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Posted by on Jul 9, 2012

Open Learning, Labor Surplus, and (Complex) Microtasking

Friendwheel: Facebook Connections

Essentially this idea is a question of efficient distribution. Not unlike a social media visualizer.

It will become painfully obvious rather quickly here that I am most certainly not an economist, although I will throw out economic terms with a callous disregard for their accuracy or appropriateness. That being said, economics isn’t always about money (right?) and flows of capital, economic or otherwise, can always be used to advance something or other. So, I have a half an idea. Not an original one. Not a terribly inventive one. Just a perceived use of intellectual capital to advance the ends of the larger community.

Please note that I am indeed cautious about advancing such an idea, one that firmly aligns open learning with some sort of employability (even as volunteer work). I just feel we would be amiss by not addressing the flows existing in the current setup and how these might be used. To spare everyone the preamble here, I will just give the idea, then backtrack my way through the reasoning, the merits, and even the background.

Half an Idea

My notion is that the surplus intellectual capital that is and will soon be gushing forth from open learning programs in many particularly advanced subjects (either technically advanced or requiring an advanced level of sophistication or conceptualization in application) creating labor with a particular skill set. This particular skill set lacks application. Application in terms of work. I am not talking about jobs creation here necessarily; I am simply saying we have or will soon have a lot of surplus intellectual capital as a direct result of open learning.

So, why not funnel this surplus into applicable work either as part of the open learning program or through an intermediary service (like a headhunter for the altruistically inclined)? Thousands of such services exist, granted, but none so far as I can tell directly address the (generally unaccredited) intellectual capital being generated from open learning. That seems like an opportunity.

So we have skilled capital without relevant skilled work. We have a possible asset for social good. We have millions of possible work hours just waiting to be converted. We have skilled workers who have already demonstrated a particular enthusiasm for ‘unstructured’ online activity. We have workers who have demonstrated enormous amounts of self-motivation and discipline. If we convert 10% of that surplus into work output (once again, not necessarily paid work), we have Wikipedia-size contributions. We have thousands of projects augmenting existing impact. We have an accelerated development timetable (for the organization and even for the target audience of the organization).

That is the idea. Match open learners to open positions. Stimulate both sides of that supply and demand flow. Organizing, incentivizing, and ethically applying and managing such behavior would be the challenge.

MOOCs or Open Learning Supplements/Add-Ons

Working backwards from the idea, any potential service (whether an automated solution via some recommender system (doing a textual analysis of the contributions in the course) or a manual service matching open learner to open position or both) would sit at the end of the open learning funnel. It could be an add-on week to many courses (particularly in the short MOOCs) and would involve an exit ‘interview’ (which could be an aggregation of course activity with a reflective statement). Then a matching to a particular set of online work opportunities (or local depending on the demographic).

Statistics could be provided to demonstrate conversion of open learner to filled position and certain MOOCs or open courses would undoubtedly use that as a metric of learning ‘effectiveness’. More power to them. That is not necessarily my concern here. My concern is ethically and efficiently applying intellectual capital to social need. An open learning recommendation system of the type proposed here would be a means to funnel this capital towards applications (at least more efficiently than what is happening now).

If you were to finish an online course and were notified of the possibility of contributing 5-10 hours a week to an exciting project you hadn’t heard of yet (whether locally or online), would you take it? I am guessing for at least 10% of all open learners the answer would be yes. That is a groundswell.

Incentivizing Participation

I don’t see incentivizing as a dirty word, especially as we consider the pragmatic goals of most social solutions. I am leary of artifically creating an accreditation mechanism for its own sake but I am not going to balk at the possibility of applying one if it does the following:

  • generates work opportunities for enthusiastic learners
  • generates sufficient labor to effectively and sustainably execute social programs

So I immediately (for lack of imagination, perhaps) turn to Mozilla’s Open Badges. Badges for open learning course completion, badges for work fulfillment, for demonstrating particular skill sets in these work opportunities, etc. We incentivize participation in some open learning courses by providing opportunities for application and we further incentivize this application by providing opportunities for acknowledgment.

I personally feel the work opportunity would be enough, but if a badge gets an additional 5% of the surplus learner base, then I am all for the idea of acknowledging open learning participation.

The Applicable Models (augmented for complexity)

When I started thinking about what type of projects or work opportunities open learners could be matched with (which is actually where this idea started), I wanted to tread cautiously. I am weary of dumping well-meaning individuals (en masse) on a project environment that would be unable, unwilling, or overly willing to bend indigenous ideas to popular will. In short, I am weary of funneling learners to projects precisely because establishing context would be difficult. The local needs of the local context. I was reminded of Traxler’s idea on the ethics of academic research in developing nations and saw the parallels in this idea. So, I want to tread cautiously, but still see if such an idea has legs.

The models that caught my fancy where microtasking models. Breaking complex processes and procedures into small, discreet tasks, distributing those to a workforce, gathering completed work and reassembling the solutions. Some of these microtasking services allow some to make a living. Some are able to be administered solely through a mobile phone, which is ideal for developing nations.

Examples abound including

These are all wonderful, but the level of complexity for much of the work that might be applicable to open learners would presumably be slightly more complex than the traditional microtask formula. Another model (which I still consider microtasking) is Wikipedia. Wikipedia serves as a great example of matching intellectual surplus to social good. It incentivizes behavior (by making it open, contributors and moderators derive social significance from their participation). Something similar presumably exists for open learners. The millions and millions that will soon be entering into our online (or local) workforces. Give them something to do.


Some will be motivated by career advancement, just as some open learners already have positions and are trying to maintain or improve their existing skill sets. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t participate in additional projects in their free time. Linux was developed in (many) someone’s free time.  Some will be lurkers, enthusiastic participants, some might be bad workers and do more harm than good. Safeguards would be developed over time to ensure these aren’t too costly. But the intellectual capital that exists and will exist in greater numbers soon cannot be overlooked. A real opportunity here to accelerate the completion of projects, develop new ones, and have enough human resources spread around to insure the sustainability of more and more of these projects.

Have a project and want a sustainable future? Operationalize it by moving it online. And staff it with services like this. That is all.


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