With schools across the world shutting due to Covid-19, e-learning has become an increasingly popular option around the world – but while this has increased platform revenues, teachers’ pay has stayed the same.
“Last year, during lockdown, I decided to start something different,” says John Hayes, co-founder of MyCoolClass, an international teacher-owned platform co-op set for launch in June. He hails from California but has been living in Warsaw, Poland, for nearly six years while working as an ESL teacher, in language schools and online.
After speaking with other freelance teachers and professionals affected by pay cuts, he decided the best solution would be to launch a co-operatively owned online learning platform. The group got in touch with co-op organiser Siôn Whellens in the UK after putting out a call for advice on registration in the Worker Co-operatives group on Facebook.
Mr Whellens says: “I outlined what might be the pros and cons of registering in the UK – especially with regard to the relative ease of the process; no restrictions on members’ or directors’ residency; the UK taxation, employment and banking regime; and the special features of society co-op shares.
“The group decided to register in the UK on the basis of that information and their own research, then engaged Principle Six [a development co-operative in London] to act as their adviser and UK registration agent.”
With this support, they set up MyCoolClass as a UK registered society under the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014.
“There are plenty of examples of co-operative knowledge exchange and transfer platforms, but not for this kind of commercial online tutoring and teaching,” says Mr Whellens. “MyCoolClass is intervening in a space dominated by profit-driven, well-capitalised and exploitative firms, with a market-beating remuneration and member benefit offer. The core group is based in Poland, Indonesia, the US and South Africa, with meetings being held in English.”
He adds: “The set-up process has been fast-paced, with the rolling recruitment of a wider founder member team to work on communications, seed fundraising, policy and platform development. An enormous amount has been achieved so far with little more than ‘sweat equity’ and collective willpower. The founders have a broad collective skillset, as well as a capacity for grasping what they need to know really fast – which shouldn’t come as a surprise, since they are education professionals.”
“We have a very unique business model compared to all of the other platforms,” says Mr Hayes. In addition to being owned and run by teachers themselves, MyCoolClass will provide products that no other platform currently offers.
Around 1,600 teachers from more than 60 countries have pre-registered to join the co-op, which began accepting members in May, with the platform going live in June. So far, running costs have not been high since the co-op was able to bring a range of professionals on board, including a graphic and web designer, an IT technician and teachers with admin experience.
The group has launched a crowdfunding campaign with a US$20,000 target to help pay some of the other start-up costs, including legal fees. It is also purchasing a subscription white-label Learning Management System, which will allow it to deliver online courses, but aims to develop its own platform in the future.
Mr Hayes thinks that while the idea of joining such a co-op would appeal to many teachers, explaining to them what a co-operative is can be a challenge.
“We’re going to be working on a lot of PR materials,” he says, “just to explain what a worker co-operative is in the simplest sense and slowly give more information to those curious about it.”
The co-op will be open to qualified teachers anywhere in the world. Applications and résumés will be checked to make sure teachers are certified and have the required experience to deliver the online courses. All teachers who join the co-op will have to go through a probationary period where they will peer review each other.
One of the platform’s main advantages over existing providers will be that it puts teachers in control of their bookings and schedules. “We’re not enforcing cancellation policies because teachers are freelancers,” added Mr Hayes. “They will be able to make their own arrangements and set their own cancellation policies with students.”
Paid sick leave will also be available after the first two or three months once the co-operative has built up enough capital, adds Mr Hayes. He explains that some existing platforms are inflexible and make it difficult for teachers to cancel within 24 hours. Those who do cancel can get penalised. MyCoolClass will adopt a different approach, allowing teachers to accumulate up to seven paid days off a year.
Teacher members are going to be paying 19% of their income to the co-operative, which will cover overheads and expenses, a contribution to a general fund, as well as their own paid time off. The fixed fee is significantly lower that what most other platforms currently charge, the majority starting at 35%, says Mr Hayes.
“With many other platforms, the more classes you work, the less of a percentage you pay to the company,” he adds. “But the problem is that these companies over-saturate their platforms with so many teachers that all teachers only get a couple of students a week, so they are paying up to 35% of their salary. Very few are paying 18%, which is one of the lowest percentages I have seen.”
The co-op will deal with admin work and bookkeeping so teachers can focus on their job. MyCoolClass also intends to give teachers more freedom to create their own courses and lesson plans and offer their own prices. The platform will also let them bring their own students and set their own individual prices, completely separate from the marketplace. This will be particularly useful for teachers in low-income countries whose students might not otherwise be able to afford the course.
Another different feature will be a membership area within the platform where teachers can co-create, collaborate and develop short, fun-themed courses. These will then be submitted to the review board, which will be made up of the co-op’s staff of professional curriculum builders and educators, who will review the content and provide suggestions to improve the courses. Once approved, the courses will be sent to the co-op’s in-house graphic design and illustration team, to bring them to life and add them to the marketplace. Teachers will earn royalties when their course is sold.
“The whole idea behind this is to have a wide range of short, themed courses that keep kids’ attention,” says Mr Hayes.
In another industry first, students will be allocated two teachers per course. While most platforms are marketing for native speakers, MyCoolClass will have one native speaking teacher and one non-native teacher for each course. This goal is to tackle discrimination within the industry as well as allowing students to benefit from different teaching methods. Mr Hayes explains that some non-native language speakers bring a different perspective when it comes to explaining grammar and translating in various languages.
“As a native English speaker, I’ve been living abroad and travelled and I’ve met tons of English teachers that have never stepped foot in a native English speaking country, and they’re more qualified than I am,” he says. “So, for them to be discriminated against, to not be able to obtain these other jobs, simply because of their passport, it’s just ridiculous. Noam Chomsky and George Carlin and other famous linguists have said that native speakerism is not relevant, it has nothing to do with education or the how qualified the teacher is to teach.”
He adds: “Online education platforms serving freelance teaching professionals today use discriminatory hiring practices, including paying teachers differently according to where they live or what passport they have. This means a teacher in South Africa or Vietnam can be paid significantly less than a teacher in the US, even though they teach the same courses and have the same qualifications and teaching experience. We built MyCoolClass to give educators the tools they need to take control of their workplace and remove inequalities like these.”
Existing platforms pay non-native teachers between 50% and 75% less than a native counterpart but MyCoolClass will be paying native and non-native teachers the same. “It’s going to be a first in the industry so we are going to definitely turn a lot of heads with it,” says Mr Hayes.
For decision-making, it will use a learning management system where teachers or other members can bring up issues and vote on them.
The co-op is currently supported by a staff team of 20 and is in the final steps of pre-launch. MyCoolClass will be available in 10 languages at launch, with more added later on.
“As an English teacher based in Istanbul, I have always wanted to be part of a community that takes out the middleman, so I’m excited to see how MyCoolClass transforms education,” says Hailey Kay, a US national working as a freelance English teacher abroad.
“A platform that doesn’t exploit its teachers? Sign me up!”