EdCamps are all the rage, but is crowdsourcing of pro-d really such a good idea? The world abounds with conspiracy theorists, holocaust deniers and alien abduction survivors masquerading as normal folks, and they don’t hesitate to jump into public discourse – see the comments section of any online newspaper for example. A surprising number of fanatics even get themselves elected to public office. I’m not naming names here because I don’t want to be sued, but I bet we can all think of several examples. Do we really think that the educational sphere is devoid of such fervent but wrongheaded beliefs. Zeroes anyone? How is it then that an open forum like EdCamp is supposed to find its way forward to innovative practices that will improve student learning rather than just reinforcing prejudices and replicating favourite strategies from the past? Is the Twittersphere immune to the human preference for the familiar, the inclination to rose-coloured self-protective wishful thinking about one’s own effectiveness and plain old zealotry?
The idea behind crowdsourcing is that a transparent public process can tap into the “wisdom of the crowd,” which Surowiecki claims has the potential to exceed the intelligence of any one expert. That sounds good, and I think we all appreciate that grounded experience in the classroom has much to offer that teachers cannot get from theoretical musings with weak linkage to actual practice, but blind faith in collective wisdom may simply lead to a self-referencing spiral of conservative conventionality spiced with random excursions into novelty that quickly return to base camp. Where do the new ideas come from and how are they evaluated? Is enthusiastic and confident declaration by an advocate to be taken as an indication of merit? How can constructive critique be brought into the mix and how can we ensure that each EdCamp builds on the last rather than always starting from scratch?
In the world of research there is a structured process of peer review to support publications intended as a running record of learning. Unfortunately, as Kuhn has shown in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the recognized elite can be a conservative force whose vested interest inhibits innovation and gives prominence to incremental embellishment of current orthodoxies. This generally arises not from malevolent intent, but rather from what Chris Argyris has termed “the defensiveness of experts” – an inclination to project confident understanding and suppress uncertainty in order to protect their reputation as an expert. The establishment always tends to perpetuate itself.
If those who think that disruptive transformation is required in order for school systems to keep pace with the hectic rate of change in the world at large and successfully prepare students for an unknown and rapidly evolving future are correct – and I am one of them – then we need EdCamps and other mechanisms for broad-based dialogue, bold innovation and rapid sharing of ideas. Virtual communities that enable richly connected networks which extend the power of individual minds are essential, but this new horizon begs questions of quality, continuity and cumulative impact. Hierarchically credentialed authority in education and academia has many shortcomings, but so do the new technologically mediated democratic structures of participatory culture. Our enthusiasm for them has to be tempered with healthy skepticism and a wide-awake willingness to encounter the underbelly of crowdsourcing reduced to enthusiastic but cacophonous opining and groupthink.
In Surowiecki’s thesis, the wisdom of the crowd can emerge if there is a diverse array of informed individuals with complementary perspectives on an issue and an effective way of compiling and consolidating their opinions. An EdCamp meets some of these criteria, but not all of them. In continuing to develop this promising new practice, how can we enhance the experience by encouraging diverse participation and developing better methods of consolidating the information and experience inherent in it? Can it move beyond early adopters to include and influence the mainstream majority?
In a recent presentation at the CEA Annual Conference, Bruce Dixon proclaimed that “diversity trumps curation,” and cited Wikipedia as an example, but that potential is neither automatic nor guaranteed without the right scaffolding. Social networking ensures that there will be diversity and makes curation impossible in its realm. This can be a good thing, and even a great thing, but it all depends on how we use it.