Research aims to help online workers build skills to advance their career paths

Jessica Hallman
April 08, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — How can marginalized workers be supported in a transition to online work? And how can artificial intelligence augment online workers, rather than displace them?

These are questions that Benjamin Hanrahan, assistant professor of information sciences and technology and affiliate of the Penn State Institute of Computational and Data Sciences, will explore through a new research project that aims to enrich online platform workers and improve the marketplace for online work.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the project’s objective is to develop sustainable methods for transitioning online workers to high-skilled and creative digital jobs that are unlikely to be automated in the near future. 

“The idea is to get [marginalized workers] into jobs in their local community and not having to do crowdsourcing work like it’s a means to an end as opposed to an end,” said Hanrahan.

According to Hanrahan, online platforms often offer low-level work with few opportunities for advancement for independent contractors, such as Amazon Mechanical Turk workers. This work is often intended to train artificial intelligence to eventually automate the skills, rather than to strengthen the skillsets of its human workers.

“We’re looking to use the gig economy, particularly crowdsourcing, as a means to acquire new job skills,” said Hanrahan. “We take for granted that it does not pay very well. But say instead of having to pay to go to your local community college for some classes [to build your skillset], you could instead get paid at your local library to do tasks that are structured in a way that helps you in a skill path that is more arguably a force for positive growth.”  

An example of those skills is learning the basics of programs like Microsoft Word and Excel, which is often necessary to succeed in positions that don’t require a bachelor’s degree. 

Hanrahan noted that while digital work can bring opportunities to workers in otherwise marginalized communities, current online work platforms are not designed to support the workers who could benefit the most from them. 

“There’s a lot of work to do with the digital divide right in our backyard, in our rural communities,” said Hanrahan. “A lot of what’s happening in rural America is that people are moving away from their communities, and communities are getting smaller. And if people were able to acquire the computer skills that they need, and perhaps create a toolkit for themselves and attract even more jobs, maybe that would help those communities.”

The team plans to partner with institutions in rural and urban areas in the U.S. to build tools and teach classes to help workers to perform more advanced digital work.

“The key novel insight of this project is that existing paid work opportunities in crowd work can be transformed to not only improve the work product for the employer, but also to help the worker move along the career paths necessary for the future of work,” concluded Hanrahan. “Our vision is to scaffold workers through basic computer fluency, working with AI tools, and finally innovation and entrepreneurship skills."

Prior seed funding from the Penn State Institute for Computational and Data Sciences for an earlier project enabled Hanrahan to initiate a connection with collaborators on this work, he said.

Last Updated April 09, 2020