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Crowdsourcing Collective Intelligence: Alberto Alemanno on Interactivity in Politics and Education
May 27, 2014. The interview was taken by Johannes Zeller.
Question: Mr. Alemanno, you are the founder of the civic start-up eLabEurope that promotes civic engagement in the political process. What can the European Union do to get more people actively involved in policy making?
Alberto Alemanno: At eLabEurope we intend to promote participation in European and national policy making by showing how it is actually possible for any individual to have a say today. In the past, any attempts at direct (i.e. participatory) democracy were hampered by the citizens' lack of access to information, and there were no channels to actually talk to the government directly. Therefore, representative (i.e. electoral) democracy was the only way to channel public input. But today there are many ways to channel individual input into the process, so that it can affect the outcome of policies.
Question: Can you give us some examples?
Alemanno: European citizens' initiative is just one tool, but there are many others. Public consultations are perhaps even more promising, but also alternative forms of representative democracy where you have random presence of citizens. Experiments on this have been conducted in the US, with promising results.
Question: eLabEurope claims to be "lobbying for the public interest". How do you do that?
Alemanno: eLabEurope is basically approaching the issue from three sides. The first objective is to educate, meaning to reach out to as many people as possible and inform them about the opportunities they have to influence the political process. MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), for example, are very bottom-up and therefore a good way of achieving this. The second element of our approach is about experimenting. The idea here is to crowdsource groups (e.g. MOOC participants) and ask them: What do you think about this particular proposal? Do you think it's a good idea or do you think it's a bad idea? We then gather all the input and send it to the European Commission, to the Parliament and to the national Governments. And the final component of eLabEurope would be to promote public participation in the form of evidence-based advocacy with the European institutions by using social media. On Facebook and other social networks we will ask participants whether they agree or not agree to a particular policy. This way, we are engaging them into a continuous dialogue that they can shape directly.
Question: So the idea is to turn peoples' opinions into Big Data that is channeled into the policies?
Alemanno: That's absolutely what it is about. Big Data is part of the picture because we know that if we crowdsource collective intelligence we can get better results. For two reasons: Not only because the outcome would be better if we have more expertise when more people bring in their perspectives, but also because we could have a sense of ownership when everybody has been involved. The process as a whole would become more legitimized and the outcome therefore more respected and easier to enforce and to accept.
Question: But aren’t the results of a Big Data analysis also debatable? After all it's a matter of interpretation which correlations are coincidental and which are not…
Alemanno: We live in a time in which the growing amount of information might lead to good or bad results. At the moment, Big Data is used predominantly by vested interest, by the industry. I don’t want to blame the industry because probably I would do the same if I were working in that sector. But there is an imbalance. There is too much representation of vested interest in the political process, and too little representation of the citizens. So we need to offset this imbalance. At the moment, we are absolutely in need for listening to more voices.
Question: The turnout in the European Elections has declined steadily from 1979 to 2009. What are the opportunities generated by continually gathering feedback in real time, as opposed to voting only once in every five years?
Alemanno: I think it is crucial for the future of the European Union to find a balance between representative democracy and participatory democracy. The Treaty of Lisbon already states that our democratic system is built upon both elements. Finding a way to make sure that the representative and participatory democracy can coexist might of course force the policy making system to strong changes. Policy makers are not used to listened to the public. They usually just listen to the elected people, because that is how the system has worked for many years. But now we have the tools change it. They have to reach out, to open up their mind and to be able to not only communicate to the elite pre-selected system, but also to all the other people. How can we channel collective knowledge? How can we gather individual expertise? Answering these questions will be the challenge for the European Union for the coming years.
Question: When you teach Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) you reach out to more than 45,000 people at a time. Can you please explain how MOOCs work?
Alemanno: A MOOC is a course which is provided online for free and aims at reaching out to as many people as possible. Unlike traditional e-learning it is not an instrument that wants to educate only students, but all segments of society. Pensioners, teenagers, people who might never go to university… So it is a form of popular education, making education accessible to anyone. Another feature of a MOOC is that it is not only about a teacher holding a lecture, but that it involves an attempt at making educational discourse much more interactive. This can be achieved through quizzes, surveys, essays etc. There are a lot of tools that make the MOOC experience very innovative.
Question: How about assessment? It must be challenging to assess so many people.
Alemanno: It is. But there are several best practices when it comes to self-assessment. Of course the assessment in a MOOC can not be equivalent to the one we are using in a classroom setting, because logistics obviously is an obstacle. What we do is this: On the one hand, participants have the opportunity to do quizzes during the video lectures, and these quizzes are automatically checked and corrected by the machine. It does not matter whether it is Coursera, edX, iversity or some other platform – all of them allow an automatic correction of the answers. On top of that, it is also important to assess the knowledge of the students by making them write something. In social sciences you usually have to write a peer-reviewed essay, which usually works pretty well. Of course, there is the possibility that your essay might be reviewed by someone who tends to be very strict, or perhaps even unfair, which would be a problem. To avoid this problem, we provide a matrix that allows all participants to become instructors. Based on that matrix, they will give different marks for different aspects of the essay. This tends to ensure uniformity in the assessment system.
Question: So if there is assessment it is also possible to achieve credentials when taking a MOOC…
Alemanno: Credentials meaning degrees? If a participants finishes a MOOC, they receive a certificate.
Question: And do you think that, at one point in time, certificates verifying someone's MOOC curriculum will be able to replace a university diploma?
Alemanno: This is a very important question about the future and the role of MOOCs in education. Although I am very enthusiastic about their potential, I don't think that MOOCs, at least as they are right now, will be a replacement for traditional education. I have always thought that MOOCs and e-learning in general are simply complementary to traditional education. They can build upon traditional education and they can bring more people into traditional education. But the classroom experience remains impossible to be replaced entirely. MOOCs are there to stay, somehow, but they will also be changing over time. They will be adapting to the expectations of the students. I don't really see a competition between MOOC platforms and traditional education. Because if you look at who offers MOOCs, you will find that it is mainly traditional universities. They decided to jump on the MOOC bandwagon in order to reach out to more participants and to do education a different way.
Question: Is it possible to say that MOOCs serve as a tool to overcome social and economic barriers to education?
Alemanno: Ideally they should. Today, it seems to be quite easy to have internet access, at least in Europe. So if internet access is something we can almost take for granted, it is quite easy to register for a MOOC and therefore to get exposure to disciplines you otherwise might have never heard about. This kind of availability of knowledge is unique. We never had so much information and, more importantly, good information. MOOC platforms filter, they look at the quality of the offerings. By providing quality knowledge for free, we can re-empower individuals regardless of their social status, wealth and their objectives in life. I would say that this is really huge and can have a huge, huge potential.
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