Sunday, 5 August 2012

Pulling it all together: weaving the main strands of an open, online network into a marketing and sales system powered by freelance English professionals

Material concerns: Freelance English teachers can co-ordinate their efforts
 via the web to raise their status as professionals and increase their income.
(Image: Aranel via Wikimedia Commons)
In the articles on this blog I have been formulating the idea of creating a publically-owned brand that freelance English teachers can use to promote themselves and their services. I have looked at several models and analysed a number of approaches in different sectors that could provide an analogy or template for this project. These include:

-        - The Open Source software movement (and the distinctive Linux penguin mascot)
-       -  The concept of a “business in a box” typically associated with multilevel marketing firms (as well as franchising operations, which is another area I am going to consider later)
-       -  Existing EFL networks and membership organisations such as IATEFL

I now want to start to pull together some of these ideas into a single, practical proposal for a scheme that would allow freelance English teachers to enjoy the benefits of belonging to a large organisation or structure, but without the costs and administrative burdens normally associated with these.

So, here goes:

Firstly, who should be involved? Having thought about this, I have reached the conclusion that the scheme should be open to anyone who wants to join it, but there should be clear levels or an indication of the member’s professional qualifications, teaching experience and other significant factors, such as their background in other sectors, particularly business, the  public sector, law, health, science and NGOs, etc.

The scheme or network could contain a core of highly-qualified and experienced EFL teachers but would also be accessible to other language professionals who do not have the CELTA /DELTA/MA TESOL, etc.

Both native and non-native English speakers should be welcome. One of the long-term aims of this project could be to re-brand global English – particularly business English – as an international brand without using symbols or flags associated with English-speaking countries. (At present, most English teachers tend to use these as the de facto “English” brand, but this is mainly because there is no single, publically-owned brand of the type that I have been writing about: it doesn’t exist because it hasn't been invented… until now.)

The focus of the project should be on marketing the members and contributors of the scheme to students and potential clients. This is the main differentiator between “Open Source English” (which I am provisionally calling it) and international organisations for English teachers, such as IATEFL. The “missing middle” that I have described is the interface between teachers and students (particularly online). Most of the existing networks and organisations are places where teachers talk to each other; the space for teachers to communicate with potential students / customers is dominated by commercial organisations and language schools who have the resources to market their own brand.

What freelance English teachers need is a brand that is recognisable and powerful enough to take on the big advertisers and marketers. This can only be achieved by a significant number of freelance teachers banding together and supporting the brand and using it in their marketing – rather than fragmenting their sales message by creating infinite, small websites and blogs. (These are good, but we also need to have a shared identity for our profession that can be used to leverage the “network effect” of the web.)

The best model for this network is organisations that provide a large number of participants with a single, branded identity as well as the tools to market themselves. I have looked at multilevel marketing companies and suggested that a “de-toxed” version of these could be useful. Other examples, such as franchises and licensing, are pertinent. Professional membership organisations, guilds and trade associations are also relevant. The main difference I am proposing is that this network should be FREE and not organised in a typical hierarchical structure. In addition to resulting in the need for fees to maintain the structure (e.g. head office, committees, newsletters, etc) this type of organisation inevitably creates a top-down power structure and can actually defeat the main object of creating a lightweight, open network.

Materials: the original impetus for this project was the idea of creating free, high-quality teaching materials that anyone could access and use. I am also working on a parallel project, Team Writing, one of whose aims is to create materials under a Creative Commons licence. I have now expanded the idea of creating free materials to providing complete, branded courses that anyone could use to promote their teaching business via this network. The main feature of this system would be the relationships between teachers and students (past, current and potential) as well as the companies they work for or own: this would include not just creating materials for students, but course content that is also about them and their businesses. There is huge potential for creating a “publishing partnership” between writer-teachers and the student-clients they teach.

Technology and tools: there already exists a plethora (or eco-system, if you prefer) of free, online tools, social media platforms and digital resources that teachers can access. This project is not about developing new technology: it’s much more about connecting and customising existing tools to help achieve the main objective, which is for freelance English teachers to market themselves successfully and strengthen their ability to compete against larger, richer organisations. At present, the main focus in the EFL world is on understanding and using these exciting new tools to teach. This project attempts to move the discussion a stage further and find ways of harnessing the power and potential of social media to promote English teaching as a profession – and allow independent teachers to help each other profit from it.

Making it happen: today, we see the world of education and training undergoing a massive, irreversible change. Teaching English is now a multi-billion dollar industry and it has produced a huge workforce comparable to the urban populations of mill towns during the Industrial Revolution. Just as with those pop-up cities created by the sudden opportunities offered by new technology and capital, the vast majority of English teachers find themselves servicing a system they don’t own and making money for other people (who in general are not teachers themselves). The history of the nineteenth (and twentieth) century is one of how successive waves of technological innovation gave rise to social upheaval. The key feature of this change was – and in many places still is – disruption and often conflict, resulting in a stand-off between employers and employees. We are now at a historical stage where the digital means of production - computer technology, social media and the web - are available to anyone. And yet, the economic, social and cultural barriers to using these effectively to make a decent living are still formidable. Every English teacher with a laptop and an internet connection is potentially aviable business; what they need to in order to enjoy the maximum benefits offered by this technology is to act together in a smart, highly co-ordinated way that will encourage students and corporate clients to take them seriously. The lack of this unified approach is at present the main reason for keeping freelance teachers' incomes relatively low and strengthening the hand of employers, such as large language schools, by forcing English teachers to compete against each other individually on price rather than co-operate with each other as part of a unified network created and sustained by themselves.

I am currently analysing the relationships that exist between freelance English teachers and the clients they work with: this is very different from a typical employer-employee relationship. The wider question of the status and rights of freelancers is of increasing importance and has given rise to the creation of self-help organisations – and even a Freelancers Union in the US. I do not actually see the main aim of this project as an attempt to create a socially-oriented, mutual support system for English teachers. There have been attempts to construct these, including several abortive attempts to start trade unions for English teachers.

Instead, I believe the best way forward is to develop a system based on teaching excellence and high-quality content that can be accessed anywhere by a group of members connected via social media. This system would operate under a single, distinctive brand that potential students and clients can recognise and trust.

Robert Dennis
Milan, August 2012

Turning a pyramid upside down: How one of the world's most controversial business models could be subverted and made to work for its members

Pyramid selling is now illegal in the US and other countries, but its
descendant multilevel marketing is a growth industry.
(Image: Janusz Recław via Wikimedia Commons)
I wrote this post a few days ago and have been thinking about some of the implications of what it contains. I'm posting it here anyway as it's a step in the ongoing evolution of an idea: a branded high-profile online network of professional EFL teachers who collaborate and support the group on a not-for-profit basis. Some of the ideas expressed here will be modified along the way - or dropped - but I think the basic idea is a good one.

Anyway, here it is...

Hey Jude, don't make it bad.
Take a sad song and make it better.
Hey Jude, The Beatles

I recently had a run-in with a member of one of the online groups that I manage. The person in question was trying to use the group to recruit people to a multilevel marketing scheme which claimed to offer – as these schemes always do – a secure income and the opportunity to work from home.

I did a bit of online research about multilevel marketing and their more sinister predecessors, pyramid selling schemes, and found that there is a huge online debate about whether or not you can actually make money from them. I don’t want to discuss the merits or demerits of multilevel marketing (MLM) in detail here, but one thing that did occur to me is that if you strip out the aggressive recruiting and pyramid structure the basic idea is quite good. (Yes, I know the whole argument is about the recruiting and whether that is actually the business, rather than the products or services promoters are supposed to be selling.)

Most of these companies offer a ready-made “business in a box”: a well-known brand, a complete product range, marketing tools to promote your business (such as a website), training (lots of training!), inspiring talks and a whole slew of branded freebies, badges (buttons) and publicity material. The main problem with MLM is that the hapless new recruit has generally to pay increasingly large sums of money to access all these benefits – and usually they have to purchase a substantial stock of products which they will often have difficulty selling. (Many of these will remain unsold, be given away or end up on eBay, for example.)

Now, if you just think about the idea of having your “business in a box” – but without the huge costs demanded by the MLM company (or generally the person who recruits you as part of their “downline”) – that’s quite a cool idea: everything you need to make money – all you have to do is go out and sell and not worry about setting up a website, building a brand, developing a large network of customers, etc: it’s all been done for you.

Wouldn’t it be good if you could access all of these benefits – but WITHOUT PAYING THROUGH THE NOSE?

You would be able to focus on what you do well and enjoy the advantages of having a large organisation behind you, providing you with whatever help and support you need – but for free.
Let’s put this in the context of freelance English teaching: the vast majority of people who teach English professionally are highly motivated and enjoy providing their customers – students – with a great service. An increasing number of English teachers have professional qualifications and there are now a huge number of resources they can access (material, exercises, etc) and use in their classes. Many entrepreneurial and social media-savvy teachers have set up their own websites and blogs, which they combine with word-of-mouth recommendations to find students. But what they don’t generally have is the kind of marketing clout that a large school or online training company has. They can’t spend a fortune on developing a really cool website or easily set up complicated e-commerce payment systems that will allow them to sell material and courses online. Yes, some people are doing this – but they are the exceptions.

What if these teachers could plug all their material and expertise into a ready-made “business in a box” (such as those offered by MLM companies, but without the eye-watering costs) and then use this to promote their business?

Of course, there are a number of companies that already offer this, such as WizIQ. However, while the platforms themselves are generally good, they don’t really seem to provide the kind of pro-active marketing and sales oomph associated with MLM companies.

I know MLM is not a great analogy – and I have been careful to try and isolate just the “good” bits from the rest – but the concept it encapsulates is a powerful one: that each promoter or distributor is a mini-business. This is the element that is lacking in the approach taken by most freelance teachers: they’re really nice people for the most part and they care about what they do. But they aren’t in a position to earn a lot of money because of the way the freelance English teaching industry is structured (or not structured – which is at the root of the problem).

Online, the English teaching market is dominated by a small group of large players with substantial resources; then there’s a layer of largeish schools and companies with professional management teams, as well as dedicated marketing and publicity; under that an archipelago of small schools and language consultancies (often just a few people) and finally you reach the primordial soup level of individual teachers working as freelancers, maybe while also teaching for a school or holding done another job. In terms of numbers, these “plankton professionals” vastly outnumber all the other players higher up the food chain; but – just as in the natural world – they are constantly competing for survival and usually at the expense of each other. While some teachers belong to professional organisations such as the excellent IATEFL, there is no single umbrella organisation for people who teach English independently.

Where are you in the EFL food chain?
(Image: via Wikimedia Commons)

Freelance English teaching is really a cottage industry; a near-invisible workforce of many thousands sitting at an in-company client’s desk, or maybe in a Starbucks coffee shop or in front of a Skype window at home. Admittedly, the quality of the service they provide and their levels of experience and training vary greatly; but if you compare that to the qualifications and aptitude you need to sell for an MLM company, you realise immediately that (for the most part) people who teach English really are professional and committed. Over the years I have met many hundreds of EFL / ESL teachers and they all share two main characteristics: 1) they’re basically nice people who have studied a lot and want to help other people learn and 2) they have to think twice before splashing out on a meal in a good restaurant or buying a designer jacket. In short, English teachers are good at what they do but they can’t make enough money from doing it because they are just cannibalising each other’s market, driving down prices (including their own) and unintentionally contributing to the impression that big schools are “more professional”. If cutting off your nose to spite your face was an Olympic sport, the freelance English teaching profession would be standing proudly on the podium with its gold medal (and no nose).

Of course, anyone reading this will immediately say, “Yes but these MLM companies you keep pointing to – they’re huge, commercial operations; they’ve got gargantuan marketing budgets; and they basically exist to prey on people who have got no other choice except to stump up their joining fee and try their luck. You’re not suggesting that’s the way forward for EFL teachers to go, surely?”

No, I am not. I have written recently about the idea of creating a profession-wide brand (which I have tentatively given the working title of Open Source English). Basically, this brand (modelled on the Open Source software movement and its best-known example - Linux, which has a cartoon penguin as its logo) would be something that any freelance English teacher could use to promote their own business. That’s the first thing: recognition, visibility: if all the plankton stop trying to eat each other for a minute and swim towards each other they could create a huge underwater logo (as if in a Pixar Disney movie) that would be visible from space. This is what the thousands of Open Source software volunteers have done: they have given visibility and credibility to their profession by coalescing into a movement.

The next thing is a fundamental shift in the way English teachers think about what they do and who they are. This point is related to the wider question of training, recruitment and the (lack of) structure in the language-teaching industry. Everyone knows what a teacher is: she’s someone who teaches. We all have an image of a teacher – typically a schoolteacher standing in front of a blackboard (iconically, being handed an apple by a grateful student). While teaching in the public sector is a very different kettle of fish from private EFL teaching, school-teaching is a much more structured profession where there is at the least prospect of promotion and career development. Of course, there is also a constant battle being fought, especially in the UK, where teachers often find themselves on the front line of an ideological divide marked by often bitter confrontation and recrimination. There’s really no equivalent to this in the genteel walled garden of private English teaching. You are unlikely to see in the near future (or ever) the language schools of Oxford Street empty and pour out a tide of irate EFL teachers marching arm in arm past John Lewis. (Maybe this would be a good thing, but it ain’t gonna happen, chum.)

I will have more to say on this aspect of the EFL world in later posts, including a look at the phenomenon of the Freelancers Union in the US. I am also currently researching online the various networks and informal associations that exist in the EFL world. If you would like to contribute to this debate, please leave a comment here or join the Global Business English Network onLinkedIn.

Friday, 3 August 2012

The Missing Middle: How an army of freelancers collaborating online can tip the balance in their favour

Can't find the wood for the trees? How can we direct students and
potential clients to our free, high-quality online EFL materials?
[Image: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos via Wikimedia Commons]

In this article I am going to develop some of the themes hinted at in the first post on this blog.

There is now a huge amount of online material, much of it freely available, that English teachers have made available to download, share and use in classes (or for self-study). In fact, there is so much good stuff out there that it’s actually quite hard to know where to start when you’re looking for great lesson ideas or materials. But if you consider the situation from the point of view of the hapless English student wandering around the web looking for someone to teach them using this material, it’s a very different picture.

The EFL world has fallen in love with social media and has embraced it fully: just about every teacher and school now has a website or a blog. YouTube is awash with great videos of teachers explaining just about every grammatical construction; and there is no end of English-themed groups and pages on social networking sites such as facebook. At the same time, EFL schools and publishers have ramped up their social media marketing: it is now even easier to find schools, language courses and published materials and to “like” them.

Now, here’s the paradox: while there has been an explosion of EFL-related social media activity, this has tended to benefit schools rather than teachers themselves and commercial publishers rather than independent freelancers. Why? Because most of the resources produced by teachers are generally seen as freebies or something that has less value (certainly less monetary value) than the books and online courses you have to pay for. This is strange, because a lot of the material that teachers themselves have produced and uploaded to the web is of an exceptionally high quality – easily as good as (and often better than) material that has been written to order by a publisher. The problem is that whereas there exists very well-established distribution channels for textbooks and other learning material sold by publishers, for the plucky EFL teacher who posts her material on YouTube or a blog, the opportunities for earning money from this are severely limited.

Even a YouTube video that is seen hundreds of thousands of time only generates relatively modest returns for its creator. Similarly, a podcast that you can download for free from iTunes will raise the profile of its author but they will not benefit directly from students listening to it because they have given it away for free. The only real value to the people publishing this material tends to be that it gets them noticed and so therefore is a form of advertising for services that they can sell (i.e. teaching or perhaps being offered a contract to write material for a publisher or broadcaster).

The Creative Commons symbol
means "some rights reserved".
Now, in my first post I floated the idea of Open Source English: teachers producing material under a Creative Commons licence, which they can then share with other teachers who can use them to command higher fees by having access to high-quality material for specialist courses that require professional teaching skills and experience. I also drew an analogy with the Open Source movement in the world of computer programming and looked at how languages such as Linux benefit their creators by providing readily-available tools that can be used for paying clients when those authors are selling themselves as Open Source consultants.

There is a vast eco-system of materials and resources that teachers have produced independently and made available to other teachers for free. (Let’s put to one side teachers who have tried to monetize their material using freemium models (free content + subscriptions) or e-commerce solutions.) From the student’s perspective, it’s nice to have access to this material, although finding the gold nuggets among the plethora of resources available is basically a matter of either luck or word of mouth. When students are actually in the market for a course that they are prepared to pay for their first option will nearly always be a school or commercial online training organisation – usually with a very slick website and a number of payment options, most of which will involve a credit card. Booking a course with a private teacher will generally be a second or third option – and the decision is usually taken on price after the student has made enquiries and realised that a professional, commercial course is quite a big investment.

I would like to suggest an alternative model:

Tux, the Linux penguin,
ready to do battle for OS.
What freelance teachers need is a brand equivalent to that of the Linux penguin. This brand would be something that any freelance teacher can use but which would be owned by the community, not by an individual school or private organisation.

Nearly every web quest starts with a Google search. Large private EFL groups and schools pay vast sums to optimise their websites for Google searches. If you type “English course” or “business English” into Google you won’t find many independent freelance teachers near the top: you will get schools, academic publishers, etc.

No individual teacher could take on the might of the big education companies and publishers, but a thousand teachers all co-operating under a commonly-owned and shared brand just might be able to nudge a few big schools out of the way to reach the top spot.

Wikipedia: the online encyclopedia
is a universally-recognised brand
You can see this effect generally on the web when you google anything and the first item that comes up is a Wikipedia entry. This is social media at its most social: Wikipedia has steadily climbed to the top of nearly every Google search because it has popular support: people are voting with their mouses (or mice?). But even then, Wikipedia hasn’t monetized itself, so even if you read their online encyclopedia entry they don’t actually gain any money from it. (Indeed, Jimmy Wales will periodically ask you to make a donation to support the site.)

How would branded Open Source English work? I described this briefly in the first ER! Post: mainly by teachers using the material they have created collectively to get teaching work by leveraging their knowledge and expertise via sites like this one. Let me know expand this idea into a set of practical suggestions for actually making it work:

The first thing is to organise and catalogue the material that is already available. A lot of people are doing this already in the form of aggregating sites or by curating links. There needs to be a place where people can go to find resources easily – especially the teachers who are going to use this material as part of their OSE-based courses.

The material needs to be embedded into a course and presented in a professional, coherent way. One of the biggest drawbacks with using online teacher-generated material at the moment is that students generally perceive this as having less value than commercially-produced material. Students immediately spot if something has been “taken off the web” – especially if there are the tell-tale signs of web addresses and attempts to stake ownership by the author (including copyright details). If you download and print material from a teacher’s website, that’s basically what it looks like to a student: something cheap /free. (Compare that to an expensive, glossy text book with high-resolution images printed in glorious technicolour (or CMYK, if you prefer).)  A clever (or cunning?) teacher can quite easily strip out most of the weak safeguards the author has deployed – and, if necessary, they can just scan the material and re-edit it or write it out by hand into a Word document and present it as original material. The truth is that the greatest defence against plagiarism is the fact that the average EFL teacher has limited time and energy: ultimately, it’s easier to whack a textbook under the photocopier or just download something good off the web and cut and paste the juicy bits. Not many people will spend the time and effort to really launder every trace of original ownership from someone elses’s work (unless they intend to re-sell it or publish it for profit).

While you can use templates, such as those in Microsoft Office or upload material into a blog or website where it will look nice and shiny – and you might even create your own brand, too – unless you are a designer (or you pay one), your material will never really look as good as something commercially produced. In fact, it is the ability of a publisher to “package” their material that lends it an air of quality and value. This is equally true for online material: the professionally-designed environment of a commercial online course reassures the fee-paying student that they have spent their money wisely – and hopefully this is reinforced by the actual quality of the material itself.

Here is my proposal: OSE-branded courses should be professionally designed and packaged so that they can stand side by side with commercially-available material without shame or tugging at their frayed cuffs. Now, in the not-for-profit EFL sector this comment will seem trivial and trite: who cares what something looks like? The quality of an activity or exercise is obvious as soon as you start using it. Well, in answer to the question “Who cares?” the basic answer is: the student. The student cares – and that’s why students tend to shell out their hard-earned cash for courses, books and other materials (if they are not just downloading them illegally, that is). While it may be true, as BB King (?) observed, that you can’t judge a book by looking at its cover, if you speak to publishers they will tell you that presentation and design are hugely important.

Drupal is an Open Source CMS
(Content Management System).
It has over 7 million users.

How could a group of EFL teachers produce well-designed material without a huge budget to pay design professionals? Well, there are several possibilities here:

Firstly, they could club together and share the costs of design (and production). If a large enough group of EFL writers get together to produce Open Source English materials, they could each contribute a nominal amount and employ an agency to produce highly professional designs.

Another possibility is that that there are probably already a number of designers who are also teachers: they could chip in to the project by providing their design services (and as OSE teachers they would benefit from the materials that they help to create / design).

And since even non-English speaking designers need to learn the language (especially if they want to access new markets in English-speaking countries and internationally) a group of OSE teachers could provide them with free lessons in return for helping out with the design (and it could be quite neat to have designers who have actually learnt using the materials that feature their designs – this is the kind of cross-marketing via social media that a project like Open Source English can achieve easily).

The same model can be applied when it comes to distribution. The most effective way of making OSE materials available is via the web. Teachers can also integrate these into online learning environments where they can teach using video and virtual classrooms. Again, these have quite a high start-up cost – especially for a freelancer working on their own. A small team of developers funded by OSE teachers – either financially or in kind, as with the suggestions above regarding designers – could build and maintain a professional platform that OSE teachers could use to deliver their courses. Ideally, this platform would be built using Open Source software; there’s a lot of scope for integrating Open Source English into training for programmers and IT professionals.

The official logo of the Open Source software movement.
Please note that Open Source English is not associated or
affiliated with the OS software movement itself.

There are also a number of other services that OSE teachers could access using this model: legal services (for example, help with distributing material under the CC licence); marketing and advertising; and, most important of all, developing a training delivery model that companies and other large organisations trust enough to invest in. (The Open Source analogy is again pertinent  here: without freely-available code such as Apache, the world’s servers would have ground to a halt long ago.)

While this may sound as if I am describing a situation where OSE teachers could, in effect, build a company for free I think it’s important to realise that the key objective in all of this is to avoid a situation where power is centralised in the hands of a small group: the main idea is to distribute the power and control, but retain the advantages of a brand identity that students – the final customers – trust. I’m sure eventually there would be some sort of association or co-ordinating group, but by ensuring that the project remains voluntary and not-for-profit the tendency for anyone to try and take it over would be diminished.

The Open Source software movement is undoubtedly the product of a particular ideology that has grown up in the computing world (think Neo and the Matrix) – but it has also matured, so that now OS software is used and trusted throughout the world by companies, banks and governments. I don’t really see a conflict between freelance teachers who want to make money from their own work and the idea of giving the material away for free. Indeed, if you look at the historical development of society, government, science and universities, the central underlying concept has always been that some things are public goods and belong to everyone – especially knowledge and language itself. If the OSE movement I am calling for is indeed a revolution, it is a bourgeois one, in just the same way that the revolutions in England, France and America were more about liberating groups of middle-class entrepreneurs from the tyranny of an arbitrary monarch (and I’m not necessarily thinking of Raymond Murphy or International House!) than an attempt to create a truly utopian society. (That might come in the future – at present, freelancers would probably settle for just being able to afford a car or a foreign holiday without having to make sacrifices.)

I’m sure this model needs further refinement, but I’m posting it now to generate discussion and hopefully move some people to action, too.

If you are a freelance teacher who would like to get involved – or even a designer, web developer, lawyer or other professional who would like to be involved with a  potentially high-profile project – please contact us and share your ideas, energy and passion!

I have recently established a Team Writing group which is collaborating on writing projects using a range of online tools, such as Google Docs / Google Drive. Click here to find out more. We also have  a group on facebook.

You can also join the Global Business English Network onLinkedIn and facebook where EFL / ESL professionals from around the world are engaging with students and companies who need English for their work.

Robert Dennis,
Milan, August 2012

The Rod of Asclepius  is one of the oldest "brands" in the world:
it is synonymous with medicine - but no-one actually owns it.
[Image via Wikimedia Commons]

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

English Revolution! Home of the best free English resources on the web!

We were born to be freelancers, but we are everywhere in chains (of Waterstones booksellers, buying ELT material).

Sister and brother teachers, welcome to English Revolution!

This "Open Source English" website is your chance to change the way you teach, learn or use English. English Revolution! is a pioneering social media project that will give English teachers around the world access to free, high quality language resources - and allow them to capitalise on material produced collaboratively by themselves and others.

English Revolution! is not a company or a commercial activity. It is a platform for professional English language teachers to collectively create and share teaching materials they produce themselves under the Creative Commons (CC) Attribution-ShareAlike licence. (Click here to find out more about Creative Commons.)

By contributing to the materials on this site you will be helping to create a set of "professional", highly-usable language resources that will give full credit to the authors and demonstrate to the world your ability to develop outstanding material. Over time, the resources on this site will mature and grow into a unique body of work that any teacher can use in her or his lessons without worrying about infringing copyright, paying to use the material or just feeling bad because you know shouldn't really be using someone else's work.

All the content on this site is "free" in that it doesn't cost anything to download it and anyone can use it: but it belongs to its authors. However, as a contributor, you agree to allow other people to use, adapt and also make money from your work by incorporating it into their lessons. Publishers and commercial organisations are also able to benefit from the work on this site - but they are not allowed to claim ownership or sell it to other people "as is" (i.e. the rights belong to the authors but if an academic publisher, for example, decided to use or adapt some of the material in a course book they would be free to do so as long as they attribute the authors and English Revolution! as the source).

The model for English Revolution! is the Open Source Movement of computer programming languages (and the wider Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) movement). Some people are confused by the term "free" in this context, but basically it means "free to use". No-one can homestead or hijack material that is free - but it is still technically the property of its creators (i.e. it's not "in the public domain"; there are some limits as to what people can - and can't - do with it).

Why would you want to produce material other people can use to make money from? Isn't that just stupid? Well, no, actually. And here's why:

Most English teachers already produce material, either professionally as ELT authors or as part of their preparation for classes. However, the number of people who make a good living from writing material for ELT publishers is tiny. (Perhaps, after writing a really cool phrasal verbs exercise, you have wondered if you could be the next Raymond Murphy, author of the epically-bestselling "English Grammar in Use". Sadly, Mr Murphy is an exception: most ELT writers can make something from their work (a fraction of course of what the publishers make), but if you attend a convention of ELT authors there won't be many Ferraris or Porsches outside in the car-park).

The Leveller Manifesto
(from the first English Revolution).
By John Lilburne, William Walwyn,
Thomas Prince, Richard Overton.
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In fact, you are more likely to benefit directly from the material you create yourself by charging your students and using it in your lessons . However, you will inevitably also use existing published ELT materials as well as authentic sources, such as newspapers and magazines. Of course, your students (and perhaps the Director if Studies if you work in a school) will appreciate the fact you have created or carefully adapted material, but who else will know? Similarly, if you share the material with other teachers in the staff room, by the time it has been photocopied and re-copied and passed on again, there is little chance that your authorship will be acknowledged. So, even though you spend time and effort to produce really good content for your classes it is unlikely that you will be able to do much with it - unless, of course, you decide to publish it at a later date (in which case, please refer to the paragraph above relating to Mr Murphy and his estimable volume).

But there is an alternative, my friends: English Revolution!

All the material on this site will be written and developed by people who have a vested interest in using high-quality materials: professional English teachers and their students. If you help to produce material here, you will be credited. People will know what you have done. You won't be hiding your light under a bushel (or on a badly-photocopied page where your "(c) John Smith 2007" line has been carefully tipp-exed out). You will be able to use English Revolution! as a reference point for what you have achieved: you can link to it, cite it and generally point your existing and future students towards it (as well as publishers, employers or anyone else you want to show what you can do). Instead of "burying" the material on a website with little traffic (the typical EFL freelancer site, for example) or locking it up behind an unattractive and forbidding pay-wall which will probably only yield minimal returns anyway, you will be able to say loud and proud "I worked on this brilliant resource on English Revolution!" and point to the sections, revisions or extension activities, etc that you contributed.

The Linux Penguin
by Larry Ewing. AlexPlank
 at en.wikipedia [Attribution],
from Wikimedia Commons
Now, here's where the analogy with the Open Source programming movement comes in. OS software benefits from having thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions of people working on it: it is a huge, collaborative effort that has substantially changed - revolutionised - the online world. (Examples of Open Source code include the operating system Linux and languages such as PHP and Perl which power interactive websites.) Open Source code is free for anyone to download, adapt and use on commercial projects (unlike "proprietary" software, which is generally owned by companies, such as Microsoft). OS programmers make their money by knowing how to use this code and selling their knowledge as consultants to people who require customised solutions (e.g. large corporations and governments). They don't make money by selling or licensing the code (as Microsoft and other companies do) because the code is free: anyone can pick it up, fiddle with it and use it as they wish. However, unless you are a programmer you will find it extremely difficult or even impossible to do much with this code (and if you don't believe me, try downloading a free Content Management System such as Drupal or Joomla and see how far you can get). OS programmers know that although their "tools" are free they of very little use without their expert ability to use them. People who want the benefits of Open Source software need Open Source programmers. This is a virtuous circle: the more widespread OS code becomes, the greater the demand for OS programmers. The other benefit is that since huge numbers of people are working on this code all the time and correcting it, improving it and bringing extra "eyeballs", it evolves over time as bugs are discovered and corrected. (This is the opposite of proprietary software which has to be maintained at ever-increasing cost and loses its value as time goes by.)

The material on English Revolution! will be mainly of interest to people who already teach English for a living. As with OS code, a student is quite welcome to download and use the material to teach themselves - but as we know, eventually someone who is serious about learning English (especially if it's for their job) will contact a teacher. When a teacher visits this site they will initially see it as an Aladdin's cave, an unlocked treasure trove to be picked over and plundered - all for free! And without even the catch of getting some free goodies but being required to take out a premium subscription for the really cool stuff. No: everything on English Revolution! is there for the taking: freeloading teachers of the world, please note - you have nothing to lose but your subscriptions and recurring monthly payments! But the more that teachers come back to the site - and the more they use the material in their own classes - they will gradually realise that they can charge higher fees for lessons and boost their professional careers if they actually help to make the material itself better. This might just mean going online and adding some exercises for a particular business sector or industry (e.g. insurance or animal husbandry); or it could be a group of teachers operating in a particular country who realise that by localising some reading or writing material, they can all benefit from using this content by making it more relevant to their students' particular needs.

Oliver Cromwell (1599 - 1658)
Teaching English: "It's a professional career."
From Wikimedia Commons.
[Public Domain]
Eventually, English Revolution! could become the first place where you look for excellent and 100% free teaching material for general classes as well as a wide range of specialist English courses where there is no real existing material. If you have a student who works in a particular field where there are few English teaching resources available (e.g. biotechnology, derivatives trading, oceanography or manufacturing and testing oil pumps), you can in effect become the world's leading expert in teaching this highly-specialised language. By adapting an existing resource on this site for a specialist course (or a student with very particular needs) you can stamp your authority on the material and declare to the world that you are ready to teach phrasal verbs for international negotiations over fishing rights. Of course, not many people will be interested in that: but the ones who are - potential clients and students - will be able to find you, your material and your professional profile via English Revolution!

Take some of the knowledge, creativity, energy and enthusiasm that you already bring to your English classes and students - and bring it here: upload, rewrite, check, correct, adapt, and extend language material that you and other teachers can use to make money (but which would have little commercial value otherwise - and which few publishers would consider). Suggest an additional activity for a reading comprehension or speaking class that another teacher has posted. Find other professionals who are working in your sector and network with them. Check out opportunities for creating bespoke courses and making contact with teachers you have already collaborated with online by developing unique resources and materials.

Join the Revolution! Change the world of ELT materials for ever! Enjoy the fruit of your labours (and pick someone else's strawberries without feeling guilty!).

Our time has come. This is ENGLISH REVOLUTION! Be part of it!

Robert Dennis
Milan, July 2012

under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.