Crowd for Flaming Lips
Copyright Kirstie Shanley

What is collective intelligence?

Jenkins (n.d.) describes collective intelligence as "the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal" (p. xiv). Howard Rheingold talks about participation (especially constructive participation that is helpful to others) and collaboration (organizing together and responding as a group) (Blowers, 2009). Others use the term--the wisdom of crowds. Daniel Pink talks about symphony as one connects one's work to others. (Mardis, 2008) As people work together "collective cognition [emerges] when a number of people reach insights through the process of working together that neither could have made alone" (Grant, 2009, p. 107). People build on the contributions of one another to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. In the past, I have experienced this collective intelligence during committee work. I called this type of transcendent teamwork--synergy. As we combined our creative energies along with our individual strengths, we achieved something that none of us could have aspired to as individuals.

The idea of using connections with people to build your own learning is not a new one. Paulo Freire said that "discovery is a social process and dialogue is the cement of this process" (Gadotti, 1994, p. 29). Paulo remarked that "we can learn a great deal from the very students we teach. For this to happen it is necessary that we transcend the monotonous, arrogant, and elitist traditionalism where the teacher knows all and the student does not know anything." (Freire, 1984, p. 177) In order to tap into the knowledge of our students, we must move away from the "sage on the stage" approach in education. David Weinberger said that "The smartest person in the room isn't the person at the front of the room. It's the room." As teachers working in space and time with our students, we need to tap into their funds of knowledge and their passions about the world.

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However, in the Web 2.0 world, our ability to pool knowledge, compare notes, and even to find others with similar goals to our own has exploded. The crowd that shares its wisdom with you may never be in the same room as you are in. In order for it to be a collective of intelligence, you must move beyond lurking into commenting, responding, sharing yourself and being generous with your contributions. It is a two-way street of giving and receiving. (Actually a street is far too linear. When you share yourself online, you may never know who has benefited from that information. So continue to pay it forward.)

Practical examples

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1. Listen to an audio excerpt from James Suroweicki's book, The Wisdom of Crowds. Here he shares the famous "weight of the ox" story to demonstrate the wisdom of crowds. (5 minutes 20 seconds)

2. Crowd-sourcing a trip: Zach Klein asked for help with planning a trip for four to Spain and Portugal. He included a MapQuest suggested route. As people sent him advice, he revised his route.

I need your help planning my roadtrip through Portgual and Spain (this is a crowdsourced trip)

3. Margaret Atwood: Last week (beginning of April 2009), Margaret (who is a famous Canadian author) tweeted a question. She uses Wordpress as a blogging platform ( and needed help with changing the date on a blog post to keep the posts in chronological order. She asked her followers for help (she can tap the collective intelligence of over 41,000 followers on her Twitter account). I happened to catch the sequence of tweets.

Margaret tweets: April 1 (11:24 a.m.) T-pal WordPress geeks, help! Possible to insert Blogpost in between 2 others, to preserve chronological order? How? Good/bad idea? Thanks!

Margaret tweets: April 1 (11:31 a.m.) Thank you WordPressers for swift answers! WDITOT? (Why didn't I think of that?) Can I "embed" something ending with .mov? A short movie? Tx!

I tweet to Margaret: April 1 (11:42 a.m.) @MargaretAtwood I'm researching collective intelligence/wisdom of crowds e.g. Your ? re WP. 7 minutes later or sooner--had your answer.

Margaret replies to my tweet: Apr il 1 (12:12 p.m.) @ RIElliott: Researching collective intelligence/wisdom o'crowds e.g. Yr ? re WP. 7 mins later or sooner-had yr answer? M.sez: Less than 2!

(I am tickled that Margaret replied to my tweet. However, since she did not use the @RIElliott correctly, I did not see this tweet from her until today (April 7) when I visited Margaret's Twitter account.)

In case you don't speak Twitter, Margaret asked for help with her Wordpress blog. Seven minutes later she thanked her followers for helping her so quickly. However, it took less than two minutes for Margaret to receive her answer. Since I was viewing these tweets in real time, I checked on the replies to Margaret's tweet. About 20% gave her the wrong answer. However, 80% gave her the correct answer. I'm sure it was faster (and less expensive) for Margaret to tap into the wisdom of her crowd of followers than it would have been for her to contact the expert who helped her set up her blog in the first place.

Here's what Margaret had to say recently about her Twitter followers:

"But despite their sometimes strange appearances, I'm well pleased with my followers – I have a number of techno-geeks and bio-geeks, as well as many book fans. They're a playful but also a helpful group. If you ask them for advice, it's immediately forthcoming: thanks to them, I learned how to make a Twitpic photo appear as if by magic, and how to shorten a URL using or tinyurl. They've sent me many interesting items pertaining to artificially-grown pig flesh, unusual slugs, and the like. (They deduce my interests.) Some of them have appeared at tour events bearing small packages of organic shade-grown fair-trade coffee...They're sharp: make a typo and they're on it like a shot, and they tease without mercy. However, if you set them a verbal challenge, a frisson sweeps through them. They did very well w ith definitions for "dold socks" – one of my typos – and "Thnax", another one. And they really shone when, during the Olympics, I said that "Own the podium" was too brash to be Canadian, and suggested "A podium might be nice." Their own variations poured on to a feed tagged #cpodium: "A podium! For me?" "Rent the podium, see if we like it." "Mind if I squeeze by you to get onto that podium?" I was so proud of them! It was like having 33,000 precocious grandchildren!" (Atwood, 2010)

4. Another audio excerpt from James Suroweicki's book, The Wisdom of Crowds. Here he shares about the complex problem of a missing submarine. (3 minutes 36 seconds)

5. A real life example from the operator of a hot air balloon business (ms4jah). He shares in a comment on a photograph (at how he and other hot air balloon experts decide where to launch their balloons.

"One of the most important decisions we make when we do our daily passenger ride business hot air balloon flights is exactly WHERE to launch. The launch site selection process is a critical decision that affects the outcome of the whole flight.

I study very carefully all the winds and weather data available. I send up a few 15 inch helium balloons and study them very carefully as they rise several thousand feet through the different air currents. I make my decision as to the best launch site. Then I'll talk to other pilots who are also flying that day and going through the same process; some are a few miles away; others might be right with me. Together we pool all our data and the gro up intelligence emerges and in the long run, we come up with better decisions as a group than any individual pilot does on his own.

But as mentioned above, the process works best if each pilot makes his own independent decision first. If one pilot starts influencing all the others too soon, then there is a crowd mentality. And you may see a whole crowd of balloons go off in a bad direction. So the best way to come up with the decision is for each pilot to maximize the use of his own brain and then network with the other brains for maximum processing power which raises the overall intelligence of the balloon community."

6.On January 12, 2010, an earthquake hit the county of Haiti. On January 13th, the U. S. State department asked the TED group to ask their community for their suggestions for how technology could help Haiti. That day I sent Chris Anderson (TED curator) this email:

On Jan 13, 2010, at 10:58 PM, Ruth Elliott wrote:
Hi Chris,

You ask: How can tech help with relief to Haiti?

1) Last summer in Edmonton (#yeg on Twitter), there was a massive storm. People tweeted. A man in the States used their tweets and Google Earth to pinpoint the areas of the most damage. @mastermaq is an influential tweeter in Edmonton. If you like, I can contact him to see whether something like this can be done for Haiti.

2) Coordination of the relief efforts: We in the tech community know about wikis, etc. and other means to have massive numbers of people coordinate their efforts. Perhaps Haiti Relief Wikis could be set up with discussion boards and info collected. For e.g. I saw the link tweeted for this blog post about a proposal for getting water to Haiti ( If that info were on a wiki that became a central check-in point, this would be helpful.

3) I think that already Twitter and Facebook have been used very effectively to communicate. However, someone needs to be listening critically and saying: this is what needs to be done. For e.g. all the dead bodies lying on the streets. Someone should be taking photos and somehow documenting location and gathering any personal I.D. because those bodies will soon decompose and cause health hazards as well. But the photos and any GPS info or I.D. could be saved. People on the ground could even use I phones or something.

As well, today I thought that people were throwing up their hands because there were no heavy earth movers to help with digging. What about bringing in low tech means like shovels? Reading the tweets and blog posts would begin to highlight areas of need on the ground so to speak.

4) I really like Twitter lists. Some people who are unfamiliar with Twitter may not know about them. Today I made a Twitter list for Haiti (@RIElliott) This has been great for listening to all the people who are tweeting about Haiti (It is only those people who are either there or are tweeting information. Lots of NGO's and journalists. A few who live there.) The tech community could brainstorm with government about new ways to communicate and keep in touch.

Hope you get lots of great input,
Ruth Elliott
Saskatoon, Sask., Canada

A few days later I received a reply from Chris Anderson saying that he had passed on my suggestions to the U.S. State department. In the following days I read of tech people using G oogle Earth to pinpoint areas of need and to mark damaged roads. I read of many sites which were compiling information on needs and supplies. I read about someone who was going in to photograph the unidentified dead before the bodies were taken away. I read tweets and retweeted about low tech needs like the requirement of various sizes of screws for rebuilding.

I don't know how much of an impact my individual suggestions made for the relief effort in Haiti. However, I was part of the collective group that shared our thoughts. This collective intelligence made a difference for Haiti.

7. Another example of collective intelligence is this class project for EDES 545. We are seven students living in Prince Edward Island (1), Saskatchewan (1), Alberta (4), and Korea (1). However we have found the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal. Our ability came through class discussions on Blackboard, through emails, through two Elluminate sessions, through Skype and phone class, via our wiki with the ability for common edits and discussion posts and through VoiceThread. We are seeking to pool the knowledge so that it flows together in a way that reveals the connections between each concept. We are each developing specialized knowledge in our concept(s). We compare notes through our various communication mechanisms (mainly online). Lastly, our common goal is to present a vision of 21st Century learning beginning with Henry Jenkins skill set.

How can this skill be developed?

Group workWorking together
First Work Collaboratively Off-line
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For many skills which can be expressed using technology, it is often a good idea to begin off-line. Students can learn to work collaboratively in small groups in the classroom. Doctorow uses the term "ad-hocracies" to describe ad-hoc groups that come together for a specific purpose and time. Then the groups dissolve in order to reconfigure as different entities. We could encourage our students to become accustomed to this type of group work. As students become familiar with working in these kinds of groups off-line, we can begin to introduce virtual groups. Jenkins suggests that students from various geographical locations could work together to study the same problem. An example of this could be studying the recent Earth Hour when people were encouraged to turn off their power for one hour from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 27, 2010. Here are a few suggestions for how students from around the globe could collectively combine their intelligence about Earth Hour. 1) From newspaper reports in various locales, students could share any change in the power use in their location. 2) Students could collect accounts of activities during Earth Hour. (e.g. At my house, we played Settlers of Catan by candlelight.) 3) Students could post newspaper articles and op-ed pieces from local newspapers. (e.g. In my local paper, one curmudgeon forgot about Earth Hour so wrote a piece dissing it as meaningless.) 4) Students could collect opinions from classmates, teachers, parents, and family members about why Earth Hour is or is not important and what long-term effects it may have. They could create a survey which also collects data that could be graphed. (e.g. Do younger people see more value than older people?) Please feel free to share additional ideas on this VoiceThread.

Suroweicki talks about three kinds of problems that can be solved using the wisdom of crowds: 1) Cognition problems that have or will have definite solutions. (Margaret Atwood's question about changing the date on a Wordpress blog post would be a cognition problem). 2) Coordination problems are those in which group members need to decide how to coordinate behaviour. I recently watched a television program in which six strangers were placed in three pairs and told to meet up in New York. They did not know who they were looking for or where they were to meet. Remarkably, by the end of the day, the six of them found each other in New York City.) 3) Cooperation problems have the challenge of getting independent individuals to work together.

Why use it?

Developing the skill of tapping into and contributing to the wisdom of the crowd is an important skill for the future. Our students are living in a connected world. Asking them to turn off all devices is a travesty. However, students also need to learn to think for themselves and create their own expertise in order to benefit from the group. Just as the hot air balloon story showed above, Suroweicki (2004) suggests that "paradoxically, for a group to be smart, each member in it must think and act as independently as possible". The group needs to be diverse, independent, and decentralized. It needs to communicate with each other but not too much. (Suroweicki) Students will be expected to have these kinds of collaborative, constructive, and cooperative skills in the workplace of the future. When they come to company meetings, they will need a certain level of independent thought along with flexibility in order to incorporate the thoughts of others. "Yes men and women" will not be the ideal colleagues of the future. Diversity and dissonance should be encouraged as students find a safe place in which to question and share their ideas. When everyone in the classroom recognizes that "everyone knows something, nobody knows everything, and what any one person knows can be tapped by the group as a whole" (Jenkins, n.d., p. 71-72), they will thrive as a community of learners.

A Few Issues with Collective Intelligence

You need a crowd or collective. Whether this is a local group of trusted friends, a small group working together in the classroom, or a far-flung group of virtual friends online, collective intelligence requires a group. In the fall I came across a university student's account of giving up on Twitter. She had recently joined Twitter and had four followers. She threw a question or appeal for help out to the Twitterverse. No one answered her cry so she decided that Twitter did not work for her and she was giving up on it. Unlike Margaret Atwood (with her 41,000 followers) and help arriving within two minutes, this university student had no "collective" so she received no "intelligence".

Sometimes the crowd can turn nasty. The wisdom of crowds can morph into the meanness of mobs. Years ago at Halloween, I experienced the power of the crowd. I lived in the small town of Eastend, Saskatchewan, Canada at the time. That evening, as we were going out trick--or-treating, a number of us began to walk down the streets of this small town together. As more and more teenagers joined our group, we took over the street. We did not do anything malicious or damaging to property. However, at one point when a vehicle turned the corner to come down the street towards us, that driver decided to back up and proceed in a different direction rather than attempt to drive through the crowd of teenagers stretching across the street. This kind of power could have gone to our heads. Fortunately it didn't. However, as Jaron Lanier posits, online every day, the mob mentality with its “drive-by anonymity” may foster vicious pack behavior on blogs, forums and social networks. (Tierney, 2010) This anti-social use of social media is something that educators need to combat by teaching about digital citizenship. Even children in Grade one and two can learn to make kind comments on their classmates' blogs. (Watch this video to see Kathy Cassidy's students' take on media literacy. Listen for their concepts about citizenship--face to face and virtual.)

I have never experienced crowd surfing at a concert. I looked at a lot of pictures on Flickr to see what it would look like. However, it must be discouraging to get to the concert only to find a big sign that says No Crowd Surfing. This is also one of the negative aspects of Collective Intelligence. Students are generally encouraged to do their assignments alone and to turn in their individual work in order to be graded. "Collective intelligence communities encourage ownership of work as a group but schools grade individuals" (Jenkins, n.d., p. 76). Brian Behlendorf (@brianbehlendorf) tweeted that "the only way I know to solve big problems anymore is to do it in public". What if he tweeted his problem and the Twitter police sent him this message: "Do your own work. (No crowd surfing!) You're on your own kid." Of course, there are times when students must do individual problem solving but we also need to give them many opportunities to work using the collective intelligence of their community of learners.


The strength of teamwork

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Henry Jenkins says that "the ideal of collective intelligence is a community that knows everything, with individuals who know how to tap the community to acquire knowledge on a just-in-time basis" (n.d., p.77). In the past (before Web 2.0 and social media), this ideal would have been very difficult for students and teachers to achieve. However, once a person establishes an online community (PLN - Personal Learning Network), as Margaret Atwood has demonstrated, the ideal of collective intelligence can become a reality. Kevin Honeycutt said, "I am smart. But with my PLN, I am brilliant." Let's give our students the way to build their own Personal Learning Network so that they too can benefit from the wisdom of the crowd.


Atwood, Margaret. (2010, April 7). How I learned to love Twitter. Retrieved from

Blowers, Helene. (2009, September 27). 21st Century Literacies. Message posted to

Freire, Paulo, Giroux, Henry, & Macedo, Donaldo. (1984). The Politics of Education: Culture, Power and Liberation. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Gadotti, Moacir. (1994). Reading Paulo Freire: His Life and Work. New York: State University of New York Press.

Grant, Lyndsay. (2009). I Don't Care Do Ur Own Page: A case study of using wikis for collaborative work in a UK secondary school. Learning Media and Technology, 34, 2, 105-117. ProQuest Journals.

Jenkins, Henry. (n.d.) Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Retrieved from

Mardis, Marcia. (2008). A whole new library: six "senses" you can use to make sense of new standards. Teacher Librarian, 35, 4, 34-38 (Online University of Alberta, ProQuest Journals)

Suroweicki, James. (2004) The Wisdom of Crowds:Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and NationsNew York: Doubleday. (For additional information visit: )

Tierney, John. (2010, January 11). The Madness of Crowds and an Internet Delusion. Retrieved from

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