Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Pedagogy for Collective Intelligence

In my last post I suggested that digital history might be able to harness the power of what Pierre Lévy calls "collective intelligence," a group of self-selected, networked individuals who work together to solve problems that are far beyond the capacity of any one person. In such a setting, knowledge becomes valuable when it is shared, and the strength of the collective depends on the diversity of skills and information that individuals can bring to it. Theorists like Lévy, Henry Jenkins and others suggest that such collectives may already be flourishing in online fandom and massively multiplayer games. To take a single example that Jenkins discusses, when children play with elements from the multibillion-dollar transmedia franchise Pokémon, they enter a world that is too complicated for any child to understand by him or herself. "There are several hundred different Pokémon, each with multiple evolutionary forms and a complex set of rivalries and attachments," Jenkins writes. "There is no one text where one can go to get the information about these various species; rather, the child assembles what they know about the Pokémon from various media with the result that each child knows something his or her friends do not and thus has a chance to share this expertise with others" (Convergence Culture, 128). He continues

Children are being prepared to contribute to a more sophisticated knowledge culture. So far, our schools are still focused on generating autonomous learners; to seek information from others is still classified as cheating. Yet, in our adult lives, we are depending more and more on others to provide information we cannot possess ourselves. Our workplaces have become more collaborative; our political process has become more decentered; we are living more and more within knowledge cultures based on collective intelligence. Our schools are not teaching what it means to live and work in such knowledge communities, but popular culture may be doing so.

How do we go beyond the autonomous learner? I've only begun teaching, so I don't have any ready answers. For the past few years I've been experimenting with assignments that require all of the students to work on related topics and make use of online archives of sources. These assignments have been relatively successful: the students can share information with one another, talk over interpretations, and answer each others' questions. At the end of the day, however, they've had to go off on their own and write a paper to hand in ... mostly because I haven't figured out how to assign grades to a collective intelligence in a way that isn't going to get me fired.

Our public history MA program is different from my undergraduate classes because it stresses teamwork in a community context. The students do some individual work but they also contribute to museum exhibits, websites, walking tours and other kinds of joint project. This year, Alan and I have both noticed that there is a new level of cooperation and cohesiveness among the students. I'm sure he wouldn't put it this way, but I think they've been acting more as a collective intelligence. There are two things that we're doing differently. For one thing, the students had a digital history grad class this year where they read a lot about Web 2.0 stuff (tagging, social search, mashups, open source, the economy of reputation, and so on). So they've been exposed to an ideology of collective intelligence and some of the tools that can facilitate it. We're also making much more extensive use of online, collaborative software. The students contributed to a shared archive by digitizing sources, and designed their part of a museum exhibit using a wiki. They've also been blogging and responding to each other online.

I think there are three areas that need more thought. First, the tools for collaboration could be greatly improved. (Personally, I hope that an extended Zotero could serve as the basis for future interaction.) Second, we have to get beyond the idea of autonomous learners. I'm not sure how long it will take the academy to make this transition, but individual academics can surely get involved with projects that teach the skills needed for these new knowledge communities. Third, we have to try to open up academic collectives so that they can mesh with ones outside the academy.

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