The London Learning Cooperative: When Karl Marx meets the platform business model

'Our project aims to empower workers, so a workers’ co-operative was the logical choice'

A London-based learning co-operative plans to revolutionise the online education sector through a new approach to the platform business model.

Registered in 2016, the Learning Cooperative (TLC) has been offering online courses since April 2020. Courses include language classes in Portuguese, Italian, French, Irish Urdu and Arabic and an Islamic Philosophy course.

What differentiates TLC from other providers is an internationalist approach to learning, affordable private tuition and paying tutors the same wage no matter where in the world they are based.

“Our project aims to empower workers, so a workers’ co-operative was the logical choice,” says Franck Magennis, one of the co-op’s co-founders. He explained that the founders of the co-op were guided by theoretical works emanating from, and adjacent to, the Marxist tradition, especially Karl Marx’s ideas around national organisations needing to become international and his views on the value as well as the limitations of workers’ co-operatives.

“The project is fundamentally conceived as an attempt to confront material inequality and build workers’ power. It is informed by Paolo Freire’s conception of education as a dialogue aimed at understanding and transforming reality,” he adds. “We have always aimed at challenging the deeply embedded social relations that allow bosses to exploit workers.”

At the time the co-op was set up, the founders had very demanding full-time jobs, which made it difficult to find time to work on setting up the co-operative. “It has proven difficult to maintain radical politics, and a radical way of organising the project, when faced with the realities of operating within a capitalist market” said Mr Magennis. “In particular, the ongoing privatisation of education has posed serious theoretical and practical challenges to our project.”

While the co-op did not work with any apex organisations, it received support from co-operators Siôn Whellens and James Meadway. The start-up capital required was raised via directors’ loans from the founders.

“We were wary about the strings that might come with any grant funding. We did not want liberal organisations trying to blunt the Marxist orientation of the project. Starting a tuition company requires a relatively small amount of start up capital, so raising the capital was not such an issue,” adds Mr Magennis.

The members of the co-op say the language courses are taught in an “anti-imperialist and non-Eurocentric framework”, exploring the different dynamics that have shaped the different nations and communities that speak a specific language. The courses tend to adopt a participatory methodology, where challenging world views and exchanging ideas is strongly encouraged.

Imtithal Audi, head of operations and languages coordinator at TLC, learnt about the project while doing a master’s degree in human rights at the London School of Economics. A Palestinian refugee from Lebanon, she first heard about the co-op while attending an event for Palestinians in London.

“I wanted to join such a co-operative that creates an affordable education environment and pays educators from around the world a fair wage, bringing teachers and students together and inspiring teachers and tutors from everywhere, especially from marginalised communities,” she says. “At The Learning Cooperative, workers exercise ownership and control. We believe workers need to take power back from the bosses who exploit them. We hold regular meeting so we can democratically contribute to decisions taken.”

One of the organisation’s tutors is Karama Fadel, an Arabic teacher based in Gaza who recently had to cancel her classes due to the conflict affecting the region. When cancellations occur, the students get the choice to wait for their tutor to be available and continue with their lessons with them. If the situation escalates, other measures could be proposed, such as joining classes led by other tutors.

“Working with Karama and sending money for her work is improving her livelihood,” says Ms Audi. “At the same time, our students are getting quality Arabic lessons. This was the main thing I really liked about our co-op, the fact that we pay everyone, wherever they are in the world, the London living wage, while providing quality and affordable education for our students.”

“I can also relate to this personally – being a Palestinian refugee from Lebanon  means that I’m discriminated against in the job market and prohibited from several professions, especially in Lebanon. At TLC, such a barrier was tackled.

“I also like how everyone is encouraged to be involved in the decision making process. We hold regular meetings where everyone can give updates, suggest new projects, address business plans and make decisions.”

The Learning Co-operative charges students different prices depending on how much they can afford to pay. The co-op designed an affordable pricing system, called the wealth test, in order to guide how much each person should be paying so that it can pay tutors and make sure everyone can afford tuition.

In addition to group classes, TLC also provides affordable one-to-one tuition for a price as low as £20/h. 

However, enabling students to pay what they can afford while paying all teachers the London Living Wage means that liquidity can be an issue for the co-op.

“Balancing that can be a challenge,” said Ms Audi. Some students pay the minimum price while others choose to contribute the maximum amount.

The courses are taught in 10 sessions via Zoom. So far, the co-op has had around 70 students registering for group courses, with another 20 signing up for one-to-one tuition.

One goal is to attract more tutors and students, with the later currently from the UK, the US and some EU countries. 

“We are collaborating with local NGOs in Lebanon to get refugees on board to give them a voice because their situation in Lebanon is still deteriorating” adds Ms Audi. 

“Even if they do have the capacity, the potential and the proper education, they don’t have the opportunity to teach. So we try to give them this opportunity.”

The Learning Co-op has recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to build a new website and be able to provide more courses, as well as pedagogy training. The co-op also plans to secure an accreditation from the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner to become a regulated immigration adviser.

Related: More from this month’s education edition

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