Lentis/Crowdsourcing Higher Education



Crowdsourcing, a form of mass collaboration, is defined as a process of distributing tasks to an undefined group of people. With computers and the Internet increasingly becoming a part of our everyday lives, Web 2.0 technology is the primary medium for many crowdsourcing activities. These activities range from getting simple answers for questions posed, to sourcing graphic design and complex business plans. This chapter focuses on the implications of crowdsourcing on institutionalized education and the perspectives in the pedagogical debate as academics evaluate its effectiveness and increasingly embrace crowdsourcing in the classroom.

Current Uses


Student notes and homework solutions


Students often seek homework help from question and answer websites like Cramster and Yahoo! Answers. These websites are highly popular as they enable students to crowdsource learning by posting problems and solutions. In 2009, Cramster had over 6,200 registered users,[1] while Yahoo! Answers boasted 9.06 million answered questions as of November 2012.[2] College students comprise the majority of Cramster's user base. According to Rob Angarita, president and co-founder of Cramster, 15 percent of the site's users are high school students, 2 to 3 percent are educators, and the remainder are university students.[1] Students are utilizing websites such as SparkNotes and CliffsNotes to crowdsource literature reading guides and book summaries. Flashnotes, a marketplace where students can buy and sell their notes and other course materials, is growing in popularity and seeks to expand across North America with $1.8 million in seed funding obtained in late 2012.[3]

Educational resource sharing


Crowdsourcing online has become an essential tool for educators to share ideas and resources. One example is the #edchat discussion on Twitter. Teachers from all over the world uses #edchat to share and discuss innovative ideas they have about the classroom. The discussion sessions are organized every Tuesday and involve as many as a thousand educators posting three thousand tweets in an hour. Another tool for educators is BetterLesson, a social network website for sharing lesson plans and instructional resources.[4] According to the company blog, it has over 300,000 posted resources and 70,000 educators involved worldwide.[5]

Inside the classroom

Students Write Wikipedia - lecture, Faculty of Science, Prague 2012

Crowdsourcing is being used directly in classrooms to engage students, increase student participation, get student feedback, create course content, and even determine grades. A popular example is the clicker, an audience response tool designed to get quick feedback from students and encourage classroom learning through “peer instruction”.[6] One such product on the market is promoted to have been "adopted by more than 1000 higher educational institutions in North America and used by over 2 million students".[7] Microblogging services like Twitter are also being used in classrooms to increase student participation. Professor Rankin at the University of Texas at Dallas taught her history class through classroom discussion on Twitter once a week,[8] and a professor at the Pennsylvania State University encouraged students to pass notes in class using Twitter.[9] Colleges are also investing in commercial learning management systems that facilitate crowdsourcing in classrooms through online collaboration tools. As a supplement to these systems, the Social Media Classroom provides additional social media functionality for learning in the classroom.[10] Teachers are also crowdsourcing the teaching and grading process to students. Most notably, Professor Cathy Davison of Duke University enabled students in her “This is Your Brain on the Internet” class to take turns to design their own curriculum and grade one another’s assignments.[11] Another example is Coursera, an online education portal offering online courses. Coursera trains its students to grade assessments and combines multiple crowdsourced assessments to obtain a "highly accurate score".[12]

Positive Reception


Helpful resources


Students generally find Cramster and other question and answer websites very helpful as study tools, especially in areas of mathematics, science and engineering. They can get hints and check homework answers, as well as practice and study for tests. This is especially useful when their professors are not immediately accessible. Websites with crowdsourced notes and book summaries are often hailed as "lifesavers" for reading-intensive classes.[13]

I'm in engineering, so it's a lot of technical and math questions. The way I learn best is by doing a lot of problems. I can do a problem on Cramster and look up the answer. I use it as more of a study tool. I didn't study as good last year because I didn't have the answers to the problems, and Cramster lets me check that.

—Johnsma, a student who uses Cramster[1]

Peer learning


Students generally see value in the online tools made available through school learning management systems. Students say they love the "personal classroom feel"[14] when using them, and a survey of university students indicates that the discussion tool is one of the most useful features on a learning management system.Invalid parameter in <ref> tag Shy students are more likely to engage in discussions through crowdsourcing technology like Twitter.[9] Peer learning that occurs with these techniques is seen to significantly increase learning and raise student interest levels,[6] since working in groups and talking to their classmates reinforces learning.[15] A professor that employed clickers in the classroom said, "students did seem really interested in seeing how the questions were answered by their classmates. They would react when they saw the graph."[6]

For me, this was a moment of revelation. … for the first time in over 20 years of lecturing I knew… that over half the class didn't ‘get it’…. Because I had already explained the phenomenon as clearly as I could, I simply asked the students to debate briefly with their neighbors and see who could convince whom about which answer was correct. The class erupted into animated conversation. After a few minutes, I asked for a revote, and now over 90% gave the correct answer…

—A professor on using clickers in the classroom[6]

Keith Sawyer, author of the book Group Genius, said, "all inventions emerge from a long sequence of small sparks...Collaboration brings small sparks together to generate breakthrough innovation".[16] For educators, this long sequence of sparks is initially built from extensive educating experiences. However, through the use of technology such as BetterLesson and #edchat discussion, educators can actively share these "small sparks" instead of passively waiting.

Peer evaluation


As an early adopter of crowdsourcing grading, Professor Davison commented that her class had far exceeded expectations, and that it would "take a lot" to get her back to a "conventional form of grading ever again". She and several other academics advocate that “every study of peer review among students shows that students perform at a higher level, and with more care, when they know they are being evaluated by their peers than when they know only the teacher and the TA will be grading.”[17] Brad Zakarin, an independent education consultant, wrote a blog post suggesting that Coursera could further improve its system of crowdsourcing academic integrity by requiring students to track peer citations to maintain the honor code of its online community.[18]

Exposure to the real world


Crowdsourcing can give students "real world experience in coming up with creative solutions to important problems".[19] This is because "many of our students’ future jobs will involve some level of crowdsourcing or collaboration."[20]

I believe our classrooms must resemble a student’s larger reality, rather than be artificial and stagnant environments, disconnected from the rest of the world. To that aim, I believe that just as businesses are democratizing their media to include their customers’ changing attitudes, needs and desires, the classroom should also democratize learning to accommodate for 21st Century prosumers.

—Bob Spankle[20]



Compromising the learning process


While crowdsourcing facilitates collaboration among participants, not all participants contribute equally to the activity. Some inevitably free ride on the outcomes for personal gain. As students can often get very good answers to homework problems from crowdsourcing websites, teachers are concerned that students can post their homework online for others to do it for them. Students may also copy top-rated answers from these websites to boost homework grades, violating academic honor principles that may govern homework submission. Academics worry that websites such as Cramster will make cheating easier, while compromising the learning objectives of homework problems.

Lack of quality and organization


As participants in crowdsourcing are inherently non-experts from an uncontrolled group, academics are skeptical of using crowdsourcing to generate educational material.

Call me a skeptic, but the idea of having random people from around the Web collaborating in the creation of e-learning content for accredited online degree programs seems absurd.

—Justin Marquis PhD[21]

This is a quote taken out of context. The entire article is in favor of managed crowdsourcing. Justin Marquis Ph.D.

"The advantages to crowdsourced instructional design are: financial savings through reduced overhead and benefits, expanded technical abilities for those on campus who will need to do the collaboration, the possibility of higher-quality content production, and a diversification of the views represented in the course materials produced. This final point, diversity of perspective, should not be undervalued. Knowledge is not the sole and proprietary property of the content area expert. Incorporating a diverse design team into the creation of online educational content can increase the perspective on what is being created and help to mediate biases, oversights, or false assumptions that may exist and be perpetuated by a single individual working alone."

Issues in quality are most apparent in online crowdsourcing platforms, where users constantly generate non-useful content.

Users are signing up for Q&A services that it becomes hard to keep the good, relevant questions visible because there are too many unrelated or irrelevant questions and answers being submitted

—The founders of Quora, a Q&A website[22]

Crowdsourcing can be challenging to implement and organize in the classroom. For example, coordination is needed to set up Twitter accounts for all students in a class, potentially delaying useful online discussion for a few sessions.[23] Information on Twitter is disjointed as replies to specific tweets are difficult to track with other tweets constantly streaming in.[24] For instance, the large volume of tweets during a #edchat discussion session makes it difficult to filter low quality contributions and discover useful information.

Could you call a crowdsourcing initiative a success when a large number of contributions are received that are generally of very low quality?

—Irma Borst, Associate Researcher at RSM Erasmus University[25]

Unaligned incentives


Be it in the classroom or online, the culture of a crowdsourcing collaborative determines the expectations of participation in the community. Question and answer websites like Cramster rely on users motivated by monetary and non-monetary gains to contribute solutions. Expected standards for quality contributions vary by community. According to a user of a certain online crowdsourcing platform, a good response on the website "can take an hour or more to write".[26] Participants not motivated by the same incentives as the community possibly undermine the objectives of crowdsourcing. In the classroom, some students who prefer a competitive class atmosphere dislike the use of clickers for cooperative learning activities.[27] Some professors believe it is too difficult to maintain consistency and legitimacy of crowdsourced grading, especially in larger classrooms where it is difficult to prevent students from collaborating on grading to artificially inflate their grades.[28]



There are many opinions as to how crowdsourcing through technology can be used by students and teachers to add value to education. These perspectives provide several insights to the social interface of technology. The academic community exhibits a certain level of path dependency, as well-established methods for instruction are seen as "harder and harder" to change.[17] The culture of collaborative communities also plays an important role in determining the value that participants give and receive in crowdsourcing. While technology is making crowdsourcing more reliable and accessible, educators are rethinking how they teach and deliver content in the classroom as "better tools do not by themselves make for better pedagogy".[29] Crowdsourcing through technology is causing a shift in the mental model for both teaching and learning. This is a paradigm change that will impact the way education is delivered in the future.


  1. a b c Jarka, D. (2009). The Spectrum: Crasmter craze hits campuses. Retrieved from http://www.ubspectrum.com/news/cramster-craze-hits-campuses-1.1413461#.UMpBHINQXdU
  2. Find the Data (2012). Retrieved from http://questions-and-answers.findthedata.org/
  3. Lunden, I. (2012). Crowdsourcing In The Classroom: Flashnotes Gets $1.8M Seed Round From Atlas, Softbank And Angels For Its Study Marketplace. Retrieved from http://techcrunch.com/2012/10/25/crowdsourcing-in-the-classroom-flashnotes-gets-1-8m-seed-round-from-atlas-softbank-and-angels-for-its-notes-and-flashcard-marketplace/
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  9. a b Young, J. R. (2009). Professor Encourages Students to Pass Notes During Class — via Twitter. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/professor-encourages-students-to-pass-notes-during-class-via-twitter/4619
  10. SocialMediaClassroom (2012). Retrieved from http://socialmediaclassroom.com/index.php/using-the-smc
  11. Angela (2010). Incorporating Crowdsourcing in Today's College Classrooms. Retrieved from http://www.crowdsourcing.org/editorial/incorporating-crowdsourcing-in-todays-college-classrooms/1888
  12. Coursera (2012). Retrieved from https://www.coursera.org/about/pedagogy
  13. McClain, J. (2009). 7 Alternatives to SparkNotes & CliffsNotes for Book Summaries. Retrieved from http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/7-alternatives-to-sparknotes-cliffsnotes-for-book-summaries/
  14. Morrison, Debbie (2012). What Students really think about Online Learning…. Retrieved from http://onlinelearninginsights.wordpress.com/2012/06/04/what-students-really-think-about-online-learning/
  15. Caldwell, J. E. Clickers in the Large Classroom: Current Research and Best-Practice Tips. Retrieved from http://www.lifescied.org/content/6/1/9.full
  16. Sawyer, K. (2007). Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. New York, NY: Basic Books.
  17. a b Davidson, C. (2009). How To Crowdsource Grading. Retrieved from http://hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/how-crowdsource-grading
  18. Zakarin, B. (2012). Crowdsourcing Academic Integrity in Online Education. Retrieved from http://bzeducon.com/1/post/2012/8/crowdsourcing-academic-integrity-in-online-education.html
  19. Lindblom, M. (2011). Why Every College Should Start Crowdsourcing. Retrieved from http://mashable.com/2011/07/19/crowdsourcing-college/
  20. a b Sprankle, B. (2009). Four Weeks to a Flatter Us. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/teachers/blogs/2009/07/four_weeks_to_a_flatter_us.html
  21. Marquis, J. (2011). The Future of E-Learning is Crowdsourcing. Retrieved from http://www.onlineuniversities.com/blog/2011/11/the-future-of-e-learning-is-crowdsourcing/
  22. Rasmussen, E. H. (2012). Essential Tools for Crowdsourcing Answers to Your Questions. Retrieved from http://www.instantshift.com/2012/05/08/essential-tools-for-crowdsourcing-answers-to-your-questions/
  23. Rankin, M. (2009). The Twitter Experiment - Twitter in the Classroom [Motion Picture]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6WPVWDkF7U8
  24. Rankin, M. (2009). Some general comments on the “Twitter Experiment”. Retrieved from http://www.utdallas.edu/~mrankin/usweb/twitterconclusions.htm
  25. Borst, I. (2011). The case for and against crowdsourcing. Retrieved from http://www.crowdsourcing.org/editorial/the-case-for-and-against-crowdsourcing-part-2/2850
  26. Rivilin, G. (2011). Does Quora Really Have All the Answers? Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/04/ff_quora/all/1
  27. Knight, J. K., Wood, W. B. Teaching more by lecturing less. Cell Biol. Educ. 2005;4:298-310. http://www.lifescied.org/content/4/4/298
  28. Jennie (2011). Crowdsource Grading. Retrieved from http://jennievc.blogspot.com/2011/04/crowdsource-grading.html
  29. Grant, S. (2008). Social Media Classroom: Howard Rheingold Invites a Community of Practice to Participate. Retrieved from http://hastac.org/blogs/slgrant/social-media-classroom-howard-rheingold-invites-community-practice-participate