The Future of E-Learning is Crowdsourcing

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

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. I went to graduate school for years, read hundreds of books and thousands of articles, sat through countless hours in the classroom, participated in dozens of instructional design projects, created and taught several classes under the supervision of experienced professors, and worked with my classmates and people with real world experience solving actual problems in order to earn my Ph.D. and the right to be both a content area expert and an instructional design professional.  And along the way, I learned one lesson which surpasses all the others: good instructional design requires a collaborative effort. So let’s explore my skepticism about the crowdsourcing phenomenon that is starting to creep into the public consciousness through efforts such as, and, and that will eventually overtake higher education.

What is Crowdsourcing?
Even ten years ago, the concept of crowdsourcing was completely alien to the average person. The basic concept behind crowdsourcing comes from a June 2006 article by Jeff Howe for in which he described the phenomenon as a new and innovative business plan borrowing from the Wiki model and outsourcing. In Howe’s idea, like-minded and qualified, though unaffiliated (self-employed) individuals would collaborate via the Internet to provide needed services for less than it costs to have a larger, established organization do it. Here is Howe describing the concept himself.

So, right off the bat, I need to correct a common misrepresentation that I repeated in my first paragraph. Crowdsourcing is not intended to be “random people from around the Web,” but, rather to serve as a tool for bringing together qualified, though distributed individuals. However, while Howe’s model may be great for digital photography, can it really work for something as intellectually nuanced as instructional design?

A Closer Look at Instructional Design
Online instructional design is an extremely complex process which pulls from the fields of psychology, learning science, education, curricular design, computer science, HCI, and others while also requiring the input of a subject-matter expert. There are few graduate programs in the U.S. that offer degrees in instructional design (ID). So finding a single individual who is trained in the process is relatively challenging. Because of this, you find that, in many organizational training departments, ID is undertaken as a group effort. It is, in fact, a process that is best done collaboratively by an intentionally assembled design team. Many colleges and universities which offer online courses do employ this model:  a design team which includes a trained instructional designer, technical support personnel, and subject matter or content experts. Actually, given a lack of technical training, instructional design training, or both on the part of many content experts, this is a necessary model to employ.

To address the complexity of the design process, many institutions already turn to the Web for help filling their internal gaps as it allows them to pull from a wider pool of resources than they have in-house. Turning to Howe’s model of how crowdsourcing can work, the idea of distributed contributors to an ID project seems like it falls right in line with the best practices for course design. There is no reason to think that any one institution has the best instructional designers, graphic artists, technical specialists, or subject matter experts in residence, or can even afford to have all of them on salary. Crowdsourcing actually has the potential to improve the quality of the online courses produced for almost any institution, particularly those that may not have the budget to employ top quality staff to facilitate their course design.

A Foregone Conclusion
So I think that I have convinced myself that controlled or managed crowdsourcing (as opposed to Wikipedia’s completely open model) actually is very much in line with the way in which online courses should be created. The logical question then becomes, what are the advantages and disadvantages of crowdsourcing the design of online courses?

Breaking with a comfortable model is one of the biggest disadvantages to making this change. Institutional or individual pushback when any change is proposed in a college or university is going to happen. Academics don’t like to have their routine disrupted or to be forced to learn new ways of interacting when there is a perfectly good method already in place (who does?).  They also fall prey to the natural human need to protect what they view as theirs – in this case, their knowledge. There are also several logistical issues that need to be ironed out in order to integrate a temporary and distributed workforce into your workflow. Another obstacle to overcome is in dealing with problems of bringing in "outsiders" to work with proprietary or sensitive information. But, if Howe is correct, and the crowdsource model is considerably less expensive than housing your own trained specialists, can universities really afford not to consider the possibility?

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.

Crowdsourcing of some aspect of the creation of online learning content seems like a foregone conclusion. At some point in the not-too-distant-future, I believe that many jobs, maybe even a majority of jobs, will be performed online as we move towards a crowdsourced world. We will work with a distributed network of people, who we may never meet, to create things for other people who we may never meet. Seems a little sad, until you think about how much time working from home, online can free up to spend with your family and friends


Image: fotographic1980 /


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