I think the phenomena of Crowd Accelerated Innovation will eventually lead to improvements in the quality of instruction at the college-level. In a recent article in Wired Magazine Chris Anderson the curator of the TED talks describes how the easy availability of video clips on the internet has lead to radical creative improvements in dance. The process: Some person or group watches a video dance routine, learns it, improves it and then posts the new version. The process iterates and soon really amazing dance videos start appearing online – videos from all over the world. Anderson generalizes, calling this phenomena, Crowd Accelerated Innovation, just substitute guitar solo, pie-making or even math lecturing for dance. For instance, he noticed the same phenomena with TED talks. The more recent speakers learned from videos of past speakers and strove to do “better”.
Crowd Accelerated Innovation could be happening right now with mathematics instruction. For instance, the Kahn Academy has attracted many students. I have found the academy’s mini-lectures rather pro forma but I have students who rave about them. MIT has MITOpenCourseWare where we can watch well-respected scholars lecture for entire courses. Since videos can be rated, there is a already a built-in incentive to do better.
If other instructors take up the implicit challenge that these videos present, we could be at the beginning of an explosion of creativity in math instruction (at least the lecture part). [Idea – have a staff development activity built around watching an internet video of a math lecture.] I know that most of us do not prepare a lecture word for word. On some days in some terms in some years and in some of my lectures, the wording or analysis or metaphor or story worked really well. So I jot a hurried note to myself for next time. But as likely as not that creative improvement disappears into the vast lecture space of my career. Unlike TED speakers, we don’t have time to rehearse each day’s lecture. Video documentation of “best” practices could be a great reminder and also a challenge to do better .
A recent NPR piece discussed a study that was videoing K-12 teachers in order to discover what makes a good instructor. Instead of looking for good teachers, maybe we should be looking for the details of a specific “good” lesson plan or classroom management technique. Post a video on-line and let Crowd Accelerated Innovation take over. I think that for college-level instruction something along the lines of the process Ma describes in her book Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics where Chinese instructors meet to discuss and improve their classroom experiences will soon be happening faster, asynchronously and with many more participants on the world-wide-web.