Sunday, January 3, 2016

MOOCs and crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing is a method of sharing work between a theoretically unlimited amount of people and allows enthusiasts from all over the world to collaborate on a project. The most famous example is Wikipedia where millions of people have contributed to varying degrees to produce the largest reference work ever and now available in hundreds of languages. Projects like this would be impossible using conventional methods but have succeeded through contributors' dedication and willingness to contribute to a common purpose, without a thought of financial gain. If open crowdsourcing (there are more commercial variations too) can achieve so much could there be implications for massive online learning? Many crowdsourcing projects involve massive collaboration over a limited space of time to achieve a clear objective and the similarities between this and a MOOC are striking.

This is the subject of an intriguing new article by John Prpić, James Melton, Araz Taeihagh and Terry AndersonMOOCs and crowdsourcing: Massive courses and massive resources (First Monday, Volume 20, Number 12). The original connectivist cMOOCs explored the potential of large groups of hundreds or even thousands of learners exploring a subject together, sharing knowledge, co-creating new resources and forming networks to investigate further. This type of educational ecosystem sometimes lasted well beyond the confines of the original course and became a variation on the crowdsourcing concept. The later more massive xMOOCs (Coursera, EdX, FutureLearn etc) form massive communities but seldom extend beyond the framework of the typically 6-8 week course format.

The article outlines a number of similarities between cMOOCs, xMOOCs and open collaboration crowdsourcing such as how IT is used for collaboration, different levels of openness, different types of crowd (general or specialised) and the size of crowd. The authors investigate potential areas of development for MOOCs based on crowdsourcing. One interesting avenue is to crowdsource feedback and formative assessment where large numbers of volunteers could each provide valuable interaction with learners as microtasks.

For example, already existing rubrics could be transposed into microtasks, or one entire microtask, to be put to virtual labor market crowds for evaluation. Then, given that virtual labor markets allow the massively parallel undertaking of tasks at low cost, virtual labor market evaluation of student work could provide almost instant assessment feedback. Though some may doubt a crowd’s ability to render accurate assessments, the research indicates that in some very complicated venues a crowd can perform as well or better than experts (Lee, 2013; Mitry, et al., 2013; Mortensen, et al., 2013).

Considering the dedication shown by Wikipedia contributors without any tangible recognition or payment as motivation there could be potential in crowdsourcing MOOC evaluation. However given the commercial nature of the main MOOC consortia (compared to the non-commercial, open, sharing culture of say Wikipedia) any MOOC solution should include some system of micropayments as motivation. Alternatively I can see space for microcredentials such as badges for those who volunteer to help MOOC learners. Students could earn badges for contributing to a MOOC that can enhance their CVs, showing professional engagement and proof of facilitation and assesment skills. This idea is no threat to teachers since they have no chance of even attempting to provide personal feedback to learners on a course with thousands of participants. Today's automatic testing provides basic feedback but direct contact with a human facilitator could provide the spark that can enhance completion rates. The challenge for MOOC-providers is to harness the potential of crowdsourcing and develop facilitator communities, possible by recruiting successful participants from previous MOOCs and providing attractive incentives.

Could a MOOC be run as a crowdsourcing project, offering a collaborative space to allow large communities to investigate and discuss a common topic? Where do we draw a border between a MOOC and a community or do we even need to define borderlines? Maybe the C in MOOC could stand for either course (a structured and limited format of guided instruction) or community (a less structured arena for collaboration around a common topic). The ideal scenario would be that a successful course seamlessly evolves into a dynamic community that takes over after the course ends.

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