In August 2019, I started an experiment. Rather than sell my teaching materials online via a platform, I would share them in a pay-as-you-can arrangement. One year on, I reflect on the experiment and why (spoiler alert!) it has left me poorer.
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Last summer, I read the excellent book called Open: how we'll work, live and learn in the future by David Price. This book discussed how developments in technology are altering how we share and gather information and, as such, have transformative implications for how we live, work and learn. These implications are relevant now, Price argues, and will become even more so in the future. It's a fascinating book. Price argues that the spirit of open enterprise (also called Creative Commons) allows traders and service providers to cut out large consultancy agencies, publishing platforms and so on by speak to their clients directly. If you have a training course to sell, for example, avoid an agency: instead promote it via social media and people can pay you directly. It makes services cheaper by cutting out the middleperson and more equitable: those with less pay what they can, those who can pay a little more. Reading this book in 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic, his ideas seemed like a station we would pull into in a decade's time. Re-reading it in 2020, it seems that we are already there.
In many ways the concept of open sharing in education is already well established. Many teachers, for example, are using twitter and other platforms to share resources, ideas and expertise to replace the existing channels for professional development. It is collegiate, more democratic and helps connect people who may have otherwise never have met. One of the universities I work for actively encourages students to develop an online personal network to support them as they embark on their careers as teachers. This immediate and personalised way of communicating has effaced traditional approaches to CPD and is well within the spirit of what David Price calls being 'open'.
It does, however, present problems. Instead of being supported by coaches and CPD providers, teachers take on that supporting role themselves. While they might be highly experienced and innovative practitioners, this does represent an unpaid addition to their existing role. School leaders and those in government are released of their responsibility to provide ongoing support for qualified educators. Why break the slender budget, the argument goes, when the market can provide it for free?
So how did reading Open change my approach to consultancy?
ARTiculate Education is my educational consultancy. I design training courses for teachers, workshops for children, deliver talks and make teaching materials. Now you have the word 'consultant' floating in your mind. This might now be followed by the image of a sportscar, a big pile of cash, someone swanning around in a suit with an iPad. Far, far from it. The tightening of school budgets over the last five years has hit my business hard. Headteachers don’t have the money to pay for CPD courses or learning experiences for children. Instead, teachers get what they need for free, online. This has implications. Over the last few years, I have seen my income dwindle to almost nothing. I supplement my income by selling planning materials and teaching resources online through the TES platform. These are priced around £3-£4 each and I was making around £40 a month after TES had taken its cut (about 50%). I would estimate that at least 75% of the work I do now is for free.
After reading David Price's book last August, I decided to run an experiment. Rather than selling my resources online, I would make them all free. A resource that was once £3 or £4 was now free to download and use. In return, if the teacher liked what they used, they could make me a donation of £1-£2 via PayPal. That would be enough to keep me working, keep the roof over our heads and to keep me churning out CPD materials and training videos. The pay-as-you-feel approach seemed more in the spirit of open sharing, more democratic and equitable. Student teachers could take what they needed for free, more experienced teachers and subject leaders earn a salary high enought to afford to pay a few pounds. If just 10% of people who downloaded it paid something towards its production, I reasoned, then I would break even. As Price speculates, people will be willing to pay for quality and acknowledge the labour of another.
But this hasn't worked out quite as I imagined. The number of downloads of my materials has skyrocketed (about 5000 in the last 12 months) and the feedback has been positive. On the other hand, I have not received a single donation. Nothing. It is certainly a puzzle. If I had left them as paid materials, I would have made around £500. By making them available for free, I have made nothing. I should point out that I am not bitter about this outcome, just surprised. (Yes, I almost wrote 'disappointed' here. Once a teacher...)
There are many possible explanations. Yes, teachers can find free materials online and are happy to share them via Twitter for free. True, people may be reluctant to pay money to someone online who they have never met. Also, I appreciate teachers are too busy to go back and pay someone for a resource weeks after they have used it. Maybe they think my materials suck. And yet, as the popularity of platforms such as TES suggest, there are many teachers out there willing to pay for teaching materials often without seeing them in advance. I have met teachers who now make hundreds of pounds a month making and selling schemes of work.
Perhaps, culturally, the open, pay-as-you-feel approach has yet to catch on. But as the economic fallout from Covid has hit hard those who are self-employed and those working in the educational gig economy (supply teachers, independent researchers, freelance consultants and specialists), the need for reciprocal open sharing is more important than ever.
In the meantime, I will go back to selling my materials again. I don't feel good about it. Maybe in the future, the window will open wide enough for the creative commons to become a real working partnership.
But if you do want to support the work I do, you can find the link to sponsor me here.
You can access my TES online shop at: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resources/shop/articulate_education