The Wisdom of Peers

Encouraging crowdsourced learning can help schools not only enrich students’ learning experience, but more easily scale the reach of their online programs.

The Wisdom of Peers

FOR DECADES, MANY HAVE BELIEVED that traditional education, which centers on the faculty lecture, would be disrupted by new technologies. As the years came and went, though, not much changed. Correspondence courses, pioneered in the late 19th century, did little to drive substantial innovation. Neither did radio or television—even though both received government support to help deliver educational programming to the masses. Technology in education was like flying cars in transportation—both were always on the verge of changing the world. But while flying cars still seem to be an empty promise, the internet is finally having significant impact on education, in ways that its predecessors in distance education did not. This is particularly true for how students and faculty interact online (or don’t). One innovation of special interest is “educational crowdsourcing”: the use of peer-topeer interaction among students to help them learn.

Crowdsourcing has always been an elegant way to solve problems, but it didn’t become a household term until the internet allowed large numbers of people to share information and solicit feedback instantaneously and with no incremental cost. In fact, the internet has been especially helpful for researchers who now can easily share and refine their data and analyses with other academics.

An October 2015 article by Raphael Silberzahn and Eric L. Ulmann in the journal Nature presents an interesting case study on this process. The pair recruited 29 research teams to analyze the same question and data—after each team tested its own hypothesis, all teams evaluated the findings of other researchers and discussed them in an open online exchange. The result: Crowdsourcing presented a wider range of findings, provided more nuanced examinations, and encouraged greater collaboration among scientists than would have been possible with a single team.

So, if researchers can get to better answers to questions by posing them to a crowd of their peers, why can’t students get a better educational experience by doing the same? As it turns out, they can.


At HBX, the online initiative at Harvard Business School (HBS) in Boston, Massachusetts, students rely on each other not just to answer questions about the concepts they are studying, but also to connect and engage in ways that make them feel a part of something that goes beyond the screens in front of them. There is enough critical mass in a cohort of a few hundred students for individuals to be able to find answers to their questions. Better yet, they can do so without ever having to interact with a teaching assistant (TA) or faculty member—neither of which are even options at HBX.

And here’s the surprising thing: Students seem to enjoy this process of mutual discovery more than interactions with lecturers. This enjoyment could come from a sort of “pay-it-forward” feeling that arises from a sense of contributing to the common good. It’s a feeling students cannot get from asking a professor a question and receiving a reply, with no expectation that they reciprocate with knowledge of their own.

Our HBX courses follow a casebased model, in which students explore real-world case studies to learn business concepts. In addition to providing them with interactive video and learning tools, HBX includes a peer help feature where students can engage in discussions, ask questions of others in their cohort, and debate courses of action in a particular case. The key to the success of this feature is that the discussion the student sees when accessing the peer help is related to the content on the page he or she is viewing—no endless searching is required to get prompt, relevant help.

This model of students helping each other encourages them to carry the social part of their online experience into the physical world. Many students self-organize study groups in cities where they live. In addition, once a year we invite HBX students to campus for a day of networking and academic exploration. Between 400 and 500 students come from all over the globe, at their own expense. Once they arrive, they fall into exchanges with each other that, to an observer off the street, would seem more appropriate for alumni at a 20-year college reunion. Robust peerto-peer interaction online leads to rich person-to-person socialization offline.


While students find real value in talking through sticky problems with each other, there is another reason that peerto-peer learning is critical to online education. Once an online cohort reaches a given size, it’s simply not possible for faculty or TAs to support students on a one-to-one basis. This reality makes the economic model for online education unviable for many institutions, since for every x-number of students it is necessary to hire y-number of TAs.

The use of peer-to-peer interaction solves this problem. It is the only model that allows an organization to scale the reach of its online program in a way that does not make students feel as if they are part of a one-dimensional, non-social experience.

If done right, peer-to-peer learning models blow up the long-held assumption that there is a tradeoff between quality and intimacy on one hand and scale and economic viability on the other. The key to avoiding the scale-versus-quality tradeoff is to put students at the center of the course design. Schools must find ways for students to engage with each other, make sure the content and platform fit the medium, and ensure that faculty work with course designers who understand how to make engaging programs in the online world.

HBS relies on the case method, in which students induce principles from a real-world case rather than absorb knowledge from a lecturer. Because that pedagogy is so closely identified with our institution, it guided the design of our online platform. It is a pedagogy that requires students to interact with each other, to challenge each other, and to learn from each other, as much online as in a physical classroom.


No matter what pedagogy a business school embraces, our experience with HBX offers lessons for others who want to develop compelling online programs:

  • Start with a deep understanding of how you want students to learn. What is your pedagogy?
  • Once you understand your pedagogy, put yourself in your students’ shoes and imagine their experience. What will keep them engaged online?
  • Build out social tools that allow students to interact with each other. When possible, require interaction. It’s critical that online students feel a part of something. Humans are social animals, and they desire to be connected. Make sure students online can feel this connection just as much as students on campus.
  • Spend time with faculty up front to help them translate what they know into online environments. Consider this: A recent Eduventures survey showed that 85 percent of universities don’t require faculty who are building digital programs to work with instructional designers who specialize in internet learning. This omission almost assures that the product will be less than it could be. Translating physical-world teaching into online programs is not as straightforward as it seems.
  • Get feedback! Reserve part of your budget to fund surveys of program participants, who can provide rich information about what works and what doesn’t. Use that information to iterate quickly.

One final point: Some critics believe that if students are responsible for the learning process, the primacy of the faculty member is removed from the learning experience. This mindset assumes that the best way for faculty to provide the best value to the learner is to answer students’ questions.

But this may not be the case. By creating programs that encourage students to learn from their peers, schools might give faculty more time to conduct research, develop engaging online courses that reach many more students, or work across departments to introduce cross-disciplinary programs. Or maybe—just maybe—they’ll have time to invent the flying car.

Through educational crowdsourcing, the promise of effective and scalable online education could become reality sooner than we think.

Read the paper by Silberzahn and Ulmann, referenced in the article above.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's September/October 2017 print issue. If you have comments or feedback on its content, please contact us at [email protected].

Patrick Mullane is the executive director of HBX, the online learning initiative at Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts.