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The economics of producing free teaching materials


John Simkin
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Most people who run a website face a dilemma. How much time can they devote to their website? It is clear that a full-time teacher will have little time to produce new online materials. This is a particular problem for those teachers with family commitments. Time spent on the website is to a certain extent, time taken from the family. One justification that a person can make for this “stolen time” is that it produces money for the family budget. This is how I justified the considerable time I spent in the past on writing history books and articles on education. However, people with websites have found it difficult to turn this time into money.

I started my website in September, 1997. The following year I was employed by the Daily Telegraph to write reviews of educational websites. Most of these were produced by teachers. Understandably commercial companies were uninterested in producing free materials for teachers and students to use.

Recently I reread these early reviews. I discovered that most of these teacher websites have disappeared. I suspect the main reason for this is that the teachers could not find the time to create and maintain their websites. Others were still in existence but are now subscription websites. This was inevitable after the introduction of the government’s e-learning credits. This has enabled teachers (and commercial organizations) to charge for their services. This government initiative has resulted in a decline in the amount of free material available.

The idea of the government paying people not to produce free material was always a daft one. It would have been far better for the government to have paid those talented teachers to provide free materials. This material would then have been available to the whole online community. Instead, the material is only available to those who pay the subscription charges. Everybody else no longer gets to using the materials.

There is also a long-term problem associated with this disastrous government strategy. What happens when e-learning credits comes to an end. Will schools still subscribe when it has to come out of its normal budget? The answer to that is probably no. That is what happened when the government introduced special schemes to fund software in the 1980s. In fact, the end of the schemes resulted in many commercial software companies going out of business. The same will happen to those companies providing subscription charges today.

Before e-learning credits there was some discussion about software being developed that would allow website owners to receive “micro-payments” from visitors. The idea being that the internet providers would bill people for visiting websites. This money would then be passed onto the website owners. However, this idea never came to fruition.

What therefore can a website owner take in order to make sure that his or her online materials remain free at the point of delivery?

One way of financing a website is to receive sponsorship from a commercial organization. I was lucky enough to find a company in 1997 to pay for all my internet costs in return for me placing their logo on my home page. Although this has been useful, it does not solve the problem of paying for the time it takes you to produce the content on your website.

The only other way for a website owner to recover the cost of their time is to carry some sort of advertising. This often involves a scheme where the website owner gets a small commission on items sold. Probably the best example of this is Amazon. However, rewards are not great. In my case it has over the years worked out as £1 per 100,000 page impressions.

A more profitable way of raising money is placing an Ask Jeeves search-box on your website. The good thing about this scheme is that you can make money from providing a service for your visitors. Although you only get a small amount per search (1.5 pence) it builds up if you have a busy website. In my case, over the last couple of years I have received about £100 per 100,000 page impressions.

However, I believe a recent development has made it possible for someone to make a reasonable living from producing free online educational materials. This is Google Ad Sense. These scheme delivers relevant ads that are precisely targeted - on a page-by-page basis - to the content people find on your site. I have been running Ad Sense for a couple of months and so far it appears to pay about £125.00 per 100,000 page impressions.

By adding both Ask Jeeves and Ad Sense to every page of your website, it is now possible to make a good living from producing free online materials. My prediction is that we will eventually see a decline in the subscription site and an increase in the number of teachers producing free resources.

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John raises some interesting points.

Most people who produce free learning materials do so because they are excited by the idea and they hope that by giving that they will be able to share with other like minded indivduals. It is in the best traditions of teaching that professional colleagues share their materials for the benefit of all pupils.

As John rightly points out the logic of the British E-Learning credits scheme flies in the face of this culture. If you provide educational content you are encouraged by the scheme to register with them, set up as a business and charge "customers" to access your password protected site. The market is flooded with money with the government giving a direct grant of several thousand pounds to each school which "must" be spent on Curriculum Online products within a certain time frame.

The negative outcomes of this are

1. Teachers are encouraged by government not to share their online content

2. Teachers are encouraged by government not to produce free materials

3. There is pressure on schools to spend their E learning credits within a time scale (or they lose it) so many schools end up buying sub standard materials which they don't really need

4. There is no incentive for commercial e-learning providers to be innovative as the market is awash with cash anyway.

I don't particularly like having adverts on my site but at least they provide an alternative to this corrupt morass on which the government is wasting vast quantities of tax payers money.

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Most people who produce free learning materials do so because they are excited by the idea and they hope that by giving that they will be able to share with other like minded indivduals. It is in the best traditions of teaching that professional colleagues share their materials for the benefit of all pupils.

This is so true and certainly it's the reason why I share the materials I have produced. Most of what I post on my website these days is there because a weary colleague has made a weekend plea on an online forum for some resources to support a particular topic in a lesson on Monday morning. I have to say, though, that on the few occasions when I get a message of thanks afterwards, it's usually from somebody else on the forum in question. It's sad, but people don't always value what they get for free. Maybe I'm cynical, but I sometimes believe that efforts would be acknowledged more if a nominal charge were made. I'm not contemplating doing so, however, because I do believe in giving something back to the teaching profession. I'm human too, though, and if individuals keep on asking for help without even a thank-you in return, I become increasingly tempted to ignore them. I haven't done so yet because I believe their students would suffer if I did. However, if I have to do a lot of work when I answer a cry for help, I will sometimes release a tidbit of what I've found out, promising more if a response is forthcoming. When the magic word "thank you" appears, the rest of the information is sent. Does all that sound petty? I just feel that there should always be some reward for sharing what we have, if just an expression of gratitude to keep us doing what we do. Otherwise our generosity is undervalued. Our students deserve daily (hourly?) boosts to their self-esteem. We do too.

David Wilson

http://www.specialeducationalneeds.com/

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Most people who produce free learning materials do so because they are excited by the idea and they hope that by giving that they will be able to share with other like minded indivduals. It is in the best traditions of teaching that professional colleagues share their materials for the benefit of all pupils.

This is so true and certainly it's the reason why I share the materials I have produced. Most of what I post on my website these days is there because a weary colleague has made a weekend plea on an online forum for some resources to support a particular topic in a lesson on Monday morning. I have to say, though, that on the few occasions when I get a message of thanks afterwards, it's usually from somebody else on the forum in question. It's sad, but people don't always value what they get for free.

This has been my experience as well. Teachers and students rarely thank you for the free materials you provide. Interestingly, most of the thanks I receive comes from the parents of students or adult learners who have used my website.

The thing that bugs me is that you usually only hear from teachers if they have discovered a mistake in your work. Not that I mind being corrected. It is after all very easy to change a web page. My problem is with the apparent pleasure they get from pointing out the mistake. I also used to get this from fellow members of staff who used my teaching resources in the classroom. This always came from teachers who never produced their own materials. I suspect that is the reason why. They thought all teachers were like themselves. They were frightened of producing materials because they feared their colleagues would examine them in great detail so they could point out mistakes they had made.

I am of the opinion that teaching in schools damages the personalities of a large number of people in the profession. The tyranny of the red pen. They become professional critics who are unable to be creative.

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The tyranny of the red pen.

… this is why I always use green ink to correct work with!

This is the issue we were discussing last week at our Marratech meeting about learning objects (didn't you catch it? I announced it in Swedish on the 'Svensktalande' forum!). The argument against a national register of freely-available learning objects from many universities is that they want to sell their products, not give them away. The problem is that they haven't found anyone who wants to buy them …

My own feeling is that there's a philosophical problem at the heart of the issue of on-line resources which hasn't been resolved yet and, until it is, we aren't going to be able to construct a system which rewards producers (in some way - even an intangible one), allows for development and growth, and makes resources available in a way learners can use them.

This problem, in my opinion, is that we're still seeing learning objects as 'shrink-wrapped', discrete objects which can be imported into the classroom and later discarded, without anything else about the way we teach and learn being subject to change.

The reality that I live in is that there's a complex ecology of teaching styles, learning styles, learning objects, physical environments, mental environments, etc, where the learning object is merely one ingredient in a very rich stew. The idea that you can take that learning object out of the mix and give it special treatment (such as paying for it … in the way you *don't* pay for the welcoming smile on the teacher's face, which probably does a lot more to get people to dare to learn) just doesn't hold together.

Add in to the equation the fact that really snazzy electronic learning objects cost an arm and a leg to produce (and teachers are usually 'armless - and often 'legless' by the end of a working week - scuse the pun) and you can see why the great e-learning revolution hasn't happened yet.

If my image of a primordial stew holds true, it's also a reason why 'second-wave' (à la Alvin Toffler) organisations like Microsoft and the Departments of Education are almost biologically incapable of bringing about change, whilst individuals, like Grahame, John and David are. Such organisations are hierarchical and expert-driven, whilst the new world is niche-based. In other words, the only way the Minister or the dot.com company are going to get things going is by releasing the control they want to have over what is used and how - and that is exactly what they're constitutionally incapable of doing.

I've only come across one, reasonably-successful register of learning objects so far. It's called 'Kursnavet' … but you have to be able to read Swedish to participate (http://kursnavet.cfl.se/broker/portal/cfl/Login.aspx). They've got 10,000 downloadable learning objects available, most of which have been contributed by people working in schools. However, they still haven't addressed the important issues yet. Participation is free and unwaged, and you have to relinquish copyright on anything you put in there.

On the other hand, Kursnavet is reaching a point of critical mass, where the issue of how to handle free material is coming to a head. I think it's very likely that they will devise a system to deal with the problems … and I think that the solutions will be collective, and will address the power structures within education. However, time will tell …

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If my image of a primordial stew holds true, it's also a reason why 'second-wave' (à la Alvin Toffler) organisations like Microsoft and the Departments of Education are almost biologically incapable of bringing about change, whilst individuals, like Grahame, John and David are. Such organisations are hierarchical and expert-driven, whilst the new world is niche-based. In other words, the only way the Minister or the dot.com company are going to get things going is by releasing the control they want to have over what is used and how - and that is exactly what they're constitutionally incapable of doing.

All progress in educational publishing has come about by the innovations of individuals working for small companies and not by the actions of large corporations. Large, successful companies find it almost impossible to innovate. Their main concern is to protect what they have. Of course, lwhen they discover what trends are taking place, they use their economic muscle to takeover the market.

When I discovered the power of the web in 1997 I established my own website. However, rather foolishly, I thought I could not have much of an impact on my own. I therefore made contact with several large multinational companies and suggested we formed an alliance.

For example, I had a meeting with the editors of Hodder-Headline. I explained how I saw the direction of online education. My main view was that in time all educational publishers would integrate their books with free online resources. As I was a one-man business I did not have the economic backing to make this a reality. Therefore I argued that it was in their interests to be the first to do it. They completely rejected this idea - mainly because they seemed to think it posed a threat to their jobs. In reality, it was a strategy that would have saved their long-term future.

This was the reason why for several years Spartacus was the only educational publisher in the UK willing to establish a website where it provided free materials for teachers and students. In fact, it is still the case, although some commercial organizations provide “free samples” from its subscription site.

When I realised that the educational publishing industry was incapable of embracing the new technology I made contact with the newspaper industry. I thought it would give them the opportunity to diversify into educational publishing. At that time the Guardian did not have its own website and told me to come back in a year’s time.

I then approached the Daily Telegraph newspaper group. Despite its conservative image, it does employ some very creative people. This included Derek Bishon (the editor of the Electronic Telegraph) who shared my vision. Although we developed a “business plan” that would have worked, it was eventually overruled by Conrad Black (partly because he was convinced he would not make any money from it, partly because he believed that the teaching profession would never trust him to do anything for the good of education).

Later I worked as an adviser to the Guardian. Although they paid me good money for my advice, they ignored most of it, and developed what is now the Learn subscription website.

At this stage I decided that you could never get anywhere working with large companies. That it was best to collaborate with like-minded individuals. This Forum is an example of this. Several large organizations (Microsoft, Department of Education, Becta, etc. have tried to get Forums like this of the ground. However, they have failed dismally. Once again it has shown that the future is creative, independent people, working together for the good of education.

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I manage two websites:

http://www.ict4lt.org

http://www.camsoftpartners.co.uk

The first site is completely free. It's a set of ICT training materials for language teachers originally set up with the aid of EC funding. We also offer a CD-ROM version of the English-language part of the site, but we sell about 6 of these per year - at the princely sum of 17 pounds plus VAT! There is a printed version of the main modules too (3 books), but sales of the books were poor to begin with and are now non-existent. The site gets around 600-plus hits per day and, although it's peppered with discussion topics and invitations to comment on the materials, I get around 6-10 emails per month via the feedback form from visitors to the site, half of which offer corrections of errors and indications of dead links, the remainder being mostly irrelevant comments/questions from people who haven't bothered to read what the site is all about - I am losing faith in people's ability to read, especially from a computer screen. I don't receive one penny of payment for maintaining this site. I do it for fun.

The second site is my business site, but it also contains free materials. It gets around 40-50 hits per day, some of which turn into sales. It's therefore a reasonable generator of income.

I am not convinced by the arguments that have been raised regarding eLCs (e-Learning Credits). The scheme is completely daft. Since the Curriculum Online initiative has been in operation, the main criterion for choosing software appears to be eLC-eligibility. This is one of the first questions that teachers ask. During the first two years of the operation of Curriculum Online we noticed a mad, mad rush to get rid of eLC funding before the end of the budget year on 31 August. We were literally flooded with orders in July and early August in 2003 ands 2004 - most of the orders having been put together in a rush, which is clear from the way in which crucial information about the software required was missing on the order forms. Sales during the remaining months of the last two years were poor - and are still declining.

It seems that some teachers will just buy anything in order to get rid of the eLC money at the end of the budget year. Discrimination appears to have gone overboard. Most of the software in our catalogue is not eLC-eligible, because it is produced abroad and overseas producers have not the faintest idea how to register their products with Curriculum Online. Language teachers are therefore now faced with a limited choice of British-produced products.

Finally, the eLC funding in the first two years of the operation of the initiative was underspent by a large margin. It appears that schools do not want/need what is on offer.

The expectation that the Web will provide a never-ending source of free materials has done us a lot of damage. Our sales of software have dropped by around 50% in the last two years. We'll survive for while, but in around 2-3 years I'll probably find something else to amuse me.

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One of the reasons why free websites suddenly become commercial is an increase in their popularity. I know of three teachers who set up free websites that became so popular that their hosting services “capped” the number of daily visits to their sites and imposed higher monthly fees. Two of the teachers then introduced a subscription charge to cover their higher fees. The third of the three teachers is still looking around for a hosting service that will allow an unlimited number of daily visits to her site without imposing an increased monthly fee.

This is part of a growing “pay-as-you-go” trend. My broadband service provider is introducing a sliding scale of fees next month, which means that “bandwidth hogs” who download gigabytes of MP3 music files every day may be charged up to 300 pounds per month. I am a modest user, however, and as from next month will be charged less for double the bandwidth that I am currently using.

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