Choral Explanations

I mentioned in a recent post that the collaborative web is moving away from the “one best resource” model, but didn’t go into much detail on that point. I’d like to talk a bit more about that, and hopefully relate it to newer models of Open Educational Resource (OER) use and courseware design.

When people think about “non-academic” collaborative educational resources on the web, they tend to think about traditional wiki sites such as Wikipedia, WikiHow, etc. In places like these people work together to produce the one best explanation of a topic.

As readers here know, I’m a big fan of wiki, and believe that understanding the culture of wiki is crucial to understanding the potential of OER. But here’s something that many readers may not know: Wikipedia is no longer the undisputed champion of collaborative sites, at least in the English-language world. Stack Exchange, the question and answer (Q&A) site launched just six years ago, has surpassed Wikipedia by some measures. In September 2015, there were 32,025 users who posted five times or more on the Stack Exchange network. Wikipedia, on the other hand, had 29,434 five-time editors (editing five times a month is seen as a “frequent editor” in this formulation).

We also could look at up-and-comer Quora, a site that recently claimed itself as a monthly destination for 10% of people on the web.

And it’s possible that these sites, more than traditional wiki, might point to the future of OER use on the web, and maybe the future of courseware more generally.

Choral Explanations

This new breed of Q&A sites is replacing more traditional wiki as a source of information, through a modality we’ll call “choral explanations” (a term based on Ward Cunningham’s claim that federated wiki is a “chorus of voices”)

These newer sites do not work like older Q&A sites. Older sites (e.g. Yahoo answers) are essentially transactional. A person with a question poses a question, and the answers below the question respond to it. When the original poster of the question selects an answer as sufficient or best, the question is closed, and people move on.

These older Q&A sites are simple variants of general forum architecture. And they get good results occasionally, but it also have the sort of problems a forum runs into — they tend to produce answers that look more like replies than generalized explanations.

For example, here’s some of the bottom answers to the question “How can a person increase their chances in a lottery?”


Quora and Stack Exchange turned this process on its head. Instead of envisioning the Q&A site as a single-purpose forum, the new breed of Q&A site sees the model as half-wiki/half-forum. The question asked is like the title of a wiki page; it’s not transactional but communal. A question like “How can a person increase their chances in the lottery?” is the place where the community will store their collective knowledge one that point, and it is not owned by the person who asked the question.

On Quora, in fact, the question can (and often is) edited by the community for clarity, and on Stack Exchange posters who pose badly formulated questions are pushed by moderators to reformulate their question in ways more beneficial to the site. Duplicate questions are shut down, just as duplicate wiki pages would be. The original poster of the question has no more power than any other user to rate specific answers more useful than others or to close the question. And as with wiki, answers posted are meant to be complete answers, not lazy responses to the original poster.Each answer is self-sufficient (a pattern I have termed elsewhere as “hospitable”).

Posting a question on these sites is really not about starting a conversation at all. It’s saying “Let’s gather our community knowledge on this particular issue,” just as one might do with wiki.

Unlike wiki, however, individual control of writing is preserved, and multiple unique passes at a subject are appreciated. And big questions get a lot of passes. Here’s a snapshot of a few of the sixty-eight responses to Quora’s question of why many physicists believe in a multiverse.


As you can see, people get into it at a level that often exceeds what one can find on wiki. Yet each response takes a different approach to providing an answer. As you read multiple responses some click with you, and some don’t. Some are above your head, and some ridiculously simplified. Some exercise metaphorical thinking, others dive into math.

Here’s the beginning of an answer to the multiverse question that I particularly love, because it starts with the big question of why physicists would imagine a more complex world than necessary:

It may seem counterintuitive, but subsets are often more complex than the entire set. If you don’t believe me, here’s some everyday analogies. Which would be more surprising to find: a half-kitchen, without the rest of the house; or an entire house?

This is very similar to some problems in linguistics I remember from grad school, and the general point resonates with me. The rest of that explanation, not so much. But combined with other explanations I can start to grasp towards the idea. Here’s a more detailed explanation that is graspable to a beginner:

There is this other situation involving inflation.  It turns out that assuming that the universe expanded rapidly solves a lot of cosmological problem.  The hard part is not to find reasons for the universe to expand, but to find ways of causing it to stop.  Stopping inflation turns out to be a little hard, so one idea is that in our patch of the universe inflation stopped, but there are other parts of the universe where it keeps going.

And from there I can maybe scaffold up to another like this:

Quantum fluctuations in the false vacuum in the first bar results in a region of FV to roll down the hill of the potential energy diagram  giving rise to a local big bang which evolves into a universe.


The size of each of the FV’s in the second time interval is thus actually the size of the FV in the first time interval (due to inflation). In the next interval each of these regions go on to give birth to another universe when the FV breaks up. Then there are 4 remaining regions, each as big as the first region and thus the process repeats ad infinitum.

These local universes are referred to as “bubble” or “pocket” universes. Note that there is nothing round or regular about these universes, they are in fact highly irregular.

OK, yeah, I’m not there yet. To me it seems to be saying something different than the others, but that’s a discrepancy I can work with. The key for me the reader is that these “choral explanations”

  1. combine to push me to a deep understanding no single explanation can, and
  2. give me multiple routes into the content

From the production side, choral explanations have benefits as well. Unlike in pure wiki, I can write with a coherent voice, and highlight unique examples, metaphors,  or connections to which I  I have access. More importantly, I don’t have to deal with the edit flame wars that are the natural result of trying to push humanity’s diverse understanding of a topic into one page. The chorus not only results in a more complete understanding, but properly conceived and executed encourages more participation as well.

An Enclosed Dancing Floor

Long time readers of my work will realize that these insights are fundamental to the work of Ward Cunningham on federated wiki and my own work on Wikity. One of the moments I truly got what federated wiki was was when Ward was explaining how the federated wiki system used the name of documents to match up different versions of a document.

“Well, hold on,” I said. “What if you and your friends have a document you’re passing around on the Zone of Proximal Development and I have my own independently developed document of the Zone of Proximal Development? The system is going to pull those together and present them as versions of the same thing!”

“Ah,” said Ward, “but I love a good namespace collision!”

What he meant was that the pulling together of these two separate things, regardless of their lack of a shared history, might invite new insights. In these cases we are talking about, the modularity of the topic allows multiple explanations to be tied together in the same space.

It reminds me that the origin of “chorus” is thought by some to have been derived from the Ancient Greek for “enclosed dancing floor”, and although that’s just an accident of etymology, I can’t help but thinking of a chorus as individual agents we push into a bounded space; it’s really the bounding of that space — whether through harmony, melody, implied chord progressions, whatever, that allows us to see both the connectedness and the difference at the same time.

What places like Quora and Stack Exchange and the hundreds of clones that have emerged in the last few years do is work on that balance, to combine the boundedness of wiki with the individuality of personal voice. The result, when it works, is the sort of personalization that matters most.

The Future

I think OER has a lot to learn from this pattern. In this case the “contract” the answer fulfills is defined by the question posed, but I can forsee a future where that contract might be a learning goal.

Additionally, in these examples you see the stack of all the answers right in front of you, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You can imagine either an instructor or recommendation software (or some combination) defining an initial path through the chorus:


The key would be that the student at any time could decide they wanted to look at the parallel content, either because they weren’t quite sure they were getting it, or because they were interested in seeing it from another angle:


I think you could also have some basic types of things. In Wikity, I’ve found there a few basic relationships cards can have. There’s ideas/theories (e.g., the “problem of redundant security”). There’s examples of things which apply the theories (goof ups with redundant security: nuclear weapons incidents, TSA ID checks). There’s activities/assessments that demonstrate the theory in action. And so on. So maybe your fly-out buttons would say something like Show me more:

  • Explanations
  • Examples
  • Activities

And so on. Now, if they didn’t want that, they could move on to the next curated step. But the idea of of the choral system would be that the student could break out of the curated path to the alternate resources when garden path resources were not sufficient.

Ideally, as the student went through their path they would fork, modify, and annotate the materials that they review, and if we were very lucky they might link new stuff they learn to old stuff they have put in their personal learning repository. And in a perfect world, students might produce their own explanations, which would feed back into the system.

In any case, I don’t think this is that complex a system, and to some extent this is already what a lot of adaptive systems do with assessment (garden path with deep exercises if student doesn’t pass assessment). The key here is to move beyond adaptive assessment, where a deep pool of assessments are drawn on to adaptive explanation where a deep pool of examples and explanations are available and can be put at the disposal of the student in their quest to better understand a topic.

UPDATE: I’ve pulled some of these ideas into a proposal for a simple Choral OER service, here.

Special thanks to Tony Hirst, who reminded me that Stack Overflow is a much simpler way into explaining this concept than Federated Wiki. (Though, for purists, Federated Wiki is still the BEST way).

Speaking of Federated Wiki — honestly, it’s federated wiki that is pointing to the future of the web. But the new Q&A sites are also leading indicators.

Finally, after re-reading this I realize that a lot of this idea is influenced by my time at Cognitive Arts and Roger Schank’s vision for what just-in-time instruction should look like. In particular, ILS and Cognitive Arts systems often used a chorus of experts telling different “war stories” around a central point, and students were allowed to drill down into them or continue on the garden path.

36 thoughts on “Choral Explanations

  1. Mike, I’m in the middle of a big think in teaching terms about exactly some of this. I’ve just gone through a fortuitous exercise with a group of students who assembled and shared a library of things with each other, then each chose different paths through that shared collection in order to write. What I saw across the resulting pieces, which they all also read, was a call-and-response between shared sources in different arrangements. But what I see in the diagrams above is something more complicated because it introduces some prior classification of some of the ingredients–in this schema, “this is about confirmation bias” means “this is not about cognitive bias”. What becomes a step more interesting again is when these categories start to swirl. “I see this as primarily about cognitive bias, at least for the moment, while you might use it to make a point about status quo bias”. This is what happened to us. (As a sidenote, we used Slack as the collecting place both for the library of pieces and the subsequent writing, and it worked really well.)

    Something that continues to worry me is the extent to which these opportunities rely on associative memory at a time of human bandwidth depletion. So being able to trace and retrace your own path becomes an important part of the design. Maybe being able to pop your head up above the walls of the maze and see yourself in the whole is a thing. Maybe a map is a thing.

    • Overlap is one of the hard problems of reassembly; pieces that are otherwise adequate don’t quite meet at edges. For experts, this isn’t a problem; they fill in the gaps rather nicely. And as you know in Wikity work it’s not a problem either, we just slowly lever-up as we go. We don’t even know what we are learning about half the time until we get there.

      At the same time I’m aware of the pressure course designers and faculty are under to deliver on stated objectives, and the those baked-in assumptions (baked into policy, process, accreditation, etc) are part of the reason that so many resort to linear textbooks. It’s worth saying to that I very much believe in the novice/expert division here, and that a cleaner more modular presentation is often more suitable for novices in ways that don’t mater for experts or those with emerging mastery.

      So I suppose what I’m trying to do here — the secret agenda — is say is there a way to meet in the middle here, to have a Wikity-inflected learning resource that still dots some of the i’s and crosses some of the t’s. It does mean, though, the objects would have to be relatively modular and focused around a stated goal. I fear if we don’t push this thinking in some form into the OER publishing community that we will just hurtle towards glorified textbooks as a model instead.

      The other thing is I think it’s easy to take a system like this and blur the lines, but harder to take a less modular system and retrofit structure into it.

      What do you think?

  2. I think you’re exactly right that glorified textbooks are the potential horizon for OER, for reasons to do with the nature of learning management — that has leapt right out of learning management systems back into learning management thinking. Industrially (in Australia at least) this is a direct consequence of the unbundling of the work of teaching from the idea of a profession hired with some stability to develop curriculum. Once well over half of the actual teaching you offer to students is done by people having to work with off-the-shelf content, strong assurances need to be boiled into it about achieving content consistency, scaffolding of complexity, rigour and above all grading, and all of these squat under the umbrella of outcomes design.

    It’s a demoralising theatre to be in.

    Wikity by stealth is a useful model. Reflecting, this is what happened to us in Slack. We were sufficiently out of the way of institutional oversight, and the syllabus plan was sufficiently loose, that we didn’t know what we were learning until it started to emerge. I would now repeat that exercise with a bit more intent, and I’d love to see it done in Wikity rather than Slack. Because my grasp of the techne of Wikity has always been a bit weak, I’ve found myself drawn to thinking about how to use it in a looser sense — the alternatives to learning design, if you like, that Wikity makes possible.

    There’s a relevant human capability that gets a certain amount of fuss in professional development literature at the moment — tolerance for uncertainty. This is generally regarded as a good thing, so you’d think universities would be crazy for developing it. But what I’m finding is that learning management as an institutional convenience develops learners with a strong sense of safety in being managed. I think this is a future risk that it’s on us to try to understand, and then vigorously promote alternatives.

  3. Great stuff, Mike. You’re really zeroing un on this. Meanwhile I am dancing with the devil, working out how to build LTI apps that inject annotation into course content. I don’t rule out the possibility that these paths might converge. That would be fun!

  4. Great article!

    I referenced it on Quora:

    There’s plenty of Quora on Quora action, but you’ve brought some good perspective about the balance and interplay between community and individual voice.

    Yet to be worked out, is more effective ways to motivate further additions to a specific article… to get more voices to participate. I’d like to see a little research happen about why people participate, specifically regarding particular types of content.

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