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Leveraging Diversity in the Classroom – Some Resources

Posted by on Wednesday, February 23, 2011 in News.

by Derek Bruff, CFT Assistant Director

Last night I facilitated a teaching workshop titled “Leveraging Diversity: The Wisdom of Crowds in University Teaching.” The workshop was co-sponsored by the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, & Learning (CIRTL), a six campus network sponsored by the National Science Foundation focused on preparing future faculty in the sciences, engineering, and mathematics. One of the three “pillars” of CIRTL’s work is learning-through-diversity, the idea that not only should diversity be respected in the college classroom but also that it can enhance the learning experience for students. Yesterday’s workshop was my effort to explore ways to implement this idea in university teaching, drawing on some sources that aren’t in the traditional diversity literature–research and writing on the idea of crowdsourcing.

My primary source for the workshop was The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. He makes the argument that the collective judgment of a diverse group of people is often better than the judgment of any individual expert. Surowiecki points out a few conditions that need to be satisfied for the “wisdom of crowds” to work: individuals must have some amount of independence when contributing ideas and perspectives, the process must be decentralized to some degree (and not controlled entirely from the top), and there must be some kind of aggregation tool that combines individual contributions into a single solution to the problem. While reading this book, I wondered if some of the same mechanisms that allow crowds to make good decisions might also help students learn from each other in productive ways. That is, I wondered if “crowdsourcing” might be a way to leverage the diversity of our students to help them learn.

Here’s my Prezi for the workshop. It provides a sense of how I used the term “diversity” as well as an introduction to various forms of crowdsourcing that have potential in college teaching.

I drew on four books for the theoretical framework for this workshop:

(That’s a bit of a fib. I haven’t read The Difference, but I did read this interview with Scott Page and the paper he published with Lu Hong offering a mathematical model for why diverse groups of problem-solvers outperform groups of “high ability” problem solvers.)

And here are a few ideas and resources for each of the crowdsourcing examples I mentioned in the workshop:

  • Quora – Something of an alternative to Wikipedia, Quora is structured around questions and answers. Anyone can pose a question and anyone can answer a question. You can also vote on other people’s answers. Answers with the most votes rise to the top. Also, in contrast to Wikipedia, where you have to look pretty hard to find out who contributed to individual articles, in Quora all contributions are clearly identified. This gives the site a bit of a social network feel–you can “follow” other users, for instance. For some ideas on the use of Quora in teaching, see the answers on Quora to the question, “How can I best use Quora as a tool for the classes I teach?
  • Prediction Markets – These crowdsourcing tools allow users to bet fake money on the answers to particular questions. In the Iowa Electronic Markets, hosted by the University of Iowa, users can bet on the outcomes of upcoming elections. For example, if the market says there’s a 30% chance that Candidate A will win and you buy shares in Candidate A, those shares will cost you $30 each. If Candidate A does indeed win, you cash in those shares for $100 (since at that point, there’s a 100% chance Candidate A wins). If Candidate A loses, you lose your $30 per share investment. These markets can be used to predict the outcomes of those elections. Why? Because if enough people with enough different perspectives weigh in on something like who’s going to be elected president, the collective judgment is pretty good. See also the prediction market hosted by the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE) aimed at predicting the educational technology landscape. I’m an active trader there!How might you use prediction markets in your teaching? If you’re teaching a course that addresses current events, you could ask your students to predict the outcome of various emerging events. In an engineering course, you could ask students which of several designs will best achieve a certain goal, then implement those designs to determine which was indeed the best. One workshop participant mentioned that in any course you could ask students to predict the average grade on an upcoming test! The idea is to pose a question that will have a definite answer but is open to debate prior to the reveal of that answer. The market then provides a framework and motivation for students to engage in online and in-class discussions about the question at hand.
  • Google Moderator – While discussing prediction markets, one workshop participant noted that while they may encourage discussion, the questions and answer choices are determined by a central authority, like the instructor. What about more open-ended crowdsourcing tools? Google Moderator is one such tool. You set up a session within Moderator, then send your students a link to that session. They can then contribute ideas or questions as well as vote each other’s contributions up or down. The more popular contributions rise to the top. This works well as a Q&A tool (by having students contribute questions they have about a particular topic, reading, or lecture) or as a brainstorming tool. For example, see the Moderator session I used at a recent conference talk in which participants brainstormed reasons why faculty don’t adopt innovative technologies in their teaching. Moderator also allows students and instructors to leave comments on individual contributions, which can be a useful way to address the “long tail” of contributions–those contributions that don’t get voted up but are still worth exploring.
  • Wikis – Wikis (like Wikipedia) allow people to collaboratively write and edit documents online. The educational example of wikis I gave in the workshop was the Skidmore College Greek Tragedy wiki. In this course, taught by classics professor Daniel Curley, students worked in small groups to write faux Greek tragedies. Each group documented their work and indeed drafted their dramas on the course wiki. See Group Alpha’s final product as an example. More interestingly, see the history of changes made to the rough draft of Group Alpha’s tragedy to see some of the ways each group member contributed to the writing process. The Prezi above features a few quotes from Alpha members in their post-project reflections noting the importance of having a diverse group.
  • Social Bookmarking – Last fall I taught a first-year writing seminar on the history and mathematics of cryptography (making and breaking codes and ciphers). One of the ways students could contribute to their class participation grades was to share relevant websites, articles, and other online resources with the class. I asked students to create accounts on the social bookmarking service Delicious and to bookmark relevant websites within Delicious, tagging them with the course-specific “fywscrypto” tag. This meant that by searching Delicious for that tag, one can easily see all the bookmarks saved by my students. I made sure to spend at least 10 minutes during class each week having students do a bit of a “show and tell” on their recent bookmarks. This helped connect the out-of-class social bookmarking activity with in-class discussions. And since students were free to pursue their own interests when seeking out cryptography-related websites, the diversity of their interests (military history, computer security, detective fiction) was reflected in the course bookmark collection.
  • One-Best-Answer Clicker Questions – I couldn’t let a workshop go by without mentioning clickers! Like prediction markets, clicker questions can leverage the multiple-choice format to frame and motivate class discussion. One type of clicker question that works particularly well for this–and leverage the diversity among students–is the “one-best-answer question.” These questions don’t have single correct answers like the multiple-choice questions you see on exams. Instead, these questions ask students to select the “one best” answer from among competing alternatives. See the Prezi for a couple of examples, including a question from philosophy professor John Immerwahr of Villanova University (taken from this article) and a couple of “counterfactual” clicker questions inspired by a blog post by Rob MacDougall, who teaches history at the University of Western Ontario.

We ended the session by crowdsourcing a set of key characteristics of crowdsourcing activities that make them useful learning activities. I’ll post a summary of that activity in a future blog post. For now, I hope the ideas above have gotten your creative juices flowing. Please share your ideas for using the “wisdom of crowds” in your teaching in the comments below. (In other words, let’s keep crowdsourcing this!)

Update: For even more on this session, including some discussion of those key characteristics, see my blog post over on my personal blog.

Image: “Colourful army,” maistora, Flickr (CC)

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