Blog Post

Participatory Learning: If you have a problem, ask everybody!

We are promoting the concept of "participatory learning" as part of theMacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning initiative, and asone of the three prongs of HASTAC (the other two emphases of HASTAC being creative technologydevelopment and critical thinking: we believe all three should be integrated and part of contemporary intellectual and social life and learning).
Because so much of our formal education today is based on a model ofindividual achievement of test scores, of filling in the right answerson standardized tests, in certifying and passing boards and so forth, a term like "participatory learning" needsdefinition. We've all but forgotten that for most of human history,learning was a process, it was collective, it was collaborative. It is really only since the nineteenth century that formal education has become a regulated and specialized certification process as much as it is a learning process.
Whatthe Internet offers is a way to promote a more organic (funny term for the digital!) form of participatorylearning. In participatory learning, one learns through and by interaction with others, in a processwhere each person builds upon the other--available to anyone anywherewho has access to the Internet (whether via a fancy laptop of one'sown, the $100 laptop, a cell phone, or what is available at a locallibrary or community center). In participatory learning, the process is as exciting as the result because many different kinds of people, with different specializations and skillsets and experiences, can contribute together. They can each contribute a part that is then elaborated by someone else and then taken over by someone else who runs with it, until the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts, and where each person learns by contributing.
Wikipedia, the largest accumulation of knowledge the world has ever known, is an excellent example of participatory learning in action. Through blogs, wikis, social networking tools (Facebook, MySpace), multimedia sites (YouTube, Flickr), and many many more, anyone in the world with even a little access can be a citizen journalist, reporting on pollution (see The Daily Polluter, a publication online by one of our DML I winners:, assessing the truth or lies or inconsistencies of political candidates or trying to chart who contributes to their campaigns and where their money might be going (, or using online multiplayer games where students and youth can work out national policy and put idealism into practice for peace or humanitarian rescue instead of point-and-shoot "fun" (  Howard Rheingold is creating a whole series of vlogs illustrating social media at work as learning tools to promote participatory media.  You an view those at:
Participatory learning underscores theprocesses by which we can learn together. Wikipedia is the mostamazing (and it truly is amazing) collective participatory learningproject the world has ever known. But there are so many other examplesand we are building more and better tools to promote this accretive,cumulative, process-oriented, problem-solving mode of participatorylearning all the time.  There are also an infinite number of blogs and wikis out there for those suffering from (and who have accumulated their own wisdom for handling) chronic diseases, for home schooling, for fandom, or for advocacy.
Another example from our DML I Winners:  Self-Advocacy on Line ( ) is a website and online newsletter and networking site for those making advocacy for change for people with disabilities. 
The point is that, yes, we learn from experts.  But we are also all experts in some things and, in participatory learning, we share our expertise and we improve it by interacting with those who have different expertise and differences of opinion.  Ideally, participatory learning is to formal education what community action is to the machinery of organized goverment.  One does not contradict the other.  Rather, the former (participatory learning like community action) takes the principles and makes them real, interactive, and important in daily lives.  You don't need to be a certified teacher to share your knowledge just as you do not need to be a politician to care and take action in your community. 
Lots of interesting people have written about the various aspects of participatory learning and how transformative it can be, and everyone has catch-phrases: The power of organization with organizing (Clay Shirky), convergence (Henry Jenkins), Web 2.0 (Tim O'Reilly), the long tail (Chris Anderson) smart mobs (Howard Rheingold). The bottom line is the idea that, together, many people who may not even know one another, can use digital tools to create learning communities where they foster and improve and contribute to ideas, solve problems together, and find solutions to either small issues or enormous ones such as global warning. In participatory learning, you don't need a degree to contribute, all you need is expertise, ideas, and a shared commitment to furthering a goal or an ideal. You can even work together to customize, build upon, and improve the very digital tools you use to learn from as part of the process of learning.
This repost from the NY Timesemphasizes the importance of many minds thinking together. In thiscase, even practical problems are being solved by participatorylearning and so are some of the most thorny, recurrent problems inmodern science, social science, and the humanities. Participatorylearning is the future. And, if HASTAC has anything to say about it, itwill also become a major part of the future of higher education.
Ireally like the idea (see the NY Times piece below) that someday theNobel Prize might go to "ordinary people" who, collectively and byparticipating together--through what we are calling "participatory learning"--may well come up with a cure for cancer ora better understanding of protein folding or some other major breakthrough in modern science.
NY TIMES, a repost:
July 22, 2008

If You Have a Problem, Ask Everyone

John Davis, a chemist inBloomington, Ill., knows about concrete. For example, he knows that ifyou keep concrete vibrating it won?t set up before you can use it. Itwill still pour like a liquid.

Now he has applied that knowledge to a seemingly unrelated problemthousands of miles away. He figured out that devices that keep concretevibrating can be adapted to keep oil in Alaskan storage tanks fromfreezing. The Oil Spill Recovery Institute of Cordova, Alaska, paid him$20,000 for his idea.

The chemist and the institute came together through InnoCentive, acompany that links organizations (seekers) with problems (challenges)to people all over the world (solvers) who win cash prizes forresolving them. The company gets a posting fee and, if the problem issolved, a ?finders fee? equal to about 40 percent of the prize.

The process, according to John Seely Brown, a theorist of information technology and former director of the XeroxPalo Alto Research Center, reflects ?a huge shift in popular culture,from consuming to participating? enabled by the interactivity socharacteristic of the Internet. It is sometimes called open-sourcescience, taking the name from open-source software in which the sourcecode, or original programming, is made public to encourage others towork on improving it.

The approach is catching on. Today, would-be innovators can sign uponline to compete for prizes for feats as diverse as landing on theMoon ( and inventing artificial meat (

This year, researchers at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of Washingtonbegan recruiting computer gamers to an online competition, namedFoldit, aimed at unraveling one of the knottiest problems of biology ?how proteins fold (

And in a report last year, a panel appointed by the National Research Council recommended that the National Science Foundation,the major government financing agency for physical science research,offer prizes of $200,000 to $2 million ?in diverse areas? as a firststep in a major program ?to encourage more complex innovations?addressing economic, social and other challenges. (The report isavailable at

Senator John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, has proposed that the government offer $300 million to whoever invents a battery compact enough, powerful enough and cheap enough to replace fossil fuels.

Offering prizes for scientific achievements is hardly new. ?It hasbeen around for centuries,? said Karim R. Lakhani, a professor atHarvard Business School who has studied InnoCentive. One early examplewas the work of John Harrison, the 18th-century clockmaker who, inresponse to a prize offered by the British Parliament, solved theproblem of determining longitude at sea by inventing a clock that wouldkeep good time even in heavy weather.

But, Dr. Lakhani said, ?most laboratories, most R & D endeavorsstill work on the premise ?we can accumulate and make sense of all theknowledge that is relevant.? The open-source models and a model likeInnoCentive show that other approaches can help.?

Dwayne Spradlin, president and chief executive of InnoCentive, saidin an interview that the company had solved 250 challenges, for prizestypically in the $10,000 to $25,000 range. According to the Web site (,the achievements include a compound for skin tanning, a method ofpreventing snack chip breakage and a mini-extruder in brick-making.

?Odds are one or more products in your home has been innovated in our network,? Mr. Spradlin said. ?Procter & Gamble has products that were innovated on the InnoCentive network.?

InnoCentive began in 2000 as e.Lilly, an in-house innovation ?incubator? at the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly,Mr. Spradlin said, with the company posting problems that its employeeshad been unable to solve. From the beginning the results were good, hesaid. ?Most of our companies tell us they have a one-third or bettersolve rate on their problems and that is more cost-effective thananything they could have done internally.?

The company says solvers come from 175 countries. More than a thirdhave doctorates, Mr. Spradlin said, and while motivated by money, theyalso have a desire to solve ?problems that matter.?

The company, with offices in Waltham, Mass., has a staff ofscientists who work with seekers and solvers, reviewing challenges tomake sure they are clear and detailed, and guiding would-be solvers whomay have a solution.

That specificity is crucial to InnoCentive?s operation, people whohave studied the company say. ?If you say, ?find me a cure for cancer?it may not work,? Dr. Lakhani said. But if problems can be ?decomposed?into what he called modular questions, like ?find me a biomarker forthis condition, these questions may be more tractable.?

The idea that solutions can come from anywhere, and from people withseemingly unrelated work, is another key. Dr. Lakhani said his study ofInnoCentive found that ?the further the problem was from the solver?sexpertise, the more likely they were to solve it,? often by applyingspecialized knowledge or instruments developed for another purpose.

For example, he said, the brain might be thought of as a biologicalsystem, but ?certain brain problems may not be solvable by taking abiological approach. You may want to cast it as an electricalengineering approach. An electrical engineer will come in and say, ?Oh,here?s the answer for you.? They have not thought of themselves asbeing neuroscientists but now they can approach the problem from thepoint of view of electrical engineering.?

The oil-flow problem was solved by an outsider, said Scott Pegau,its research program manager. If it could easily have been solved ?bypeople within the industry, it would have been,? he said. Instead, Mr.Davis approached it with knowledge he picked up at a friend?s concretebusiness.

One critical element is encouraging organizations to take novelinnovation approaches in the first place. That was the task that drewthe Rockefeller Foundation to the company, said Maria Blair, anassociate vice president there.

Ms. Blair said the foundation was nearing the end of an 18-monthpilot program after which the success of the partnership would beassessed. Anecdotal evidence so far suggests the arrangement can beuseful, she said, citing as an example a challenge to devise areliable, durable solar-powered light source that could function as aflashlight and as general room illumination.

?The solver ended up being a scientist from New Zealand,? she said, and his light is now being made in China.

?What we want to do,? she added, ?is connect the nonprofits to the platform, to InnoCentive.?

The nonprofits get a break on InnoCentive fees, Mr. Spradlin said,and Ms. Blair said the foundation could subsidize access to innovationplatforms. But she said many nonprofit organizations had difficultydealing with intellectual property rights and related issues.

InnoCentive deals with these issues, in part, by requiring winningsolvers to transfer intellectual property rights to the seekers, whoseidentities are secret, before they can claim an award.

Dr. Lakhani said some companies worried that by posting informationabout their problems they risk giving valuable information tocompetitors. Another fear, he said, is that a solver will devise auseful solution, but refuse to turn it over for the prize or evenpatent it to keep it out of the hands of the organization thatoriginally sought it.

?We have not observed yet any of these kinds of games,? Dr. Lakhani said.

By contrast, the Foldit contest is a volunteer effort. It began asRosetta@home, a project using down-time of computers throughout theworld to do the laborious calculations needed to determine the shapesof proteins, strings of amino acid crucial to the cells of every livingthing. The way these molecules work depends on how the strings fold,but calculating the folding is, as the Foldit researchers put it, ?oneof the pre-eminent challenges of biology.?

In Foldit, players will compete online to design proteins, andresearchers will test designs to see if they are good candidates foruse in drugs. The researchers who worked to design it say results willalso be interesting because people?s intuition for protein folding doesnot seem necessarily to be tied to formal training or laboratoryexperience.

?Our ultimate goal is to have ordinary people play the game and eventually be candidates for winning the Nobel Prize,? said Zoran Popovic, a computer scientist and engineer at the University of Washington.

Mr. Spradlin?s goal for InnoCentive is at least as ambitious. By2011, he hopes InnoCentive participants will have answered at least10,000 challenges.

When companies and organizations have a problem, Mr. Spradlin said, ?I want us to be the first place they go.?


With thanks to Mettatation for sharing this wonderful photograph of a collaborative "grandmother quilt" on Flckr. Pls click on the photo for other photos in Mettatation's stream and for full documentation.


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