“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.
Crowdsourcing isn’t suitable for everything, either. “We’re not going to have a Hive project asking readers to design a microchip to make the iPhone faster and better,” Plotz said. Hive projects have to be accessible to lay readers. “The classroom” works as a project because everyone’s familiar with a classroom. We all have some ideas what works and what doesn’t. And certainly everyone with children has at least considered how schools might be more effective. Projects have to be enjoyable enough to drive reader interest.
And advertising interest. Part of what makes the Hive successful is that it’s appealing to advertisers. Sponsorship is why Slate can offer lavish receptions at the end of its Hive projects. Companies like crowdsourcing because they’re a good way to capture potential customers. “You want smart, engaged, active readers who’ve got an interest and involvement in specific areas,” said Plotz. Engaged readers indicate a very specific demographic and one that can be targeted; they’re likely to come back again. The 21st Century Classroom enjoyed the generous sponsorship of Coca-Cola. Mercedes sponsored The Efficient Life, an earlier project.
While the event might be very good for Slate, “I’m not really expecting this to result in immediate changes to American education,” said Plotz. Slate did a crowdsourcing project back in January about how to improve airport security, and sent its top ideas to the Transportation Security Administration, which duly ignored them (and then instituted the ethically questionable Whole Body Imaging Technology). Slate can come up with great ideas, it appears, but it takes a lot more steps to put them into practice.
This is particularly true of education. Education innovation proceeds slowly; if international relations worked at the same pace as education reform, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace would be hosting conferences about Kaiser Wilhelm’s colonial intensions in Africa. Most of education reform, after all, is not about amazing ideas but about trying to move gigantic bureaucracies to make simple changes. Education innovation moves slowly—but the more any publication can do to facilitate the easy exchange of ideas like this, the better.
After the opening session, the participants broke off into small groups to discuss concepts generated by the contest. Some participants found their sessions enlightening; Megan Aghazadian, portfolio director for the DC Public Education Fund, attended a session called “what if you only had $1,000?” As a fundraiser, she found her session valuable because, as she put it, “school funding is really mostly about how to spend limited funds, not what you can do with infinite money.”
The primary feeling in my discussion, however, seemed to be frustration. The breakout session I attended, “Use the Outdoors,” looked at how to use outside spaces. The ideas themselves were not exactly world-altering ones. “Every classroom should have a door to the outdoors,” one woman, a teacher, suggested. “We should incorporate more natural space, outside of the physical confines of the school.” The trouble is that while virtually everyone understands that these things are good, incorporating such ideas into schools never seems to happen. As one retired businessman in my group originally from Wisconsin put it, people have been having discussions like about issues like these “since the 1960s.” Was the Slate discussion different? Well, maybe. The issues might be the same, but at least the publication has the advantage of a bigger audience.
The American people might be forgiven for failing to listen to the academic work of pedagogy instructors or education policy wonks. But Slate has about 6.4 million unique visitors a month.* That’s one way to get the discussion beyond the world of education conferences and teachers colleges. And one way to get the conversation of “what to do with online readers” beyond desultory comment sections.