On massive-scale online collaboration and the greater good

I recently saw an interesting TED talk about massive-scale online collaboration. It was given by Luis von Ahn one of the creators of the CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA technology (those distorted letters you have to enter to fill out a web form). The summary of the talk is the following

After re-purposing CAPTCHA so each human-typed response helps digitize books, Luis von Ahn wondered how else to use small contributions by many on the Internet for greater good. At TEDxCMU, he shares how his ambitious new project, Duolingo, will help millions learn a new language while translating the Web quickly and accurately – all for free.

I must admit I didn’t know the CAPTCHA technology had been re-purposed to help digitize books. In the talk Dr. Ahn stated that about 750 million people had help to digitize books so far, which is truly incredible. A remaining problem was that all those digitized books were in English, while the non-English speaking part of the world is somehow being left behind. Conversely, the English-speaking population is also not being aware of what is being published in other languages. Computer translation software is good, but still makes a lot of mistakes. So, his approach–a revolutionary one indeed–is to get 100 million people translating the Web in every major language by having them learn another language for free. The free is relative, in the sense that you’ll be paying with your work by helping translate the Web, but still, this is what you could call a fair business model.

This really got me thinking on several ideas I’ve had for quite a while about collaborative work and the possibility to make the best of everyday tasks and activities one has to carry out. What I mean to say is that there’s an incredible number of things one has to routinely do, and that most likely the only one being benefited from this work is oneself. When this work, can easily contribute to our environment and society if properly channeled. To illustrate this, let’s consider a simple example. When you exercise you do work (in the physical sense) and this work could be harnessed to convert it to electrical energy, which can then be used to power just about any electrical appliance we use today.

One of such ideas I’ve had is for high-school and probably university teaching as well. I really wonder how many times a teacher has asked the students to look up a topic for next class, and what they end up doing is printing a wikipedia article and bringing it to class. They’re all making an effort, small as it may be, and this work is not being exploited for a greater good–at least that of the class. My proposal is a different one, I would encourage the teacher to fully take advantage of the internet resources to make the best of those little efforts. For instance, he could propose to the students to collectively write, or improve, a wikipedia article. This on the one hand, would push the students to look for bibliographical resources beyond that of wikipedia, and would require a much enriching–yet more difficult–endeavor. The teacher would have to supervise the writing, as he would’ve had to do nonetheless if he’d asked them for an essay, but the resulting work would have a greater impact than a mere grade. This may not turn out to be as simple as it seems, but I think it is something worth trying. If you have any ideas of this sort, feel free to leave a comment.


2 thoughts on “On massive-scale online collaboration and the greater good

  1. Thanks for this post! Collective writing of Wikipedia articles is actually practiced as a teaching tool by some creative university teachers. I am even thinking of doing it myself one day.

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