Friday, February 12, 2010

A Web 2.0 Balancing Act of Crowd and Central Wisdom

Balancing Crowd Sourcing and Central Authority 
I'm articulating a new idea (at least for me): Web2.0 tools need the right mix of control and freedom to be useful. Here's the paradigm and my thoughts.

1, Pure Web2.0 let-everyone-contribute environments produce endless unfiltered content which is not much use without a lot of refinement. Think of sites where anyone can post a quiz or info (I won't name names) or think of the blogosphere and the net in general.

2. Old world textbook authority-driven educational materials are feeling incredibly outdated at this point.

Cases in point: Wikipedia lets people contribute but has a layer of editors and locks on controversial topics. They blend freedom with control for the best outcome.

Some background as to why this is on my mind. I created which is a big free online educational vocabulary and spelling site. Right now, it's approaching 1% penetration of usage by K5 teachers and students. Traditionally, we wrote all the sentences on the site which illustrate the use of the word both for clarity when you hear it on a test and for context, when you play the word-meaning games (MatchIt and WhichWord). We crowd-sourced feedback to help us fix sentences when our sentences weren't so good. (We are self-financed and when launching the site, I cut a few corners on the editing and writing on sentences which I sorely regret at this point).

Starting January 2010, we enabled teachers and parents writing and using their own custom sentences (for background on this, there's a 75 second Teacher Training Video). The outpouring of sentences was amazing. Over one thousand were written in the first three hours after launch. We found that they were written:

1. For multiple meaning words to get the right meaning: to weigh on a scale vs the fish scale vs to scale the mountain vs the map scale. BTW, this is the context that we envisaged.

2. For specific educational contexts. Some teachers have younger students, some older. Some teachers want the sentence to match the exact context of whatever lesson she has posted the lesson about.

3. For personalization. It turns out to be more fun if the sentences use the name of the teacher and the students and all sorts of local stuff. For nicest, eg Mrs Thomas is the nicest teacher in the world to students who pay attention!

4. Because it's fun.

We also found that the quality of the sentences was very very very uneven. While we look to this outpouring as a source of new sentences, we are finding that in fact, they often help us identify needs where we need alternatives but do not actually provide us with good sentences. Often, we'll review 30 sentences written with a given word and not find a single one that gives enough context while avoiding other problems (wordiness, grammatical errors, sensitivities). Usually, it's usually better for us to craft a new sentence than to try and find one that meets our criteria.

I was surprised not only by this fact but by the number of emails that I got from teachers advising us and asking us to NOT generally circulate sentences since that would wreck the quality of the site. Thoughts?

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