Sharing Notes about Collective Intelligence

Last week, my travels took me to San Antonio where I delivered one of the keynote addresses at the Educause Learning Initiative conference — a gathering focused on the application of technology for learning at the college and university level. My presentation, “What Wikipedia Can Teach Us About New Media Literacies,” drew on materials we have been developing through Project nml and was based in an article, originally published here on the blog, soon to appear in The Journal of Media Literacy. The conference organizers are distributing a podcast of the talk.

One of the highlights of the Educause Learning Initiative conference is the release of the 2008 Horizon Report. Each year, the New Media Consortium and the Educause Learning Initiative work together to prepare a report “that seeks to identify and describe emerging technologies likely to have a large impact on teaching, learning, or creative expressions within learning-focused organizations.” The report positions these technologies in terms of their likely horizons of impact on higher learning — hence the report’s name.

This year’s report profiles the following technologies:

  • Grassroots Video — “virtually anyone can capture, edit, and share short video clips, using inexpensive equipment (such as a cell phone) and free or nearly free software.”
  • Collaboration Webs — “collaboration no longer calls for expensive equipment and specialized expertise. The newest tools for collaborative work are small, flexible, and free, and require no installation.”
  • Mobile Broadband — “each year, more than a billion new mobile devices are manufactured — or a new phone for every six people on the planet….New displays and interfaces make it possible to use mobiles to access almost any Internet content — content that can be delivered over either a broadband cellular network or a local wireless network.”
  • Data Mashups — “mashups– custom applications where combinations of data from different sources are ‘mashed up’ into a single tool — offer new ways to look at and interact with datasets.”
  • Collective Intelligence — “the kind of knowledge and understanding that emerges from large groups of people is collective intelligence.”
  • Social Operating Systems — “the essential ingredient of next generation social networking, social operating systems, is that they will base the organization of the network around people, rather than around content…Social operating systems will support whole new categories of applications that weave through the implicit connections and clues we leave everywhere as we go about our lives, and use them to organize our work and our thinking around the people we know.”

The presenters, and some of the attendees, signaled some disappointment that Virtual Worlds did not make the final cut this year, suggesting that there is still some disagreement about their viability and their long-term impact on education.

The Horizon report can be downloaded off the web and goes into some detail about each of these technologies and processes. I was personally very pleased to see such a strong focus not simply on collective intelligence but in other forms of collaboration and social networking. As we suggested in our white paper for the MacArthur Foundation, newer forms of literacy might best be understood as social rather than individual skills, having to do with the ways we share knowledge and pool resources within a larger community. Our white paper identifies collective intelligence as a core social skill and cultural competency which young people need to acquire if they want to meaningfully participate in the new media landscape.

The Horizon report situates collective intelligence on a Time-to-Adoption Horizon of Four to Five Years, though they identify forms of collective intelligence at work within many of the current Web 2.0 applications. They identify a range of current applications of collective intelligence principles in projects shaping environmental studies, history, meteorology and astronomy.

In the past, I have drawn a distinction between collective intelligence (based on the work of Pierre Levy) and “the Wisdom of the Crowds” model (proposed by James Surowiecki). The first is based on a model of deliberation in which diverse groups of people consciously compare notes and work through problems together. The second is based on a model of aggregation as individual decisions made autonomously get collected and mapped through some technology. The Horizon report makes a similar distinction:

“Two new forms of information stores are being created in real time by thousands of people in the course of their daily activities, some explicitly collaborating to create collective knowledge stores like the Wikipedia and Freebase, some contributing implicitly through the patterns of their choices and action….Explicit knowledge stores refine knowledge through contributions of thousands of authors; implicit stores allow the discovery of entirely new knowledge by capturing trillions of key clicks and decisions as people use the network in the course of their everyday lives.”

Both forms, the report notes, have educational implications:

“Sources of explicit collective intelligence provide opportunities for research and self-study and give students a chance to practice the construction of knowledge — they can contribute as well as consume….Implicit collective intelligence is already revealing a great deal about everyday patterns of activity based on programs that mine datasets of information from huge numbers of human actions.”

There are several important implications of this move towards the use of collective intelligence in education:

  • As I noted in my keynote remarks, the push towards collective intelligence requires us to rethink the nature of expertise and the historic monopoly that schools and institutions of higher learning have claimed over the production and circulation of knowledge. Collective Intelligence recognizes that there are diverse forms of expertise and that we learn more if we draw on as many different minds as possible rather than placing our trust in singular minds. At the same time, this push towards collective intelligence should force academics to engage more actively in public dialog with other kinds of “experts” who operate outside of the so-called “Ivory Tower.” We have much to contribute, and much to learn, through participation within these larger conversations, which are being enabled through networked computing.
  • Most of our current educational practices are based on the assumption that schools produce autonomous thinkers. We need to rethink our pedagogical practices to reflect the way knowledge is being produced and distributed within a networked culture. This means that we need to help young people identify and foster their own expertise while giving them skills at weighing evidence and arguments presented by others who also participate within their knowledge community. It means that we need to help them develop a set of ethical practices which holds them responsibile for the value of the information and insights they contribute to the group.
  • Collective intelligence is going to work best on a scale larger than the individual college or university. As such, the push towards collective intelligence is closely linked towards moves for distance learning and for open courseware. Yet, it may force us to rethink some of the models shaping our first steps in that direction. Most of these efforts start from the assumption that information travels from an elite centralized institution to a range of peripheral locations. Collective Intelligence, however, starts from the premise that information must circulate freely and equally among all of the participating institutions.
  • Collective intelligence places a new value on diversity — this is true in both the explicit (deliberative) model and the implicit (aggregative) model. The greater diversity of inputs into the process, the richer the output. Higher education still often thinks about diversity through a lens of affirmative action and remediation. Instead, incorporating greater diversity into a collective intelligence process benefits all of the participants.

As it happens, Project nml has been developing a range of classroom activities focused on helping young learners develop a better understanding of the practices and values associated with collective intelligence. Erin Reilly, the Project’s Research Manager, recently shared with me a report about a field test of some of those materials which they ran with teens from Boston’s Youth Voice Collaborative. I offer it here as an illustration of some of the ways these principles might be incorporated into classroom teaching practices:

The first group activity was called “Stump the Expert”. This activity put their adult facilitator, Julian (“The Expert”), in the position to work on his own and write down all that he knew about Caribbean culture …his own stated expertise. While Julian was making his long list, the girls collectively worked to jot down phrases and words on the board; anything they knew about the Caribbean culture. When Julian came back into the room, he looked at the board and laughed, stating, “Wow. You guys got a lot.” He then showed the girls his paper and said how he’d written full sentences. He had started his list with the etymology of the word Caribbean. Lana Swartz, a NML Research Assistant and the Focus Group Facilitator, remarked how starting out with the origin of a word was a really good example of what an expert does.

The two lists were very different and very good in different ways. The one from the girls was totally random and not connected with each other; while Julian’s list was more like an expert where things were organized. With the two lists together, the knowledge pooled was that much greater and when the girls were asked what Collective Intelligence means to them. One girl said, “all together” and they all agreed.

This low-tech group activity was an introduction to the Exemplar Library. The group searched the skill Collective Intelligence and a video on Wikipedia pulled up. With the learning activities embedded into the multimedia material, the cue-point was when Kevin Driscoll says, “and nobody owns that sandcastle, you all built it together, you’re all proud of it, and you all get the benefit of each others’ work so you really are relying on each other. And Wikipedia is like that sandcastle, except no ocean is going to wash Wikipedia away.” At that point, the girls could have continued watching the video or pause and step into the exemplar to participate in the online activity. Stepping in, they were introduced to the Platial.com website, where collective intelligence is used to make maps. The clip provided a demonstration of how to make a map mash-up and they began to create their own maps.

The girls worked in two groups of two and one girl worked on her own. They were given the choice and this is what they chose. Interestingly, both ‘working alone’ & ‘working in a group’ had its drawbacks. For the kids who were in groups of two, one of the girls tended to do the whole computer part, (though in both groups, the other girl didn’t seem to mind). For the girl on her own, she had the drawback of not having anyone to brainstorm and make a plan with (Luckily, Julian, the adult facilitator, jumped in and played that role which was a good example of the informal mentorship that is a key trait in participatory culture).

The girls had a great time with the activity and a picture was taken of the whole group and posted on the YVC marker on their Platial.com map. There was lots of laughing when they saw the picture. It’s a fun picture. When asked if they would make these maps with their friends, they all had a resounding “Yes!”

If you’d like to learn more about collective intelligence, check out the following resources:

Podcast of a session from the Media in Transition 5 conference focused on Collaboration and Collective Intelligence — featuring Mimi Ito, Cory Ondrejka, and Trebor Scholz, and moderated by Thomas Mallone.

Podcast of a MIT Communications Forum event focused on Collective Intelligence featuring Karim R. Lakhani, Thomas W. Malone, and Alex (Sandy) Pentland and moderated by David Thorburn.

Podcast of a conversation at the ELI conference between George Siemens and Michael Wesch about “Future Learning.” I saw Seimens present an outstanding workshop on Connectivism which lay out some core assumptions about the value of social networks and collective intelligence for education.

Those of you who are in the Boston area might want to try to attend another MIT Communications Forum event this term, which is certain to consider issues of collective intelligence:

our world digitized: the good, the bad, the ugly

visionary and skeptical perspectives on the promise and perils of

the internet era

yochai benkler, harvard law school, author of The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom

cass sunstein, univ. of chicago law school, Author of Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge

april 10

5-7 p.m., bartos theater