Engaging Online Crowds Important For Teaching Innovation, Finds Study


Online crowds can be an important tool for teaching the ins and outs of innovation, educators at Carnegie Mellon University and Northwestern University say, even when the quality of the feedback provided by online sources doesn’t always match the quantity.

In a pilot study that invited the crowd into their classrooms, Carnegie Mellon and Northwestern instructors found that input from social media and other crowdsourcing sites, helped the students identify human needs for products or services, generate large quantities of ideas, and ease some aspects of testing those ideas.

Steven Dow (Assistant professor, Human-Computer Interaction Institute, Carnegie Mellon): Finding ways to incorporate online crowds into coursework is critical for teaching the process of innovation.

Educating students about innovation practices can be difficult in the classroom, where students typically lack authentic interaction with the real world, say the researchers. Social networks and other online crowds can provide input that students can’t get otherwise.

Even in project courses, feedback is limited to a handful of individuals, at most. “At the same time, tapping the power of online communities has itself become part of the innovation process,” says Elizabeth Gerber, the Breed Junior Professor of Design, at Northwestern University. 

Mr. Dow and Ms. Gerber have received a National Science Foundation grant to study the use of crowd technologies in the classroom.  In the pilot study, they explored the use of crowds with 50 students enrolled in three innovation classes offered by Carnegie Mellon and Northwestern.

Students worked in groups of 3-4 on projects. They found online forums, such as Reddit, were very helpful in discovering unmet needs. A group working on public transit, for instance, found lots of people talk about transit on social media. An attempt to generate ideas through Amazon Mechanical Turk, which pays workers small fees for performing micro-tasks, produced little of use.  

In the final class assignment, to help students learn how to pitch ideas, the teams created a crowdfunding campaign through Kickstarter or Indiegogo.

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[Image courtesy: Carnegie Mellon University]

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