Crowd sourcing is poised to affect education in significant ways, potentially revolutionizing how our students interpret and contextualize literature and most every other subject. No longer the domain for programmers (Linux), technical enthusiasts, fundraising campaigns and entrepreneurs (Kickstarter and Indiegogo), crowd sourcing received a big push last July when Rap Genius (now simply Genius) received a whopping $40 million from venture capitalists to expand its focus and grow its business to “annotate the world.”
Started by recent Yale grads, Rap Genius’s initial mission was to make sense of rap music lyrics. The company created an innovative annotation engine that can be repurposed for many other subjects: poetry, literature, movies, anatomy, you name it. Today, Genius is annotating about a dozen fields, including lit, history, law, sports and news—expect many more to follow and exponential growth. Genius’s literature section notes: “Lit Genius is a community of scholars—and a crew of heroic hearts—devoted to annotating great literature.”
One can imagine a time when many of our students and colleagues contribute annotations to an online service—indeed classroom discussions could easily occur in a virtual annotation forum, aggregating diverse opinions and perceptions—expert and naive. It can and could open up a whole new window into meaning that would be impossible to find in any single textbook or source—and it offers the promise of a deepening evolution, growing wiser as more contributors add their voices. An annotation service is not limited to humanistic subjects, either; the sciences, health care, mathematics, finance and engineering could benefit.
However, it may take a while for a reliable educational tool to emerge. Crowd sourcing suffers from many of the maladies that plague popular services like Reddit and Twitter. Spoofing, minimal fact checking, lack of monetary or other compelling incentives, no transparent governance models, hard-to-navigate user interfaces—it goes on and on. Wikipedia, which of course is a crowdsourced encyclopedia, launched in early 2001—a phenomenal success that exemplifies a universal information utility, but most faculty consider it lacking in integrity and rigorous peer review to allow students to use it for citations.
I’m not sure the stigma will ever go away for Wikipedia, but it will continue to amaze and delight those who value convenient access to vast stores of information. Will an open collaborative annotation service for scholarly endeavors emerge from a rap lyrics site? Stranger things have happened.