People have to be damn committed to an idea to attend an event about it on a Monday night, even one with free drinks. The last thing people want to do at 6 p.m. in the beginning of the week is stay downtown for another three hours to talk about education policy.
This makes the huge crowd at Slate’s event on the Future of the American Classroom surprising. On November 8 some 250 people gathered in the lobby of Washington’s Newseum to discuss education and evaluate the proposals Slate gathered for classroom reform.
The event was part of a Slate project that invited readers to Design a Better Fifth Grade Classroom. As veteran journalist Linda Perlstein explained, introducing the project to Slate readers:
We’re asking you to describe or even design the classroom for today, a fifth-grade classroom that takes advantage of all that we have learned about teaching, learning, and technology—and what you think we have yet to learn. We will publish all your ideas on Slate; your fellow readers will vote and comment on their favorites; expert judges will select the ideas they like best, and we will pick a winner.
The project is one iteration of The Hive, Slate’s effort to “harness the collective intelligence of [its] readers for the good of Slate and society.” Slate proposes ideas, invites readers to suggest things, and then uses readers and judges to decide on winners. (“Winners” is relative. Slate promises to share the top design with interested parties. But there are no actual prizes, so contestants don’t really get anything except, well, the prestige of winning a Slate contest.)
There have been three Hive projects so far. This was the third project, and the second one that culminated in a lavish event. Slate’s now working on a new one about how to use data to improve American lives. The magazine also might pursue a project about childhood obesity.
The Hive grew out of Slate’s realization that its readers wanted to participate in the magazine’s ideas, and—given their relative level of sophistication—that they might be able to participate usefully. It’s also an effort to get readers more engaged with Slate and cultivate a real sense of community. Every publication says that they want to do this, but few are taking their efforts as seriously as Slate.
Journalism in the twenty-first century isn’t sure how best to involve its readers. And, indeed, Slate hasn’t always been keen on reader involvement. In the beginning Slate seemed mostly to ignore readers. It was only in February this year that Slate even added in-page comments to Slate articles and blog posts. Before that readers had to go to a separate reader forum to make comments.
But when Plotz began his series about reading the Old Testament, “Blogging the Bible”, he liked the feedback he received. “I got 11,000 e-mails,” Plotz explained. “And 99 percent of them were good.” Given this feedback, he thought the magazine might be able to get readers involved in the process of coming up with all sorts of ideas.
Slate isn’t the first organization to experiment with crowdsourcing. Both the Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo have done projects with readers. Retail companies use crowdsourcing all the time. That’s how many of them decide which products to introduce. Starbucks invites customers to contribute and help select new ideas for its stores. (You have only yourselves to blame for the Iced Peppermint White Chocolate Mocha, America.)
The decision-making part of crowdsourcing is tricky, however. It’s easy to get a crowd to shout out opinions; it’s hard to get it to make a good decision. Currently Hive finalists are chosen by a combination of reader voting and expert selection. Six finalists are chosen by popular vote, and another six are chosen by a committee of experts. The experts choose the best idea among the total twelve. The winner of the 21st Century Classroom contest, incidentally, was the Fifth-Grade Exploration Studio, a classroom design submitted by two readers from a Seattle architecture firm. Slate promises to share The Exploration Studio idea “with school and government officials hoping to change American classrooms.”
“We may refine the process,” said Plotz. For one, it’s hard to make online voting processes actually work. Because it’s so easy for reasonably sophisticated computer users to game the system (your 2009 Time World’s Most Influential Person is moot), many publications feel compelled to limit the power of Internet voting.