Collaborative learning community views on “the idiocy of crowds”

A few weeks ago I shared some analysis and observations about (mostly business) bloggers’ reactions to David Freedman’s Inc. magazine article “The Idiocy of Crowds.” Freedman takes the provocative position that, “Collaboration is the hottest buzzword in business today. Too bad it doesn’t work.

At the time I wrote about it, Technorati had recorded 50 references to the article. The count now stands at 91, or 92 once this post is pinged. The latest wave of discussion focuses on education and group/collaborative learning, and is well worth attention.

For starters, Clive Shepard explores the implications of Freedman’s thesis.

If David’s right, we’re wasting our time building collaborative experiences into formal learning interventions and informal learning strategies – we’re just slowing things down and making it easier for the less able to ride on the back of their more productive colleagues.

Clive goes on, however, to identify a number of benefits of collaborative learning, including that other learners can:

  • boost your confidence by witnessing and validating your learning;
  • provide a degree of peer pressure ;
  • provide alternative (and sometimes better) perspectives on the subject matter;
  • share valuable experiences;
  • point to relevant resources;
  • lend their support if you’re experiencing problems.

Looking over this list, it is apparent that these benefits can be true in almost any teamwork or collaboration setting, not only in group learning.

Freedman’s article, and Clive’s post, spurred Seb Schmoller to explain how collaboration assists his learning efforts.

Usually my understanding (i.e. what I learn) develops if i) I have to express myself about the issue – verbally or in writing; ii) what I say or write about the issue is challenged by others.

I take away from this that collaborative learning can extend and advance the individual’s efforts beyond what would be possible alone.

Stephen Downes notices the “traction” of the Freedman article, and offers that “it would have been nice had the author taken the time to comprehend the theory he is criticizing.” Downes argues that although Freedman’s critiques of groups may be spot on…

…that is not the structure Surowiecki describes, nor is it how social networks are characterized per Watts and others, a distinction I have tried to make clear (with indifferent success) in Groups and Networks.

Finally, Cool Cat Teacher Vicki Davis explains that listening to the [online] crowd provides value that Freedman may be missing.

Although one cannot rely solely on the crowd to determine what is important (after all the first post has to come from somewhere doesn’t it), it serves as an effective road map or pulse of the leaders in fields. It is an effective tool and to ignore what blogs say is to ignore research itself…

Is collaboration simply a buzzword, or do organizations and individuals realize benefits that would not be possible from working (or learning) alone? Thought leaders in the learning community clearly recognize the benefits of collaborative learning, while also acknowledging some potential pitfalls.

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6 Responses to Collaborative learning community views on “the idiocy of crowds”

  1. Blaine, interesting discussion here. I have not had the time to dig into background on the nay sayers but there must be something coloring their dislike of collaboration. Yes, I have seen it fail it is not perfect. Neither is the world we live in. The failure occurred where someone in the group was deliberately not playing along with the others and ended up sabotaging the effort. I have more frequently seen it work.
    The clear parallel to successful collaboration at work is to look at any number of sports teams. The successful ones “simply” come together. The unsuccessful ones fail to do so and it becomes obvious that they are not a “team”.

  2. Good points, Steve. I think some of the discontent occurs when people have repeated bad experiences in working together. There are times when we all might think, “it would be easier to do it myself,” especially if someone tries to undermine collaboration. Absent sabotage, however, teamwork becomes the most practical way of accomplishing projects that are simply bigger than an individual. Then it is critical to “come together” like the successful teams you mention.

  3. Ski VanderLaan says:

    Blaine, I am wondering if individuals have repeated bad experiences, as you mention, if they are not the problem. As an educator I see this often, usually the student complaining about collaboration not working is the one doing the sabotaging. Just a thought.

  4. Ski, No doubt that those who try to undermine collaboration will likely accomplish their goal, thus creating and participating in failed collaboration. With more and more of society counting on the benefits of collaboration, its a tough world for someone who abhors teamwork.

    I’m curious how those in education, like yourself, handle students who don’t play well with others. My impression is that for many courses, group work accounts for much of the total grade. How do you and others handle the brilliant student who destroys every team they touch?

  5. Ski VanderLaan says:


    That is always a tough one. Remarkably collaboration is still new to higher education for many disciplines. It is a common argument that the grade a student receives should be based primarily on his/her work – not on a team effort. I teach from a collaborative approach because I think that students need to begin to develop these skills that are predominant in the current workplace.

    My “millennial” students actually prefer this method of instruction and tend to overcome obstacles easily and without my assitance. They will often take one to many for the team by simply doing the work for the unproductive/nonparticipating team member just to get it done. It is my more mature students who would prefer to work alone and complain that not everyone is carrying their far share or their learning needs are not being met.

    I usually try to include some leadership, teambuilding, adapting to change, confilict management discussion throughout the semester as they work (these are accounting courses). I also try to discuss with the comlainer that the workplace is changing rapidly and teamwork is probably here to stay ( at least for awhile). Often my more mature students have either never been in the workplace or it has been many years and are operating on the old work environment.

  6. Ski – I understand that collaboration may be slow to take hold, especially in settings where there is great concern about cheating or where a sense of high competitiveness exists. The study group in the Paper Chase collaborated, but they were also quick to severe ties with weak links. Where a grading curve is used, if that is still possible, the structure sets students up for a win-lose mentality, which is not conducive to collaboration.

    I like your approach to teach lessons about teamwork along with the lessons about accounting. No matter where your students go after college, they will be relying on interpersonal skills as much or more than technical skills.

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