Sharecropping for Coursera

volunteers

Coursera, the fast-growing, for-profit online education company, has become, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “an investor’s pet.” It has pulled in $85 million in venture funding over the last two years, attracting big-name investors like Kleiner Perkins and the World Bank’s VC arm, LearnCapital.

Those millions aren’t enough, apparently, to pay translators to help the company extend its online courses, or MOOCs, into foreign markets. Instead, Coursera is taking the digital sharecropping route. It announced this week that it is recruiting skilled translators and asking them to donate their work to the company for free. What the volunteers receive, in lieu of income, is the satisfaction of being a member of Coursera’s “community.” Translation, says the company, is “much more than a means to an end. By joining the GTC [Global Translator Community], you’ll become a member of a tight-knit community of committed individuals and organizations.”

You’ll also sign a contract stating that

YOU EXPRESSLY AGREE THAT ANY TRANSLATION SERVICES YOU PROVIDE WILL BE  DEEMED A “WORK FOR HIRE,” UNDER SECTION 101 OF THE U.S. COPYRIGHT ACT, IN EXCHANGE FOR GOOD AND VALUABLE CONSIDERATION, THE SUFFICIENCY OF WHICH IS ACKNOWLEDGED.

 The work-for-hire provision of the copyright act transfers copyright ownership immediately and irrevocably from the author of a work to the company contracting for the work. Just in case there’s any gray area about the translator’s work-for-hire status, there’s also this clause: 

IF, AND TO THE EXTENT UNDER APPLICABLE LAW, YOU MAY BE  ENTITLED TO CLAIM OWNERSHIP OVER ANY PART OF THE TRANSLATIONS, THEN YOU HEREBY TRANSFER, GRANT, CONVEY, ASSIGN, AND RELINQUISH EXCLUSIVITY TO COURSERA ALL OF YOUR RIGHT, TITLE, AND INTEREST IN AND TO THE TRANSLATIONS PURSUANT TO COPYRIGHT OR ANY OTHER APPLICABLE LAW IN PERPETUITY OR FOR THE LONGEST PERIOD OTHERWISE PERMITTED BY LAW.

Of course, the translator will receive “good and value consideration” — i.e., membership in the GTC. It’s charity without the charity.

Geoff Shullenberger puts the program into perspective:

We should not be surprised, but should be troubled, that Coursera is now recruiting “volunteers” to “translate top courses into their native languages.”  Yes, that’s right, a for-profit company, instead of hiring and paying professional translators, is using the rhetoric of volunteerism (“community,” “partner organizations,” “contributions”) to obtain that labor for free.  ”Why translate” for Coursera?  Because “you are helping millions of learners who may otherwise struggle to understand courses taught outside their native language.” After all, “video subtitle translations can increase course enrollments among speakers of the translated language by up to 200-300%.”  Oh yes, and that increased enrollment increases the value of our company, and we get to pocket 100% of the additional revenue brought in.

Actually, “digital sharecropping” probably isn’t the best term to describe this particular arrangement. It’s one thing for social networks like Facebook and Twitter to build their businesses on the unpaid contributions of their members. The members are simply socializing, after all, and they’re deriving social benefits from their “playbor.” In social networks, as I noted in a 2006 post, the sharecroppers operate happily in an attention economy while their overseers operate happily in a cash economy. Translation is not play; it’s work — and skilled work at that. What Coursera is doing seems more like plain old chicanery.

UPDATE: Shullenberger thinks we need a new term: “the voluntariat.” It’s the proletariat but without the wages.

Image: San Jose Library.

7 Comments

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7 Responses to Sharecropping for Coursera

  1. That comparison is unfair. Sharecroppers did get paid, if a pittance. Coursera’s behavior is similar to companies expecting photographers to work for free “for the exposure”.

    Then again, given education is probably the second most corrupt industry in the US after healthcare, it’s not too surprising.

  2. When I read about this I also thought it sounded dodgy. Translation isn’t easy and, if done properly, it takes a lot of time. Even in the non-profit sector quality skills have to be paid for if projects are to run smoothly and sustainably. Why shouldn’t business pay for services rendered?

  3. Amit

    Interesting piece. For/Non profit organization doesn’t mean a lot for the people who take (such as me) courses on Coursera without fees. I can pay them if I’d like to receive their certificate, which I don’t. I’m guessing that the free courses might be the motivation for volunteers to translate without being payed for, just so that other people who use the same language would understand and enrich their education. Otherwise, I totally agree that this is very dodgy.

  4. Geoff Lanotte

    You raise some valid points, but I am somewhat torn here. I have taken several courses through Coursera and benefited from them greatly and have not been charged a single penny. I realize that they are a for-profit company, but as it stands none of those profits have come from me. If I had command of a language enough to be a translator, I think I would be tempted to do this as a way of giving back. However for me, at least at the moment, this is a purely hypothetical exercise.

  5. Vanessa Vaile

    Let’s not forget Coursera’s volunteer (unpaid) TA/ Forum facilitator program and calls for “volunteers” in others (edX’s Heroes comes to mind). Would those be sharecroppers or unpaid interns?

  6. Nuri

    It is nice to appreciate the value of good quality online courses although, from the reviews I have read, that might be the case for perhaps 50% of Coursera´s offer. Currently I am taking a course that gathered 25,000 participants. Those who would like a certificate have to pay the equivalent to 33 euros. So, if we estimate that only 10% of the students in that course might pay for a certificate (I am just making up the figure; it can be a bit more,or a bit less), then Coursera will have an income of 82,500 euros for that course. I have no idea what the teacher will receive for this course but I am certain that this kind of money might cover all expenses and leave enough to pay for translated subtitles in several languages. Now, if we consider that today Coursera if offering 632 Courses in “all languages” and they are offering Specialization Certificates in 45 courses and Verified Certificates for 279, just do the math. Where is all that money going to? The translators community should make a serious statement about this.

  7. Cindy Wolff

    I don’t think non-profits are much better regarding free labor. It’s funny how we supposedly have an information economy but a lot of people are making little or no money with the information skills they can provide.