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.
(EngineIndustries.com)

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]



















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