Learning by volunteer computing, thinking and gaming: What and how are volunteers learning by participating in Virtual Citizen Science?
Citizen Science (CS) refers to a form of research collaboration that engages volunteers without formal scientific training in contributing to empirical scientific projects. Virtual Citizen Science (VCS) projects engage participants in online tasks. VCS has demonstrated its usefulness for research, however little is known about its learning potential for volunteers. This paper reports on research exploring the learning outcomes and processes in VCS. In order to identify different kinds of learning, 32 exploratory interviews of volunteers were conducted in three different VCS projects. We found six main learning outcomes related to different participants' activities in the project. Volunteers learn on four dimensions that are directly related to the scope of the VCS project: they learn at the task/game level, acquire pattern recognition skills, on-topic content knowledge, and improve their scientific literacy. Thanks to indirect opportunities of VCS projects, volunteers learn on two additional dimensions: off topic knowledge and skills, and personal development. Activities through which volunteers learn can be categorized in two levels: at a micro (task/game) level that is direct participation to the task, and at a macro level, i.e. use of project documentation, personal research on the Internet, and practicing specific roles in project communities. Both types are influenced by interactions with others in chat or forums. Most learning happens to be informal, unstructured and social. Volunteers do not only learn from others by interacting with scientists and their peers, but also by working for others: they gain knowledge, new status and skills by acting as active participants, moderators, editors, translators, community managers, etc. in a project community. This research highlights these informal and social aspects in adult learning and science education and also stresses the importance for learning through the indirect opportunities provided by the project: the main one being the opportunity to participate and progress in a project community, according to one's tastes and skills.