Online Crowds: Innovation Tool?

Online Crowds: Innovation Tool?Online Crowds: Innovation Tool?

Steven Dow

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 online crowds into their classrooms, CMU 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 test those ideas.

Steven Dow, assistant professor in CMU's Human-Computer Interaction Institute, says that finding ways to incorporate online crowds into coursework can enrich how we teach 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," Dow explained. "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."

Tapping the power of online communities has itself become part of the innovation process with many entrepreneurs turning to sites such as Kickstarter and IndieGoGo to get initial support, says Elizabeth Gerber, the Breed Junior Professor of Design at Northwestern University.

"The Internet affords access to online communities to which we might not ever have access," she explained. "Future innovators need to know how to find and respectively engage with these communities to get the resources they need."

In the final class assignment, to help students learn how to pitch ideas, the teams created a crowdfunding campaign through IndieGoGo. Students started out raising donations for their ideas, but soon realized that they might be held accountable.

"Their discomfort validated our hypothesis that engaging external crowds would bring the reality of innovation practices into the classroom," Dow said. "The idea of having students reach out and try to pitch their ideas gives a true sense of what it's going to be like convincing people to buy into your concept."

He added, "The other aspect here is that students realized they might actually raise the funding. If they succeeded, they would be held accountable to follow through on their campaign promises."

Dow and Gerber presented their findings at CHI 2013, the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, in Paris.

"The conference presentation led to great feedback on our research plans," said Dow. "People are really interested in why the crowdfunding assignment didn't work."

Dow and Gerber have received a National Science Foundation grant to study the use of crowd technologies in the classroom. They have created a website to share ideas and resources regarding the use of crowd-based resources in innovation education.

In their pilot study, they explored the use of crowds with 50 students enrolled in three innovation classes offered by CMU and Northwestern. Students worked in groups of 3–4 on projects.

Students 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, Dow said.

"It also helps them figure out what questions to ask users in more traditional interviews," he added. Next steps include creating a short set of activities that instructors can give their students.

"We want instructors to buy into what we are doing and help us shape the activities," Dow explained.

"Our research also looks at interface issues for specific methods. For example, right now we're experimenting with different methods for asking online crowds to respond via short video clips."

Top photo: student getting feedback from potential consumers on a crowdsourcing platform

Related Links: School of Computer Science | Human-Computer Interaction Institute |

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