, responding, offering feedback, and working together through crowdsourcing but our educational system rarely if ever does anything to prepare students for offering or receiving feedback.   In fact, very little in our society prepares us for responsible and responsive exchange.  Typically, we learn how to please a figure in power.  We do not practice or learn principles for helping one another through an iterative, interactive process.  In a digital age, everyone is offered an invitation to participate.  But where in our schooling or even in our informal learning process do we teach young people how to take responsibility for representing themselves in public, for participating in public dialogue?

I’m fascinated that the blogosphere was so annoyed with me for wanting to teach responsible judgment practices as part of my pedagogy. I think it is because grading, in a curious way, exemplifies our deepest convictions about excellence and authority, and specifically about the right of those with authority to define what constitutes excellence.  If we “crowdsource grading,” we are suggesting that those without authority can also determine excellence.  That is what happens in the non-refereed world of the internet, that’s what digital thinking is, and it is quite revolutionary. 

 If my students are going to thrive in this new world, they need to understand more about this process.  We all do.  As newspapers, magazines, publishing houses, tv and radio ratings and all other forms of traditional communication and entertainment falter or even collapse, we all have to understand more about what “Do It Yourself” really means.   In the workplace and in our communities, we have to learn more about how to make judgments, to offer feedback, and to take criticism from those who are not “the boss of us.”

Who teaches our kids the forms and mechanics of interactive judgment that they need if they are to succeed in the digital future?  We all need this skill.   That future is here.

A terrific resource is the “Community Based Learning” website based at Washington State University. It contains loads of data on peer evaluation and a smart discussion of the issues.