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Crowdsourcing the Next Classroom?

Can a motley group of teachers, architects, concerned parents, and folks who wandered in off the street build a better classroom?

I joined an auditorium full of education aficionados at Slate's 2010 Hive Project on education in Washington, D.C., on Monday to see what would shake out.

Crowdsourcing—the notion that problems may be solved better and more rapidly by groups rather than individuals—has long been the darling of the Web 2.0 crowd. A natural fit with theories of group learning, it has been making inroads in the traditionally siloed education field through projects like Duke University's peer-graded Internet course and Curriki's open-source lesson-planning and textbook community.

Slate's editors sent out an open request for readers to submit ideas for a 5th-grade classroom of the future, no budget or personnel constraints required. Before the live event Monday night, editors had received more than 350 ideas, which they and readers narrowed down to 10. Those entries seemed interesting, but most weren't really unheard of: Outdoor classrooms, multipurpose spaces, Montessori-style group learning will sound familiar to most educators and researchers. One really radical idea, which called for hooking students into sensors to monitor their brain waves, would make a great summer blockbuster but probably wouldn't pass muster at your average parent-teacher organization or school board budget meeting.

So there we were, with an expert panel including Jim Shelton, the Education Department's innovation guru; Justin Cohen, president of the Mass Insight turnaround group; David Ethan Greenberg, board chairman of the Denver School of Science & Technology, and a slew of others. Greenberg and several other panelists argued that building standards virtually ensure classes will be outdated almost as soon as they open: "The mindset in districts is they want you to build to hundred-year building standards," Greenberg said, "and we said we have no idea what education is going to look like 15 years from now; why would we invest in these double-wide corridors that come from the factory model ....?"

The most interesting conversation for me was the small group discussion on classroom changes under $1,000.

We had a couple of teachers, the head of a community tutoring group, several businesspeople and a handful of others. A 9th-grade English teacher said she gets $175 a year for class supplies; a Prince George's County, Md., kindergarten teacher said he gets none. Both already try to create cobbled-together versions of the high-concept classrooms of the future: She arranges classroom areas for different projects; he plugs his laptop from home into a projector to show his students online resources. Both begged for basic improvements already known in the education field, like data profiles of incoming students or desks uncoupled from chairs to ease moving for group work. (Slate Editor-in-Chief David Plotz, who sat in on the group, looked shocked that classes still used such desks.) One tourist attending the forum on a whim suggested exchanging the desks for lap-tables and using chairs on rollers.

Plotz, who has held a similar crowdsourcing event on energy policy, told me half-jokingly afterward that he always hopes at these events to have someone jump up and announce that one brilliant idea that will solve everything wrong in education. Yet maybe the strength of crowdsourcing, if there is one, comes not from a single silver-bullet but an understanding of all the millions of little irritations teachers and students face every day and the ways to make classes a little more livable. I'll be interested to see what ideas come out of the project going forward.

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