The web has changed the way politics and business manage the public: Recovery.org helps President Obama’s administration understand how public monies are being used to stimulate the economy; Open Street Map gathers the wisdom of the crwod to produce a map that is more up-to-date than any commercially produced online map could hope to be; Dell’s Ideastorm or My Starbucks Idea involve customers in making the companies’ products better. This phenomenon is called crowd-sourcing: pulling together the ideas of the wider community to make something better with their collective intelligence and ideas, often using online tools to do so.
What’s the educational equivalent? It would seem that learning and teaching has missed out on high profile, large scale and ambitious attempts to pull the collaborative power of the crowd in the area where it matters most: what and, more importantly, how are children are taught.
In East Lothian three years ago we were very much at the sharp end of trying to encourage more teachers, students and their parents to use social media such as blogs, photo-sharing sites and YouTube, to share the outcomes of learning straight from the classroom to the web. No ‘walled gardens’, no ‘safe education-only environment’. We set out with a vision that the most important skill young people could learn over and above those nurtured by the teacher in the classroom was how to manage what we share online, outside in the world wide web.It was a real venture, striking forward in a way no-one had done at that scale in education before: 45 schools, 1500 teachers, up to 45,000 students and parents. As such, there were no ready-made templates of acceptable use policies that would work with these social media.Instead of attempting to create a virgin version, with all the biases and understandings of technology that we take for granted (and therefore no chance of actually affecting practice on the ground), we made the call to start at zero.
We launched two wiki pages, pages that anyone can edit, one for students and the other for teachers. We then gave all those interested two weeks to create the policy that all students and teachers would have to sign off to start sharing online. (I’ve just had a look at the pages now as I write this – they were last edited two hours ago by a computing science teacher).The process was painless, and by giving everyone who wanted it some buy in to this policy formation, we ended up with a policy that didn’t just sit in ring-binders, unread and unused. We had a policy that created better practice and more awareness.We’ve also created policy that can change at the pace of the technology, and we see teachers making an effort to reread the policy before recommencing or starting a new social media project in class, just to see how things may have changed.
At a national level, we have seen in the U.K. the beginnings of a pivot in how policy will be formed. In March 2010, I helped organize BectaX, a three-month policy conversation carried out through interviews, a conference and, above all, online. Its purpose: to explore how education policy needs to adapt in 2010 to harness the potential of technologies such as social media, gaming and mobile. In the one day of our face-to-face event we saw over 3500 Twitter posts debating the issues far beyond the conference hall (our education policy event was Number 1 trending topic on Twitter all day, above pop acts and major news stories). With the very policy organization after which the event was named, Becta, the government body which promotes technology in learning, now axed by our new Government, the legacy of crowd-sourced policy-making at a national level is particularly potent. My biggest fear, is would be that the education community at large don’t use, it , or know how to use, the apparatus of crowdsourced decision-making and policy-forming: from Twitter hashtags that bring people’s ideas together under one stream of consciousness, to following linked conversations and readings on blogs, to contributing to webpages anyone can edit (wikis) or specific groups (Google Wave documents). it.
I’ve not seen many examples (any?) of school leaders having the confidence, or the knowledge, to crowdsource their policy-making in this way. Perhaps, they argue, groups of committees could look at them and make changes.However representative a committee might believe itself to be, nothing can be the raw inclusion of, potentially, every educational citizen in our school communities.Sometimes it may fail. As James Cameron has put it, Failure is an option, fear is not. We need to try things out to see if the result is better than the status quo.
But we also have to rethink our definition of ‘success’ in policy-making. What, for you, makes a successful policy in the education world? How do teachers, parents and students, currently perceive policy-making and how could really opening up that process to them change that perception into a more positive relationship between school leader and education citizens?