The Power of the Drones

Inside Slate's efforts to crowdsource good ideas

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.

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.

Correction: This article initially reported that Slate has about 4 million unique visitors a month. In fact, they have about 6.4 million unique visitors a month. The relevant sentence has been revised. CJR regrets the error.

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Daniel Luzer is web editor of the Washington Monthly. Tags: , , ,