Web2.0 tools need the right mix of control and freedom to be useful. Thoughts?

I thought this highly wired group of educators might be a good group to give me feedback on a newly articulated idea: Web2.0 tools need the right mix of control and freedom to be useful. Here's the paradigm and my thoughts.

1, Pure Web2.0 let-everyone-contribute environments produce endless
unfiltered content which is not much use without a lot of refinement.
Think of sites where anyone can post a quiz or info (I won't name
names) or think of the blogosphere and the net in general.

2. Old world textbook authority-driven educational materials are feeling incredibly outdated at this point.

Cases in point: Wikipedia lets people contribute but has a layer of editors
and locks on controversial topics. They blend freedom with control for
the best outcome.

Some background as to why this is on my mind. I created SpellingCity.com which is a big free online educational vocabulary and spelling site. Right now, it's approaching 1% penetration of usage by K5 teachers and
students. Traditionally, we wrote all the sentences on the site which
illustrate the use of the word both for clarity when you hear it on a
test and for context, when you play the word-meaning games (MatchIt and WhichWord).
We crowd-sourced feedback to help us fix sentences when our sentences
weren't so good. (We are self-financed and when launching the site, I
cut a few corners on the editing and writing on sentences which I
sorely regret at this point).

Starting January 2010, we enabled teachers and parents writing and using their own custom
sentences (for background on this, there's a 75 second Teacher Training Video).
The outpouring of sentences was amazing. Over one thousand were written
in the first three hours after launch. We found that they were written:
  1. For multiple meaning words to get the right meaning: to weigh on a scale vs the fish scale vs to scale the mountain vs the map scale. BTW, this is the context that we envisaged.
  2. For specific educational contexts. Some teachers have younger students, some older. Some teachers want the sentence to match the exact context of whatever lesson she has posted
    the lesson about.
  3. For personalization. It turns out to be more fun if the sentences use the name of the teacher and the students and all sorts of local stuff. For nicest, eg Mrs Thomas is the nicest teacher in the world to students who pay attention!
  4. Because it's fun.
We also found that the quality of the sentences was very very very
uneven. While we look to this outpouring as a source of new sentences,
we are finding that in fact, they often help us identify needs where we
need alternatives but do not actually provide us with good sentences.
Often, we'll review 30 sentences written with a given word and not find
a single one that gives enough context while avoiding other problems
(wordiness, grammatical errors, sensitivities). Usually, it's usually
better for us to craft a new sentence than to try and find one that
meets our criteria.

I was surprised not only by this fact but by the number of emails that I
got from teachers advising us and asking us to NOT generally circulate
sentences since that would wreck the quality of the site. Thoughts?

Tags: 2.0, crowd, sourcing, web

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I love Spelling City. I used with my classes last year, demonstrated it to other teachers, and had my daughters create their own lists.

Keep your defaults but allow users to override them with their own content. You could create a place, like a forum, where users can bank and share their own content. Allow the group to self-moderate ,that's the nature of Web 20 and you'll only waste valuable time and resources trying to control the many-to-many interactions by yourself. If your worried about your branding then let people know that the activity has been modified by the user.

BTW, Thanks for creating such a wonderful resource.
Dale. Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you like it.

Question: Have you seen how we handle the customized sentences? We rolled out the new feature about three weeks ago. There were a thousand sentences written in the first three hours.

We review them individually and approve them for use by others.

There's a forum for people to share lists. Also, you can search on the site for lists by name and find them. For instance, I just went to find a list on SpellingCity, selected by list name, and typed in valentine. I was given dozens of lists to look at.
After I posted, I checked out that feature for the first time (paying attention to other things :-) ) and I see that what I wrote really wouldn't work with the structure of the UI.

It's a difficult dilemma because you want to use and moderate user generated content for several reasons but the resources spent doing so add up quickly.

Is there anyway give that responsibility to the user group and lists gets voted on - kind of a reddit scenerio?
Dale - Great stuff. Welcome to the real hard questions. Conceptually, I'm a huge fan of crowd-sourcing. But, I feel a huge responsibility to maintain the quality and usability of SpellingCity.com. If you reread my article, you'll see that I'm searching for balance. Here's more background on my thinking.

1. Teachers are mostly into ease-of-use. While there are a small percentage that have the time, energy and interest to participate more fully in online communities, mostly they want to be in and out of a website quick with minimum effort and involvement. They need convenience, their time is limited.

2. Other sites, such as Quia, that have allowed everyone to post stuff for everyone to share, have become riddled with junk. It requires a really sophisticated system of tracking and rating for quality lists to be distinguished. Whereas, having one or two human editors, is technically simple and relatively inexpensive. That's where I am heading for the moment.
My username on spelling city is mystre, and I changed my profile to parent yesterday.

I agree with you when you say that most teachers want ease-of-use. I spent a couple of years developing palm handheld education applications and I used suggestions and feedback from teachers.

I've created a question bank in Quia with around 400 questions center mostly on K-6 tech standards here in Michigan. When I think about it, I have moved away from searching for other user generated content and just write it myself.

Perhaps you could allow user generated content, but keep those lists private and only allow content sharing between teachers who have added each other as friends like in facebook.

Have a great weekend
Dale.

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