Teachers Pay Teachers: also known as “Robbing Peter, Paying Paul”

Teacher Timesavers: FREE Online Resources
Teacher Timesavers: FREE Online Resources (Photo credit: CSD’s Learning Division)

This past week, I read a fascinating article by Corinna Meier over at Best Colleges Online. It was well timed, as the two colleges where I work are engaged in next-year-planning discussion of all sorts of issues: pedagogy, organization, online education, new programs on offer.* So the business of teaching has been on the brain lately, and along comes this piece about innovations in education.

The article, “Teachers Pay Teachers…in Higher Ed?,” is about a curriculum-swap website where teachers can post lesson plans, reading materials, and other teaching-related materials they’ve produced, and other teachers can pay to download the materials. The idea, as I understand it, is to provide overworked teachers without the time to develop curricular materials of their own a place to find useful lessons or readings or whatnot and save themselves some precious time, while also providing the teachers to do produce curriculum (often in their own “free” time, off the clock) with some much-needed — and much deserved — compensation. Hence, the name “Teachers Pay Teachers.”

Meier’s article, which is well written and fairly even-handed, explores the evolution of the website from a resource for K-12 teachers to a forum for higher education, where it hopes to compete with the higher-ed trend of so-called free online education, known in the biz as “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs. The idea, apparently, is that college professors who might agree with the idea of freely shared information but don’t really want to starve can sell their course materials via Teachers Pay Teachers, disseminating information in the kind of collegial curriculum-swapping most college teachers already engage in but now earning money for doing so.

Which sounds just peachy.

Except the whole enterprise, from K-12 to higher education, suffers from a pretty absurd failure of logic. Or just basic math.

In Meier’s article, we learn about a University of Georgia adjunct named Josh Boldt. Boldt seems to buy into the idea of freely sharing teaching information online, particularly in ways the help protect the rights and the work of teachers. Last year, Boldt created a spreadsheet in Google Drive that logged the pay and working conditions of adjuncts, and then he opened it up to the public so adjuncts around the country could contribute. The idea is that having free access to this kind of information would help adjuncts protect their rights and normalize their salaries. It was such a hit that it has since developed into the website The Adjunct Project. So he seems like a prime candidate for contributing to a site like Teachers Pay Teachers. Except, he isn’t.“I don’t like the idea that we could make knowledge proprietary,” Boldt told Meier. “I’d much rather create an open environment where teachers share with each other for free.”

And that’s the catch. Because Teachers Pay Teachers seems to be a literal a name: it’s not really “extra compensation” for teachers — it’s an added expense for the teachers who buy the curriculum. It seems to be simply moving money from the left hand to the right. Or, to borrow the old phrase, it’s robbing Peter to pay Paul.

MIT professor Stuart Madnick seems to think this is how it’s always been. “Madnick said [. . .] there is a long history of professors writing and selling textbooks, and others buying them to use in their classes,” Meier writes. But Madnick’s analogy isn’t really accurate, at least at the college level, because professors are provided with free desk copies of course books. Sure, someone has to pay for those books, but typically either the college pays for them, or, more often, the publishers give the books to teachers gratis. The textbook writers make money, as they would on Teachers Pay Teachers, but the teachers who adopt those textbooks don’t have to pay that money — it comes out of the pockets of the provider or the institution.

Which raises, for me, the most important question about the whole enterprise: What’s in it for Teachers Pay Teachers? In the case of textbook publishers providing free books, they know they’ll recoup the costs many, many times over, because if a teacher requires a text, dozens, sometimes hundreds, even thousands of students will have to buy that book. And that’s where the publishers make their money. But in the case of Teachers Pay Teachers, what’s their pay-off? It’s unlikely to be a free dissemination system, like Josh Boldt’s Adjunct Project — otherwise, why charge money at all? Why not just post the teaching materials in a Google Drive-like database?

More likely, the website takes a cut of the sale, something akin to Amazon profiting from user-generated content by taking a (small but significant) percentage of each sale. I can’t say that for certain, because the Teachers Pay Teachers website doesn’t clarify this anywhere that I can find. It might come up when you sign up to participate, but I haven’t done so, because I already share teaching materials with colleagues — for free. So if I did want to engage in a larger community of sharing, I’d be more likely to look for or start a free file-sharing service, because, much as I’d love more money, I tend to agree with Boldt about feeling leery of monetizing information.

All that aside, I should point out that teachers do have the option of providing their materials for free, and the site boasts of having more than 90,000 such materials available for free, so maybe it’s still worth signing up and checking out. If I do dive into it this summer, I’ll keep you posted.

Overall, I’m glad to have found Meier’s article, and I recommend that anyone interested in this new trend in teaching go check it out.


* Speaking of new programs: Have I mentioned that Pacific Northwest College of Art, where I teach writing and literature, is rolling out a new BFA in Writing this coming Fall? It’s an amazing program that will treat writing as a studio art, and I’m proud to be a part of it! You can find out more about it here: http://www.pnca.edu/programs/bfa/c/writing

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