Perhaps my greatest professional passion these days is promoting innovative schools cultures, and particularly ones which facilitate our students in becoming innovators.   So I am especially taken with a new article in Wired Magazine (January 2011), by TED founder Chris Anderson, on “How Crowd Accelerated Innovation Can Change the World.”

As Anderson says: “This is big.” I think it may not be saying too much that the ideas contained within are genuinely transformative to how we think about innovation at present and  in the coming years.

In the piece, which is terrific and highly recommended, Anderson focusses especially on the value of on-line video in promoting this powerful new phenomenon, Crowd Accelerated Innovation (CAI henceforward), but CAI is facilitated by Web 2.0 technologies generally, and video particularly and especially.  Below I discuss CAI and reflect upon its implications for education.

The passion and enthusiasm demonstrated here for the opportunity the Web 2.0 offers us to change the world, profoundly, for the better, is reminiscent of  two others from whom I have taken so much inspiration of late, Clay Shirky and Steven B. Johnson.


What is Crowd Accelerated Innovation?

New global communities [are] granting their members both the means and the motivation to step up their skills and broaden their imaginations. It is unleashing an unprecedented wave of innovation in thousands of different disciplines. In short, it is boosting the net sum of global talent. It is helping the world get smarter.

Innovation has always been a group activity.  Ideas spawn from earlier ideas, bouncing from person to person and being reshaped as they go.  That’s how ideas bump into other ideas, replicate, mutate, and evolve.

So Crowd Accelerated Innovation isn’t new. In one sense, it’s the only kind of innovation there’s ever been. What is new is that the Internet—and specifically online video—has cranked it up to a spectacular degree.

How does CAI work?    It requires three elements: Crowd, Light, and Desire.

  • A Crowd of Innovators and People around them, sharing their interests and passions.
  • Light, to provide visibility and awareness across the breadth of the crowd.
  • Desire, the drive for the compelling power of recognition.

Crowd:  Meaningful innovation is hard to come by, and, Anderson explains, is greatly facilitated by letting a thousand flowers bloom, or, as Tom Friedman reminds us often, tens of thousands of garage tinkerers tinkering.So as more and more people attend to and concern themselves with a problem or issue, the more likely innovation will emerge– and today, via Web 2.0 social networks, there are so many opportunities for so many to be networked, sharing, and stimulating each other.

Scientists, architects, historians, conservationists, musicians … all are linking up globally in a way unimaginable only a few years ago.  Just as significantly, communities have formed that could scarcely have existed before.

You can track innovation online by looking at the moment a community was first able to share its talents digitally. For writers and software programmers, it happened as soon as the Internet connected them.

This is so exciting to read, because it speaks so well for what I believe so many of us in the educational innovation movement are feeling, connected on Twitter and on blogs like Connected Principals, we are finding incredible intellectual energy for progress in our field.

Light:  For Anderson, light is the metaphor for how video takes the power of web 2.0 social networking and expands it exponentially, because video is so illuminating and inspiring in a way text just never will be.

The sharing of ideas in general is often best done through direct speech—we’ve evolved over eons to subconsciously grasp the subtleties of a face-to-face conversation. In all these cases, for remote audiences video is the killer app. Don’t write me. Tell me. Show me.

Desire: Here, the idea is that the power of the web gives innovators and those with the impulse to create, produce, and share the greatest stimulus of all: recognition.   Anderson is acute and honest in his recognition that “active learning is hard work– and in most cases, what drive all that work is the prospect of recognition for what we’ve done.”   “We’re social animals, we like to be stoked.”

I wrote about this in a recent post (Why I Blog: A Principal’s 13 reasons) when I said that among my 13 reasons to blog is to get this kind of recognition (and Anderson makes me feel much better about this motivation).  I feel quite confident that my fellow bloggers will immediately recognize and appreciate Anderson when he says “have you ever checked the viewing figures on a blog post you wrote?”


Implications for Educators Working for Innovative Schools and Innovative Students

There are many implications, but perhaps they can be generalized in two categories.

1. Open Facebook, Twitter and Youtube (and other social, 2.0, and video networks) and encourage their use throughout our schools, for both teachers and students.  If we seek educational innovation among our educators and among our students, we need to support and encourage, not block or discourage them,  to be on-line, networked and networking,  and watching, being inspired by, and contributing to youtube (etc).

Conversely, if we’re opposed to innovation in our schools and students– if we want teachers and kids to conform to norms, to stick to the convention and the straight and narrow, to follow directions and stay in line, to memorize old ideas rather than learn and invent new ones,  then we ought to block social and video networks.   Anderson’s logic is that compelling.    He provides this kind of counter-example:

History shows that when communities fall below a certain critical mass, technological progress slows and may go into reverse. The original Tasmanians, limited by the size of their island, never grew beyond a population of a few thousand. Isolated from other cultures, over the centuries they lost many of the technologies they had arrived with. Without the crowd and contact, the learning died.

(One issue is genuinely challenging, a pragmatic rather than ideological one.   Many schools find the need to block facebook/youtube not because they want to block access, but because pragmatically the bandwidth simply cannot support these streams.   This is a real problem, and I have no easy answers for it.  Schools making this choice should probably publicly state why they are blocking/minimizing this access and keep seeking workarounds.   What also becomes apparent when we confront this challenge is that funding improved broadband should be a high financial priority for schools seeking to enhance their innovative cultures).

2.  We need to teach and learn video-production skills throughout our schools, and by we I mean both adults/educators and kids/students.   We adults need to learn this too (and our kids can teach us: at my school this month we are having a sophomore run a video production workshop for teachers/administrators).

Often when we think about teaching and learning innovation, we think about classes or experiences like computer science and programming, robotics, project-based learning, the creative fine arts, science lab experiences where students design their own labs, and experiences where students seek to new problems needing solution.  Now, none of these activities are backwards steps– none of them are bad ideas.

But Anderson takes us back a step– innovation is as much about a media of  transmission, taking inspiration and sharing solutions.  He provides us a useful quick history of how various communications media revolutions have intensified innovation, such as trade routes circa 3000 BCE and the printing press of the 15th century.

Web-video is our revolutionary such medium, and we deprive our students’ innovative capacity development  if we are not using and teaching the most powerful contemporary  transmission medium.  Innovation is enhanced in any and all fields, Anderson teaches us, by web video, and he provides us a colorful array of how this is happening, giving us examples from dance to cake baking to costume makeup art to Rube Goldberg machine makers and many more.

So it is not that our students shouldn’t be learning innovative practices in arts and sciences, and it isn’t they shouldn’t be learning to write, but if we accept the argument here, they also, perhaps just as much (perhaps more) need to learn to shoot and edit video.   This is hard for me, as a writer, to accept, but I am seeking also to embrace it, using video more and more in my blogging and intending to learn for myself video-making skills.    As Anderson says, and I am repeating it because it so important: Don’t write me. Tell me.  Show me.

(An aside: I encountered Anderson’s argument for CAI first by reading it, in Wired; only later did I watch the Anderson TED video articulating the same ideas.  I find the article more powerful and compelling than the video.  So my argument for Anderson’s argument is not an absolute– there is absolutely a place for many media streams.  But even as we certainly teach kids to write and read, and write and read ourselves, we underestimate the power of web-video at our intellectual and innovative peril.)

Those of us here in the web 2.0 world of social media, blogging and tweeting are  already riding the wave and surfing to higher intellectual and innovative heights by virtue of the power of CAI: Crowd Accelerated Innovation.   I feel so fortunate to be the beneficiary of CAI every single day in my work leading a school.

Some among terrific educators among us are embracing and implementing this already via the exemplary CAI project of TEDx conferences.  I knew before now that TEDx was cool, but I didn’t know why it was so terrific in the way I now understand.  Bravo to them!

If we educators and students seek schools to become better sites of innovation, we must all work to better participate in online creative and collaborative networks and we must all learn to better use video in our efforts.   What an exciting time for us all!