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

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