Crowdteaching: A Learning Revolution

By David Cutler posted 03-24-2014 09:43 PM




At this year’s SXSWedu conference, nothing grabbed my interest like Tyler DeWitt’s 15-minute presentation, “Crowdteaching: A Learning Revolution.”

During his standing-room-only session, DeWitt, a science teacher who holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology from MIT, defined crowdteaching as an evolving movement in which thousands upon thousands of educators, from all around the world, are uploading high quality educational content online—free of charge.

I recently reached out to DeWitt, curious to hear more about how Khan Academy is an example of crowdteaching, but by no means the whole enchilada. For every video on chemistry that Khan has made, DeWitt tells me, hundreds of others exist elsewhere, all with unique approaches.

“I think though that all too often a lot of people focus on Khan Academy as the be-all and end-all of educational content that’s out there on the Internet,” he says. “Khan Academy is great, but really it’s only one star in a constellation of amazing educational resources.”

DeWitt is spot-on. I also admire Khan Academy, but no one company should own the market on crowdteaching. Competition fosters improvement and innovation, and DeWitt is dreaming big. Not unlike the way Wikipedia operates, in his ideal crowdteaching environment, he wants users to rate entries and flag incorrect or misleading content.

That’s why DeWitt is currently working with Socratic, a developing website where students ask questions and a growing community teaches the answer.

“Right now, when a student has a very specific question, like, ‘What’s the chemical formula for calcium chloride?’ there’s not really anywhere that they can go to get the answer,” DeWitt says. “They’ll type it in Google. They might get some PDFs from college courses or PowerPoints…but [they] tend to not to be particularly reliable. We want them to be able to type in a specific question, go to Socratic, and find not just the answer, not just it’s CaCl2, but a community written and community curated response that teaches to how to actually solve that.”

In some respects, crowdteaching reminds me of microlearning—another new term I only recently discovered. Rather than slog through hours of formal instruction to learn something of value, or perceived value, microlearners turn to Web 2.0 to get exactly what they want. I recently spoke about this term with Curtis J. Bonk, Professor of Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University, and author of The World is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing Education.

“The cons include a narrow mindset in terms of what learning is,” Bonk told me. “It decompartmentalizes the contextual cues that we pick up on a social plane, and the importance of a social-cultural viewpoint on learning: The fact that we learn with our peers, the fact that we collaborate, the fact that we internalize the strategies that we see used by others.”

But with crowdteaching, DeWitt envisions something much more intimate, interactive, and meaningful. Along those lines, he’s working to help Socratic essentially offer one-on-one instruction.

“Crowdteaching really has the potential to provide students with that real time, back and forth, specific question and answer capability that they don’t always have—because they don’t always have a teacher sitting next to them 24 hours a day,” he says.

Much to my delight, DeWitt also feels that crowdteaching could and should replace any reliance on textbooks. In 2012, in fact, he delivered a fantastic TED talk, “Hey Science Teachers—Make it Fun,” in which he lambasts science textbooks as boring, confusing, and age-inappropriate.



“A standard high school biology textbook, I don’t know a single 14 year old who can read that and learn anything from it,” DeWitt says. “But textbooks that completely confuse students still get published every single year. No longer will a student have to suffer through awful textbooks that weren’t written for them. They’ll be able to go to the Internet and choose content that meets their needs.”

I feel the same way about history textbooks, which I expressed in a Jan. 31 piece for The Atlantic, “Down With Textbooks.” Like DeWitt, I prefer encouraging students to engage with various, quality sources to inform their learning.

In that type of environment, one that embraces crowdteaching and self-directed learning, DeWitt foresees teachers becoming more like guides or mentors, helping students find resources that help them learn best.

“Putting the student back in the driver’s seat as the consumer, as the end user, I think that is going to be tremendously, tremendously powerful,” he says. “I think it’s going to have far reaching and disruptive effects on education.”

As Socartic continues to develop, the platform will offer assistance and resources in a myriad of subjects. “We want Socratic to be the site that you go to for help in any subject, at any grade level, in any language,” DeWitt says.

We need more people like DeWitt—and more platforms like Socratic—willing and excited to challenge the status quo.

Interview transcript

Download (PDF, Unknown