Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Can a School be Outsourced?

The blog Mobiledia reported on May 6th 2011 on the announcement by the National Trust of the UK that they would be operating a real-world farm along the lines of the popular on-line game Farmville. The Trust's announcement has since been greeted with a flurry of commentary. I'll get to that in a moment, but first, a few words about the farm itself.

The National Trust has invited 10,000 participants to pony up roughly $50 each to participate in running the farm, the 2,500 acre Wimpole Estate. Decisions about crops and procedures will then be 'crowdsourced' to these 10,000 virtual 'farmers' and decisions will be made via the 'wisdom of crowds'. To assist the farmers, the National Trust will supply information through blogs and Youtube videos about various agricultural and commercial matters of relevance.

The project piggy-backs on the enomous popularity of the Farmville game.

But crowdsourcing management decisions is not entirely new. In the blog CMI, Adi Gaskell, in reporting on the announcement, noted that a similar experiment called "My Football Club" had taken place a few years ago; 32,000 fans ponied up a similar fee to participate in managing a pro football team. Unfortunately the excitement wore off quickly and participation fell rapidly to about 3,000. When the operators put the question of retaining crowdsourcing or returning the team to professional management to the surviving participants, only 132 even bothered to vote.

What then is the likely fate of the Real-world Farmville?

According to James Surowiecki, author of the book on The Wisdom of Crowds, a crowdsourcing project requires four conditions in order to be successful:

1. Diversity of opinions: participants must be drawn from diverse populations;

2. Independence: participants' decisions are not deetermined by other participants;

3. Decentralization: people can draw on specialized knowledge and local information not available to others; and

4. Aggregation: there must exist a reliable mechanism for converting the many private judgments into a collective decision.

Gaskell asks us to consider the crowdsourced farm in terms of these criteria, pointing out that even if the initial participation is diverse, the decline in popularity is likely to make the eventual crowd much less so (as it is now built from die-hards). Because the trust will supply all of the information about the farm to participants (who are also free to visit the farm in person but in most cases will not) the participants will not be independent, and will not be able to draw on their differentiated local knowledge. Something akin to groupthink is thus cooked into the operating procedure, defeating the wisdom of the crowd.

Gaskell concludes that the Trust is unlikely to produce a profitable and effective farm through crowdsourcing. (Let us grant that the Trust will succeed, and already has, in bringing a lot of attention to itself by grabbing some of the attention paid to Farmville the game).

The question remains: could a school be crowdsourced to its local community? Could state educational policy be crowdsourced to citizens. Please share your own ideas about whether this would be an interesting, a wise, a democratic or an effective way to run public education 'by the people'.


David Waddington said...

I am pessimistic about crowdsourcing for schools. My biggest problem is the prevalence of the "idea of the real school." In general, at least in North America, people have a pretty conservative vision of what schools are supposed to be. In other words, if we outsource schools to crowds, we will probably get some traditional schools.

Other problems come from the nature of school management . Unlike a farm, where you can plan crop X and be fairly sure that mature plants of type X will appear, the relationship between processes and products are much less clear in schools. The time horizons for school change are long, and actions frequently seem to have no effect.

Finally, while it may be seen to be democratic in one sense, crowdsourcing is, in another sense, very dictatorial. Do the crowds that run these other enterprises (e.g. the farm, the soccer team) consult carefully with employees before making decisions? I doubt it. In an environment like a school where successful change requires employee good faith and cooperation, management of the crowdsourced type is likely to run into some serious resistance.

Of course, in the end, it's an empirical question. I'm sure someone will eventually try some form of crowdsourcing out in education, and we'll see how it works or doesn't work.

leonard waks said...

David is right that there is little diversity in real North American communities about what constitutes a "real school".

In a local community, unlike the Farmville farm, however, people could visit, ask questions, kibbitz. And in most communities there is no end of specialized knowledge and local information available to discrete community members.

For one thing, each family has specialized local knowledge of their kid, his or her backgrouind, reading and activities, likes and dislikes, passions, etc. All of this is lost on school officials, who try to fashion a one-size-fits-all solution.

IN situations where schools are damaged by the 'participation' of local agitators, typically right wing fanatics pressuring against evolution or smutty -'Modernist'- literature, the problem is that the voices are NOT independent. A small active minority can prevail because they are mobilized.

IN a crowdsourced school there is likely to be considerable variety of offerings, although of course that would depend on the algorithim for aggregation.

I am not at all advocating for crowdsourced management. But I think it is an interesting thought experiment from which much can be learned about democratic self-governance.

Why not try this as an exercize with your classes?