Crowdsourcing and the Boston Manhunt: Lessons for Educators


It is quite strange living on the other side of the world when tragic events like the Boston Marathon attacks occur back at home.  The first time I was in this situation was in 2001 on September 11th.  I was teaching a class in Caracas, Venezuela when our counselor showed up to let me know that she needed to remove a student from my class whose father might have been in the towers.  At the time I had no idea what she was talking about.  There was no Facebook, there was no Twitter.  The most current information we could access came from a news broadcast of CNN that was occasionally blocked by the Venezuelan government and replaced by one of Chavez's long-winded "chats".  Needless to say, CNN was not being broadcast in my classroom while I was teaching, so I was essentially in the dark. 

Fast forward 12 years to this past week.  Chavez is no more, and social media has completely changed the way people communicate with each other on a global scale.  Last night I attended the opening night of our school musical, "Oliver".  While waiting for it to start, I was reading the #bostonmanhunt Twitter updates on my iPhone via Flipboard.  When I read that they had caught up to the SUV and had a house surrounded, I mentioned this to my friend and a parent sitting in my row as they were also reading updates on their phones. My friend had been reading the New York Times and promptly realized that if he wanted instant updates he would have to switch to Twitter.  What ensued was a discussion of mixed messages gleaned from our separate Twitter feeds regarding the origins of the Tsarnaev's.  Did they ever live in Chechnya or were they from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, or Turkey?  Wait... maybe they have always lived in the states.  Did they rob a 7-11 or not?  And on and on it went.  The conversation reminded me of an article I had read about the New York post that morning, and a similar misguided virtual manhunt on Reddit

NPR said it best in a tweet:

This morning I read something that connected the dots to education for me resulting in this post.  In his blog, Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker wrote: 

The incomparable A. J. Liebling wrote once that there are three kinds of journalists: the reporter, who says what he’s seen; the interpretive reporter, who says what he thinks is the meaning of what he’s seen; and the expert, who says what he thinks is the meaning of what he hasn’t seen. The first two—reporters and interpretive reporters—have been largely undermined by economics and incuriosity. But the third category never stops growing. We are now a nation of experts, with millions of people who know the meaning of everything that they haven’t actually experienced.

In an earlier post of mine, Old Habits Don't Seem to Die, I broached this very same issue as it pertains to education.  You see the problem is that we are still educating our kids to become "experts" in our content areas rather than knowledgeable networkers or people capable of collecting, outsourcing and connecting dots. In this age of social media and crowdsourcing, why are we not shifting the paradigm to produce knowledgeable networkers instead of knowledgeable workers?  This morning I read a  disturbing post from an IT Director and AP outside of Chicago.  His tweet that accompanied this post said "Facebook vs. Education - Who wins?".  Though he makes some good points and offers some good strategies, his first piece of advice to educators is to block Facebook in schools.  This is not the answer. In my classroom this competition between Facebook and Education does not exist. The key is to make your class more engaging than Facebook for your students.  To do this, you need to become a facilitator of learning rather than a delivery service for content. Then educate your students on how to use social media safely for learning, design activities that utilize social media tools in your classroom, and transform social media platforms into tools for knowledgeable networking so that your students will be better prepared for their future.  If you want to explore this further, check out my post, Dropping the F-bomb in Class:  Why?.

If the crowdsourcing efforts of the Boston manhunt are any indication, it is clear that education will lose to social media if you make it a competition.  It is also apparent that many of the crowdsourcers involved in this effort mistakenly saw themselves more as journalistic experts than the first two types.  These individuals need to learn how to collect dots before connecting them.  They also need to learn that sometimes it is not their role to connect the dots.  It is our job as educators to teach them these skills.  It is time for us  to switch our focus from producing experts to producing more knowledgeable networkers. We must  join forces, educate ourselves on the powers of social media both good and bad and then teach our children to use the tools responsibly and effectively. 

My thoughts are with the people in Boston right now as they begin their healing process.  Over the next few days my feed will be flooded with stories of those who were personally impacted by this tragedy along with posts attempting to understand the motivation of these two men.  We will read these together as a nation, no a world, attempting to connect the dots that may not be ours to connect.