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Crowdsourcing Education Innovation, For Cash

One of the largest educational publishers in the world is offering cash prizes to the winners of a crowdsourced learning product innovation competition.

olden days schoolkid with iPad

One of the world's largest educational publishers is turning to crowdsourcing for their next great product idea. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's (HMH) initiative—the HMH Global Education Challenge—is an Intel Science Fair-style competition for educators that is giving away hundreds of thousands of dollars. Just one important caveat: HMH retains rights to the ideas.

The competition will be the first major attempt to develop for-market pedagogical materials via crowdsourcing. Participants will upload brief descriptions of their potential projects and then are able to view, comment, and vote on other proposals. A panel of judges, including former Education Secretary Bill Bennett and Bob Wise, the former governor of West Virginia, will decide on the winners from a pool of the 20 top-voted entries in September.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is offering a $100,000 grand prize for the winning entrant and a $25,000 second-place prize. Another $125,000 worth of prizes, including iPads, netbooks, and textbook donations, will be distributed to contestants and the schools of their choice.

Winners will give HMH first chance rights to negotiate with them for a commercial deal for nine months after the contest's end.

Michael Muldowney, CEO of HMH, told Fast Company that the competition is intended to generate educational product ideas that might not otherwise make it to market. According to Muldowney, the company will provide the framework and assistance to turn the winning proposals into finished products that could be considered for development. Entry is limited to individuals; teams and groups are prohibited from competing.

In promotional materials, software tools, mobile phone applications, and services for parents, students, and teachers were suggested as possible entries for the competition.

Another of the competition's judges, Joe Blatt of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, notes that "The Global Education Challenge gives anyone with a big idea that could change the lives of children on a broad scale access to the resources that could make that idea a reality."

There is the big rub for large corporations such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The Internet is full of fertile ideas that can be translated into marketable products; the question is how to gather them. While crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter (which Fast Company has covered extensively) offer a relatively pain-free way of raising capital for product development, they also run into a brick wall in fields such as education, where innovators already work highly stressful day jobs. In many cases, educators do not simply have the time or leftover energy to work as entrepreneurs in their spare time (if they have any of it).

Competitions such as this one are a win-win for HMH and other corporations of their size. Contestants get a potential large payoff for an idea that might not otherwise make it to fruition, while the corporation saves on the massive research and development costs that go into creating new products. It simultaneously gains insight into their market that it would not otherwise have. A similar idea was recently tried by the City of New York, which held a cash competition to lure potential overseas high-tech firms to the five boroughs.

[Image: Flickr user Notionscapital]

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here.

Clarification: An earlier version of this article contained an incorrect description of the competition's rules based on information sent to the publication. Fast Company regrets the error.

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  • Molly Rasmussen

    Thanks for the interesting article. I would like to argue that crowdfunding isn't futile for education. Also, crowdfunding doesn't have to take more time and energy than a competition such as the one by HMH. Submissions for these competitions are very extensive and time consuming. Then after all of the trouble only two proposals get funding. Crowdfunding sites don't force educators to compete. Instead they encourage cross promotion. Crowdfunding also works best for well networked individuals who have supporters and advocates. Good teachers have support from entire classrooms of students and their students' families. Schools and students have traditionally used crowdfunding to raise money, but they have always done it through bake sales and car washes. By using a crowdfunding sites, teachers are able to raise awareness, support, and funding for their need all at the same time. Teachers can get students and parents involved with their crowdfunding campaigns.  An added bonus: students learn about a new way to raise money and awareness for their own projects. I run, a crowdfunding site for green and socially responsible projects.
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  • Janell NOble

    GE’s Ecomagination Challenge also offered up a 200M purse for the implementation of top ideas. The challenge really represents a shift in GE’s fundamental business philosophy. The challenge, powered by Brightidea software, is the largest open innovation challenge in history. Several winners of the Powering the Grid challenge have received millions in investments, Hara recently  got another 25M investment. Winners for the second phase, ‘powering your home’ are slated to be announced soon.