September 02, 2010

Teacher Productivity - what if we harnessed Mechanical Turk?

One of the most important areas of teacher development must surely be working out how to save time, create more time, drop some of the less meaningful activity in our days to create more, higher energy time to engage with students or improve our own professional learning? 9 times out of 10 the main barrier to teachers doing what they really want to do is 'time'. I think that we could transform teacher time and energy by crowdsourcing some of our most mundane duties.

I attempted a few sessions in New Zealand on this subject I can confirm, though, that most educators find it mind-numbingly irrelevant, perhaps even boring, to look at their working day and decipher what's important, urgent, necessary, unnecessary. Most educators I work with feel under seige from demands outside their control (or seemingly outside their control) and swiftly resign themselves to trudging on best they can.

I began wondering latterly, though, about what would happen if more teachers knew about and made use of virtual PAs, or some kind of educational equivalent. I pay mine about $25 an hour (and they charge by the minute) to handle the things that take up my time, but which don't need me to do them. For me, that's buying travel tickets, sorting receipts, filling in tax return information, handling my dry cleaning, getting foreign stamps for the post sorted out etc.

For a teacher there are endless tasks they have to undertake that they don't have to undertake:

  • insertion of grades into systems
  • typing report card comments (most teachers would take longer typing up their thoughts than dictating them for someone else to handle later)
  • spotting downward trends in student grades
  • compiling school reports and annual report information
  • creating standard letters to parents about school trips, unexplained absences, charity events
  • insert yours here...

I then wondered about using Mechanical Turk to handle some of the larger scale time-suckers that we have in education.

Mechanical Turk is Amazon's technology solution that isn't a technology solution: you submit a task and any necessary material and set a price per minute for the work. Then, in exchange for a few cents for a small chunk of that work you have interested parties, students, academics with some spare time, housewives and all sorts of other strangers take a tiny chunk of that work to complete. Mechanical Turk then brings all those bits back together again and sends you the completed work, along with a tiny bill. It's named after the machine of old, whereby a mysterious Turkish man would take any equation you gave his magical machine and it would then tell you the answer; in fact, there was a man hidden inside who'd work out the answer quickly.

For example, education conferences are happening every week, it seems, and are recorded increasingly in video and/or audio with slideshare visuals, but the art of conference blogging has more or less dropped off as a result. Skimming these videos and audio is a no-go, and so we find ourselves actually getting less from this increased number of conferences, recorded conversations and Elluminate sessions (well, I do anyway).

So if we took all those conference talks and submitted them to Mechanical Turk as we went along, for about $15 per seminar talk we could have a searchable, skimmable transcript that we can link to, highlight, annotate and build upon far easier than the video.

This is just one new problem that we've created, that Mechnical Turk thinking could crack, saving us all some more minutes in the day. What other areas of teaching and learning are Mechanical Turkable?

Photo of the Crowd


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I've found Mechanical Turk of limited value for any task that required the workers to read and write English. I don't think I'd want to read any transcript produced by a Mechanical Turk worker.

MT itself says most satisfactory tasks for workers are those that are highly repetitive. Many teacher tasks that are repetitive and mind-numbing involve handing confidential information, such as entering grades. I doubt that an educational institution would allow outsourcing of anything containing personally identifiable information or email addresses.

Grades as confidential information? Are they? And if it's just a set of grades against a cell number from a spreadsheet the need be no names or contact information. This is about reducing something that takes teachers hours to taking no time. It replaces it with time to think about teaching and learning.

All the suggestions in this post are easily met with a 'yes, but'. My challenge to anyone up for taking it is to ask 'yes, and...'

Yes, and... There is always an intern somewhere who is interested in the conference topic enough to make the transcript for free. Especially if this more detailed work leads to something interesting for her, like research or analysis. Great idea, Ewan, thanks! I need to try it out for Math 2.0 events.

IMHO a virtual personal assistant service like Rent A Smile
makes far greater sense than something like MTurk where the people who do the work are unsupervised and can be just about anyone - no verification, screening, systems, etc.

Not only that, with a service like Rent A Smile, it is their responsibility to understand your work and deliver the right product with their own supervision and management. In the case of MTurk, if you choose wrong, it's a decision you made and they can't be held responsible for it. Furthermore, one needs to create templates, etc. whereas a service like Rent A Smile can be accessed just by sending an email - which is possible even from an iPhone or BlackBerry, for instance!

The comments to this entry are closed.

About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

Recent Posts