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Radical solutions for global education: Could crowdsourcing be the game-changer we've been looking for?

Updated: Apr 26

Millions of children around the world still face complex barriers to quality education. In this series of blog posts, we explore how communities and organizations are enlisting the collective intelligence and collaborative capacities of the ‘crowd’ to overcome stubborn challenges to learning. With the SDG clock ticking, could crowdsourcing be the game-changer needed to accelerate progress?

Radical solutions to complex education challenges
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If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”

George Bernard Shaw


At the Transforming Education Summit in 2022, the education community renewed its commitment to addressing the global learning crisis, and to tackling the complex barriers still preventing millions of children from attending school and continuing their learning journey.

The consensus was clear: we need to reimagine education systems through game-changing ideas, bold policies and actions, and radical collaboration.

Could crowdsourcing be one such game-changer? A growing body of evidence points to how the creativity of the ‘crowd’ is being harnessed to solve problems, and to overcome complex pedagogical, technical, and infrastructure constraints to learning, particularly in low-resource contexts.

Schools, teachers, and communities now tap into the power of the crowd to overcome funding and resource gaps. Many non-government organizations and philanthropic entities have also turned to crowd-based models as part of their strategies to enhance community engagement, drive innovation, and mobilize resources more effectively for social impact. Advanced collaboration tools and Artificial Intelligence suggest that further gains are possible.

But the potential of crowdsourcing doesn’t stop here. This participative approach hints at a much deeper, and so far largely untapped, well of potential support for countries' education transformation efforts.

The first post in this series attempts a brief ‘state of the art,’ and makes an appeal for greater consideration of crowdsourcing models that enable a more diverse set of education supporters to bring their expertise and skills to the table, and particularly networks of problem solvers and innovators in the Global South.

The crowd is more than wise—it’s talented, creative, and stunningly productive. If you can perform the service, design the product, or solve the problem, you’ve got the job.” 

Jeff Howe, Wired Magazine

What is crowdsourcing?

The term crowdsourcing was first coined in 2006 by the journalist Jeff Howe in his seminal article for WIRED magazine What is Crowdsourcing? It refers to problem-solving through the power of the crowd.

Howe believed that processes of problem-solving and innovation could incite creativity and be performed far more effectively through an open call to individuals with diverse perspectives, experiences, expertise and skills. He thus highlighted the value of outsourcing tasks, traditionally performed by company employees and specialists, to a large and undefined group of people.

Most people still associate crowdsourcing with crowdfunding, but the practice of soliciting the ingenuity and creativity of the crowd has become a vital component of innovation and organizational strategy in modern economies. In his follow-up 2009 book, Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business, Howe suggested that crowdsourcing would eventually change how companies structure their work, conduct research, use talent, make and market products. His prediction became true. 

With the rise of Web 2.0 and 3.0 technologies, businesses, experts, non-experts and communities now collaborate more effectively, and on a much larger scale, than ever before. And in today’s markets, many companies have put crowdsourcing at the centre of their business model to boost innovation and stay ahead of the curve. 

Companies such as LEGO, Netflix, Dell, and Starbucks regularly canvass customers’ ideas for new products and services (think LEGO’s Ideas Portal, Dell’s IdeaStorm, or Starbucks’ MyStarbucksIdea Community), solicit the crowd for software and product development, or seek external expertise for micro-tasks.

Open innovation challenges have also become popular across different sectors. Platforms such as Wazoko Crowd, OpenIDEO, HeroX support global businesses, governments, public sector organizations, and charities in tapping into global networks of problem solvers and innovators in areas ranging from engineering and green industries to global health, environmental sustainability and food security. Challenges can lead to significant breakthroughs, with the most promising solutions taken up through broader collaboration and investment networks. 

Why does any of this matter for global education?

Education systems in low-resource countries face complex and interconnecting challenges that cannot be solved easily, or quickly, through traditional top down policy routes or financing mechanisms.

Communities and education programming that have intentionally sought out solutions through the crowd (i.e. through the insights and resources of parents, communities, teachers and decision makers, and through the know-how, expertise and collaboration of national or global networks of problem solvers) demonstrate how aspects of crowdsourcing, carefully targeted, can become fast and powerful tools for overcoming resource constraints, empowerment and enhancing the quality of the education offer.

Financial scarcity: Crowdfunding, for example, is now well-established practice in schools in middle-high income countries. School leaders, teachers and educators regularly appeal to networks of supporters through crowdfunding platforms such as GoFundMe, Kickstarter and DonorsChoose to overcome budget constraints for classroom materials and sports activities, or to improve their educational facilities.

Learning resource scarcity: The lack of access to textbooks, lesson plans, and other support tools is a serious barrier to learning in many low resource countries and communities. To resolve this, organizations such the Khan Academy and World Education’s CrowdED Learning Initiative have put crowdsourced education contents (or open education resources) at the heart of their mission. The Khan model draws on a highly regarded ‘crowd’ of subject experts and business leaders from around the world, including NASA and MIT, to create a vast repository of online and offline content in the fields of science, mathematics, engineering, and other core curriculum areas.

Responsive learning design: Crowdsourced Learning Design Systems (LDS) are opening up more democratic and participative approaches to meeting learning and training needs in communities with complex socio-cultural barriers to learning or connectivity challenges. This is exemplified by projects from HundrED’s 2024 Global Collection - including LiveBook, SwaTaleem’s 'A Village Approach to Girls' Education,' and the Life Skills Collaborative. The non-profit Project Hello World has also put the crowdsourcing mindset to work in addressing complex telecoms connectivity, education and energy-related problems in isolated and vulnerable communities.

Access to higher education: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which crowdsource resources from across academia and business world, have revolutionized higher education access and delivery. Students of all ages and education levels are able to learn online, and at a time and pace that suits them, with different credentialing opportunities. Certain MOOC platforms, such as EdX, gather feedback and incorporate suggestions from their user base to improve functionalities and to develop new features, contents and course improvements.

Open innovation: Finally, higher education institutions have recognized the value to students of different forms of crowdsourcing. Innovation Challenges test their problem solving, innovation and entrepreneurship skills. For example, NASA's International Space Apps Challenge is a global hackathon where teams of students, scientists, engineers, and educators work together to solve engineering and space travel challenges using NASA's open data. The annual Big Ideas Contest at UC Berkeley provides funding, support, and encouragement to interdisciplinary teams of UC Berkeley students who have 'big ideas.'

Universities such as Colombia and Johns Hopkins have also used crowdsourcing to gather perspectives from learners, staff, and school communities on how to improve life on campus, particularly in relation to school policies that directly affect student experiences. 



Bold solutions can drive paradigm shifts

« We're in an era where educators and learners have an opportunity to collaboratively rewrite the rulebook. As we face the challenges head-on, we continue to break boundaries, sparking innovations that push the limits of our collective intelligence.”

Herox (open innovation platform)

The above examples show how crowdsourcing is helping education stakeholders to overcome obstacles to learning and fostering a culture of continuous innovation. Successful initiatives identify the community’s most urgent needs and preferences first, then appeal to broad networks of pedagogic expertise and developer communities for their ideas and inputs to create contextually and culturally appropriate solutions. In some cases, the results in terms of improved learning outcomes have proved remarkable. 

Advanced collaboration tools and artificial intelligence suggest that further gains are possible for development partners in how they work with the crowd to map education infrastructure, identify needs and curate solutions. However, the deeper potential of crowdsourcing lies beyond technology integration.

In the social impact space, crowdsourcing and Open Innovation Challenges have been so successful that philanthropic networks, such as Lever for Change, now manage customized challenges on behalf of a diverse range of funders. Moreover, these challenges have become a catalyst for collective giving models. In this way, Lever for Change has leveraged over $1.7 billion in grants from leading foundations for innovative problem solvers and high-impact solutions addressing racial inequity, gender inequality, empowerment and climate change, with funds distributed to more than 175 non-governmental organizations. 

But perhaps the true potential of crowdsourcing lies in its ability to radically shift power dynamics around problem-solving to the Global South. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is already leading the way in areas related to global health. Grand Challenges initiatives recognize that great ideas can come from anywhere and are organized around successive 'open grant requests' which source innovations with a proven impact and potential for scaling.

Most importantly, partnership initiatives, such Grand Challenges Africa and Grand Challenges India, anchor the work from the very beginning in networks of local researchers, policymakers, and funders with the knowledge needed to create, guide, and accelerate transformative solutions to global health and development inequity.

Now imagine if Open Innovation Challenges were directed at crowds of problem-solving educators, practitioners, researchers, NGOs, networks and communities of practice in the Global South. Imagine the collective capacity to respond to access, equity and gender equality ignited by the call-to-innovation of meta-networks such as TheSouthAlsoKnows, or the Fito Network!

As yet, and in spite of a growing body of evidence on the contribution of crowdsourcing to addressing complex education challenges, the practice continues to operate on the periphery of mainstream education thinking. There are still no established taxonomies. Nor has there been systematic documentation of practices. Consequently, innovation-driven insights that could be gleaned for school and system-level solutions go untapped.

This blog series is intended as a conversation opener, and a call to the education crowd to consider the utility of crowdsourcing models for accelerating progress toward the SDG 4 targets.

Next week: A deep dive into crowdfunded education models.

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