Saturday, October 08, 2005

Meng-Fen Lin and Luc Chu

The Power of Volunteers: Effectiveness and Sustainability through Lessons Learned from OOPS

Meng-Fen Lin, University of Houston and Luc Chu, OOPS
Thursday, September 29, 2005, 11:00-11:45 am

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OOPS is an innovative Chinese localization project that uses a volunteer-based model which capitalizes on human generosity and social capital to translate and adopt OCW. Standing on the shoulders of the OCW giants such as MIT, Utah State University and John Hopkins, OOPS aims to break the language barriers and makes open educational materials more accessible to readers in the Great China Region (mainly China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.) The Internet may be one of the most important tools in bringing world knowledge into this region; however, language “remains a significant barrier discouraging users from venturing out farther into the cyberworld” (Liu, Day, Sun, & Wang, 2002). For example, only 9.3% of China’s Internet users visit English language web sites (CNNIC, 2005). In a different survey, when asked what language-based web site they most frequently visit in addition to those in Chinese, 33% of Taiwan’s Internet users indicated that they do not visit any other language-based web sites (, 2005). It is evident that language differences pose one of the biggest obstacles for knowledge sharing in today’s information age. OOPS is a bottom-up model to solve this problem.

OOPS Model

The distinguishing spirit of OOPS is the recruitment of volunteers from all disciplines and from all over the world to adopt courses and translate them. Launched in February 2004 with only two volunteers, OOPS has, to date, recruited over twelve hundred volunteers from fifteen countries and regions. Over forty courses are completely translated, with several hundred more on the way. OOPS uses an “adoption” strategy where volunteers self-select the course they want to “adopt” and translate. Once the translation is completed, a volunteer editor will edit the translation for grammar and spelling. If a content expert is available for the subject, the edited translation will then be reviewed for technical accuracy before being published online.

As a volunteer-based project, OOPS’ operations progress with both advantages and challenges. We will focus on some of the challenges and offer a range of possible solutions that seem to work for us.


Challenge #1: Effective utilization of volunteers OOPS has faced a major bottleneck in publishing translated materials online in a timely manner. Once a piece of translation is turned in, we have to locate a qualified and interested editor, coordinate the translator-editor dialogue to reach an agreed-upon version, recruit a reviewer, create two versions (traditional and simplified Chinese) of the files, including the recreation of PowerPoint or Word files, and then publish them online. This process requires a tremendous amount of collaborative work among many volunteers and can be quite time consuming. A delay in any step results in a delay in the process, which could be frustrating for the translator. How to better manage and utilize all available human resources is the first challenge we face in effectiveness.

Challenge #2: Effective lateral interactions among volunteers Volunteer interviews confirmed that many volunteers temporarily “leave” OOPS when they lack a task with which they could continue to be involved. They miss the interactions, both with the material, and also with other volunteers. While online postings seem to show that some volunteers want to interact with others in similar disciplines; others like to know who live in the same region. Volunteers’ lateral interactions could strengthen the OOPS community. Finding an effective way for volunteers to interact both inside and outside of OOPS is a longstanding challenge.

Challenge #3: Effective dissemination of project ideas To reach out to more volunteers and users, OOPS has undergone many dissemination efforts that include TV, newspaper, and radio as well as online media. Nevertheless, one of the biggest challenges we consistently battle is a public perception that this venture is “too good to be true.” Many people are suspicious about the motivation behind such a generous gesture and suspect OOPS of being an online scam for profit. OOPS sets a higher social and moral standard, asking people to donate their skills instead of money, but such a high standard seems to make the spreading of OOPS more problematic.

Possibility #1: Empower leaders and redistribute duties Because OOPS functions as a democratic community, it fosters emergent leaders. Leaders will naturally surface when the “doors are open” and members can step into roles as needs arise. In addition, empowering members to contribute at multiple levels enables the community to be problem solvers. Following are several ways in which OOPS has benefited from unique volunteer contributions: 1) the transcribing project was initiated and maintained by a volunteer, 2) the separate online forums, with subgroups by topics, for the mainland China readers, were initiated and maintained by a group of volunteers, and 3) the logo design and promotion effort was led by a volunteer who continues to oversee new design and marketing efforts.

Possibility #2: Foster local/regional subgroups
OOPS has recently started separating online subgroups, with the hope of promoting local offline communities for volunteers living in geographically close regions. These offline communities could initiate local efforts such as promotion and gatherings by people who have better understandings of the local culture and context. Based on the online postings, it appears these subgroups have been making connections with local volunteers and were initiating university-based promotions.

Possibility #3: Disseminate through click-of-mouse
The best way to publicly demonstrate OOPS’ mission is through world of mouth and “click of mouse.” In other words, if we are persistent in our successful grassroots approach we can let our work speak for itself. Our volunteers are truly our best ambassadors because they go beyond translation, editing, or creating web pages. These remarkable workers assist with marketing, with promotion, and helpeach other. Volunteers sign up for the work, find it enjoyable and interesting, and then recruit their friends. It is our volunteers, with their willingness, creativity, and generosity who are our ultimate solutions for issues of effectiveness and sustainability.


Challenge #1: Sustaining experienced volunteers
Many volunteer translators finish their work and are willing to continue to help. At that point in time, however, there may be no current available course that interests them. Nevertheless, the knowledge they gained during their previous involvement could be a valuable asset to the OOPS community. How could we better sustain experienced volunteers and capitalize on their knowledge to help sustain the community as well?

Challenge #2: Sustaining a robust workflow
Another way to sustain OOPS relies on a robust community that can maintain its functions despite a 33% turnover rate among volunteers. OOPS has about an overall 33% drop-out rate and online postings reveal that many newcomers ask only a few similar questions repeatedly, such as “where do I find those reading materials”, “how do I go about becoming a volunteer,” and “why I have not received adoption confirmation.” The continued influx of newcomers necessitates a robust system that can sustain itself.

Challenge #3: Sustaining adequate funding
OOPS has been successful functioning with a limited budget. Yet, OOPS requires ongoing funding. The effort of making freely available materials is by all means “free.” But OOPS needs more full-time staffs such as a project manager, a system engineer, and administrative assistants, to provide stable support to the growing volunteer efforts.

Possibility #1: Create a mentoring system
A group of volunteers recently proposed an idea to create a special taskforce whereby experienced volunteers could serve as mentors to newcomers. The experienced volunteers could “adopt” newcomers and guide them through their initial questions. This idea offers many implications for OOPS’ effectiveness and sustainability. Experienced volunteers now have reasons to not only stay within the community, but also continue to contribute and give back to the community what they have learned. The knowledge sharing and value creation through the realization of this volunteer adoption idea will be exciting to watch in the OOPS future development.

Possibility #2: Build a relay-based workflow
Currently OOPS functions as a relay system in that volunteers have two months to finish all HTML-page translations after their initial course adoption. After two months, if a volunteer fails to finish the work, the course is then reopened for a new adoption. This mechanism eliminates laggards, encourages a flow of new volunteers, and facilitates project progression. We are evaluating the possibility to further break down the “unit of adoption” into smaller subsections to facilitate even more fluid progression.

Possibility #3: Foster a knowledge community
OOPS encourages volunteers to pair up for translations. Collaborating with others might help sustain volunteers, and in turn increase project production. The volunteer mentoring taskforce might also help sustain the experienced membership. Online forum moderators, led by volunteers, can also help encourage and maintain lively discussion and provide timely responses to members. The key to sustaining the community centers on both maintaining membership and maintaining the workflow within the system. Fostering a knowledge community enables the value individual volunteer gained through participation to become a commodity of the community.


Two thousand years ago, Confucius said that, “They hate not to make use of their abilities, yet they do not necessarily work out of self-interest.” In a Confucian ideal commonwealth state, everyone devotes his or her ability toward the communal good. OOPS capitalizes on human generosity and channels this social capital into a facilitation of knowledge sharing. OOPS models a three-way winning scenario: the volunteers, the future learners and our society are all beneficiaries. Volunteer-based models have inherent challenges as well as possibilities. We have offered a short list of them here in this proposal. While still other challenges (such as intra-cultural issues, access to materials, and quality control) lurk behind OOPS’ promising possibilities, OOPS is nevertheless a testimony to the power of volunteers in the current movement of OCW.


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