Editor’s Note: This post has first been published on edcetera -straight talk on edtech.
Way back in the days, in August 2009 to be precise, I hosted a webinar series called the E-Teachers Conference. Around that time crowdsourcing became quite a popular topic among education startup people, especially in the language learning space. The reasoning behind that trend essentially was: if Wikipedia can do it, so can we.
Most notably Livemocha, which used to be the leader of the pack at that time, crowdsourced nearly all of its freely accessible language courses from its global community. While this enabled Livemocha to add new language options at a rapid pace, it also showed the flaws of such an approach: the localizations were mediocre at best.
Who should use Crowdsourcing
If you aim for quality, which is probably a good idea in all things education, crowdsourcing is a fairly complex task to set up and manage. In many cases it might be easier and more efficient to take some money in the hand and pay a service that is specialized on the task, may it be translation or gathering data.
On the other hand, startups that follow the “lean” principle often see crowdsourcing as a cost efficient, aka free, alternative to writing a check. When institutions or startups opt in for the crowdsourced approach a couple of things need to be in order. One is of course a sizable userbase, the other is an incentive other than money which gets users to participate and stay motivated.
If you take a look at the stats of Wikipedia you will notice that only a very small group is actively working on the encyclopedia, 76.000 according to, well, Wikipedia. On the other hand, over 500 million people visit the different Wikimedia sites every month.
Over the years Wikipedia has become a very elite circle with the core group of editors and administrators who have created an environment that often frightens off new contributors, a growing problem the non-profit has to deal with on a regular basis.
Crowdsourcing and Language Learning
Besides Wikipedia there is a number of other examples of crowdsourcing communities that function and prosper. Especially in the language learning space, the concept of crowdsourcing seems to finally work.
At the moment the most prominent is Duolingo. The hugely popular language learning platform lets its learners translate the web, or content from Duolingo’s business clients, while they learn a new language. The incentive for the learners is that the service remains free and has no advertisements, a revenue stream that is usually implemented by freemium services.
Viki is a great example for the power of communities around shared interest and content. Users spending hours on the platform to translate TV shows and other videos including time tagging the subtitles. Of course, there are also users who take care of quality control etc – all non-paid work. The return is basically the work of the other users and Viki’s growing library of content. The site had also received acquisition offers from Google and Yahoo before it decided to accept Rakuten’s offer.
Khan Academy is another example where a dedicated community can help to spread educational content across language borders. Khan and the team introduced the idea of crowdsourcing translations in the form of subtitles pretty early on and there are also videos that got a new audio track in a different language.
The problem here being Sal Khan’s signature voice and style of explaining. It’s the same with movies that lose a lot when they are being dubbed.
Now we come to the news item for which reason I decided to write about crowdfunding and education today. Coursera announced that it will ask its global community to add more localized subtitles to the course videos. Coursera, and for that matter Khan Academy, already partnered with crowdfunding community Amara in 2012, so the MOOC platform has already had the chance to gather some experience in the field.
In order to ensure quality translations, Coursera has now also partnered with a couple of local language partners namely the Lemann Foundation (Brazil), the Carlos Slim Foundation (Mexico), ABBYY Language Services (Russia), and Guokr (China).
Worth mentioning that there is a distinct difference between Coursera and the other examples I covered today. While those are either directly built upon the premise of crowdsourcing or are non-profits, Coursera is a venture backed company.
This means the incentive for students to provide their work for free is slightly imbalanced and might affect the project in the long run. Especially when Coursera decides to introduce more and more paid features to the platform.
Picture “Leaf Cutter Ants” by Jon Pinder, Some Rights Reserved