Can Learning Really Happen With Crowdsourcing?

To provide the most benefit, crowdsourced learning needs to be a two-way, give-and-take learning experience.

While thinking about the topic for this article, I happened to be driving along the main road near where I live when a local church sign jumped out at me, “Those who follow the crowd usually get lost in it.”

My goal is to stop you from getting lost in this emerging topic of learning through crowdsourcing, plus provide some common road markers and compass points to guide you along this interesting area of study.


Crowdsourcing is the practice of obtaining information input into a task, and even funding, by enlisting the assistance from a number of people— “a crowd”—typically online via the Internet.

The term itself is a blend of the words, “crowd” and “outsourcing.” A well-known example of crowdsourcing is free encyclopedia Wikipedia, the open-access compilation of curated articles and dedicated input from people from around the world.

You may have participated in crowd funding in fundraising for a teacher’s classroom project, or a GoFundMe request to assist an individual or family following a tragic event where financial help was needed, or even a Kick-Starter campaign to finance a new product idea.


Crowdsourced learning is where learners come together to achieve a common task or goal and both depend upon, and are accountable to, other learners for the common benefit of each other.

Wenjuan Yin demonstrates this in her research at State University of New York with fellow coresearchers on “Crowdsourced Learning to Photograph Via Mobile Devices.”

Their premise was to leverage the frequent use of mobile device photography and draw upon social media communities to view sample photographs, receive comments, and obtain composition knowledge to guide the ongoing development of better visual quality photography.

Use of computers, the Internet, and social media allows learners to connect with other learners from diverse backgrounds and from varied geographic locations. Learning can occur in real time when needed rather than waiting upon teacher or classroom availability.


But what is the difference between using crowdsourcing for brainstorming versus actual learning?

Crowdsourcing, in general, tends to be a unilateral, one-way experience used for social computing, problem solving, and creative product development.

However, with crowdsourced learning, the desired learning outcomes should be beneficial both to a single learner and to the rest of the learning participants. This makes crowdsourced learning a two-way, give-and-take learning experience.


But we need to remember that crowdsourced learning is still in its early stages. Imagine if instead of recreating the wheel every time we teach, facilitate, or present, that teachers and Learning and Development professionals are able to exchange best practices and training methods known to be successful.

But this requires a transparency and openness built upon trust and respect to help produce the best prepared educators who will benefit our learners.

Kurt Luther, professor at HCI Institute of Carnegie Mellon University, highlights the need to consider logistical and ethical concerns around crowdsourced learning. Luther and his colleagues flag the concern regarding the competency of those teaching complex skills or domain-specific knowledge, knowing that many individuals teaching will be novices. There is also the need to respect the rights of those who teach for fair compensation, meaningful work, and protection from abuse.


Crowdsourced learning requires a lot of thought, design, and preparation in order to help people learn. Take, for example, one study by Luther and a team of researchers investigating “how crowds can provide individuals with high-quality feedback on creative work, focusing on the domain of visual design.”

This required people inexperienced with formal design principles to provide high-quality feedback to people who were experienced designers. Inexperienced designers first needed to become familiar with a critique learning method called “scaffolding.” This provided a structural aid to learners giving feedback by using a set of 70 critique statements across a set of seven high-level design principles, such as layout, readability, and simplicity, etc.

Crowd workers viewed a design and described the perceived strengths and weaknesses, using appropriate statements from the critique grid, along with open-ended comments to further clarify specific feedback.

The group of learners provided mass feedback to the more experienced designer, allowing him or her to change and solicit further feedback on the modified design.

Crowdsourced learners indirectly learned basic design principles by critiquing. This allowed them to improve their own skills in basic design principles for projects such as creating posters.


1. Crowdsourced learning is no cakewalk. Consider the following ideas:
2. Initiating learners must prepare methods and tools for using common language to communicate unfamiliar topics or skills to crowd inputters.
3. Specific and detailed information has to be simplified and uniform for both parties to effectively communicate with each other.
4. Learning is incremental and expands as the crowd becomes more familiar and experienced with the framework and language used to give feedback.
5. Crowd members become a community among themselves, providing opportunities to learn from each other, as well as the initiating learner.

The goal of all learning is focusing on the needs of the learner. Crowdsourced learning is a way of enlarging our village and collaborating, so everyone involved can learn, too.

Roy Saunderson is author of “GIVING the Real Recognition Way” and Chief Learning Officer at Rideau Recognition Solutions. His consulting and learning skills focus on helping companies “give real recognition the right way wherever they are.” For recognition insights, visit: For more information, e-mail him at or visit

Get our newsletter and digital magazine

November / December 2020

Stay current on learning and development trends, best practices, research, new products and technologies, case studies and much more.