Rebalancing English language education: Access, materials writing and copyright

Alannah Fitzgerald, an expert in open education, got in touch with ELTjam via the comments on Nick Robinson’s post about digital piracy in ELT and has questions to pose. This post and an upcoming MOOC, starting Sept 16, start a new discussion about how materials writers can deal with issues of copyright.

I was asked a question by an ELT materials writer at the BALEAP English for Academic Purposes conference earlier this year, along the lines of:

You’ve shown us a lot of openly licensed content that can be developed into English language learning materials, but what am I expected to do when my publisher asks me to write materials and then release some of them for free without pay? Even if I wanted to share and be more open in my practice, how can I afford to do this?

Good question. My answer here in this post is to look at both the ideas and the business models that are working within open education, and to build on discussions with the wider ELT community on ways to bring issues around access, copyright and materials writing/development to light. We are already seeing these issues played out in our informal online communities: the blogosphere, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and in webinars like the one coming up with the IATEFL Materials Writing SIG on copyright and images on November 7th.

Lofty Ideals and Lowly Deals

…you will find all kinds of ambitious proposals and interesting ideas, embedded in lofty ideals. Some of this is quite sensible; little of it is immediately operational. Then have a look at newspaper articles, watch the media, speak to people on the firing lines. Here you will find stories about all kinds of lowly deals, every one of them fully operational. (Mintzberg, 2015)

Publishing is changing dramatically and this is creating a veritable sea-change in education for social initiatives, such as we’ve seen with Free and Fair ELT. ELT materials writers, like many ELT teachers who develop teaching and learning materials, are enthused about sharing because sharing is at the heart of what we do as educators. And, because of the very global nature of ELT, we interface with the world and understand first-hand the imbalance in access to English language education, where English is the lingua franca in education, research and publishing.

This real-world need for English language education has, however, created a parallel reality with the wide-scale infringement of All Rights Reserved published ELT materials. Materials writers are sharing eye-opening stories of copyright infringement here on ELTjam (see here and here) and elsewhere about the  coursebook materials they’ve written, which also live a second life in .pdf format via various piracy pay-for sites. Many would like to see the big ELT publishers take a more responsible role in providing access to digital ELT materials for those informal learners who can’t afford the glossy print versions nor attend expensive language classes at well-resourced language institutes the world over that publishers have pegged as their primary market.

Informal online language learning is only going to continue to increase at a staggering rate as more of the world’s population comes online. However, I don’t believe the responsibility to recognise and engage with this growing informal English language learning community should fall solely on the shoulders of the individual materials writer or the individual language teacher, do you?

There are so many opportunities here for the big ‘charities’ in ELT such as the British Council and the big brand ELT publishers to refocus their social impact, which will, in turn, increase their branding power, through corporate social responsibility. Let’s face it, the British Council couldn’t make the profit it does without English language teachers and examiners (Phillipson, 2012), and ELT publishers are dependent on ELT materials writers in the same way that many publishing houses are dependent on academics. The Open Access movement wouldn’t have been as successful as it is today without a nudge from academics who took this movement into the mainstream with events like the Elsevier Boycott.

Open Business Models

Image credit: Building an open source business by Libby Levi licensed CC BY-SA

‘There are none so blind’, the biblical saying goes, ‘as those who will not see’ … A mindset which couldn’t conceive of a non-hierarchical way of creating an authoritative reference work couldn’t take Wikipedia seriously. (Naughton, 2011).

John Naughton’s keynote address, The Elusive Technological Future, at the 2011 Association for Learning Technology conference, continues to be highly relevant today. Naughton critiques the recurring and dumbfounded view that we often hear in the media that the free technologies underpinning the likes of Wikipedia, Craigslist, Blackberry Messenger and Napster were all disruptive technologies that came out of nowhere. Naughton instead points to how certain establishments, and the mindsets that inhabit them, were not paying attention to these technologies and their somewhat informal communities (the great unwashed, as it were, to carry forward the biblical theme). They were not seen as a credible threat to established business models through simple lack of attention, and by the time these technologies and communities had become the mainstream, the old establishments had missed out on business opportunities of a lifetime.

Creating operational business models is very much on the agenda at Creative Commons, as evidenced in their recent call and successful crowdsourcing with Kickstarter for co-creating ‘a book that shows the world how sharing can be good for business’.

The open education movement recognises the copyright of creators (teachers, writers, developers) while it leverages innovative technologies and practices with teaching and learning materials so that they can be Redistributed, Reused, Repurposed and Remixed at scale to Redress the imbalance our world faces with access to education. Legally, this movement has become operational with the development of the Creative Commons suite of licences available to creators so that they can share their creations and specify how they want them to be reused.

This approach would appear to be out of balance, though, when we consider the many freelance ELT materials writers who are often caught in the middle and may be required by publishers to give away their copyright and even their work without pay as publishers experiment with new business models, including the freemium model. This is a very different business model, say, from that of the academic employed at a well-funded university where learning resources are created for on-site use, recorded and shared at scale via commercial platforms such as YouTube, iTunesU and with commercial MOOC providers such as Coursera and edX for creating access to learning for the masses, growing the online presence of expert educators, and promoting the brand of institutions.

Social Learning for Social Impact MOOC

I would like to invite anyone interested in this discussion to join the first ever Group-based MOOC, Social Learning for Social Impact with the Faculty of Management at McGill University in Canada and Edx, to collaborate and build upon the ethos of sharing ELT resources and raising awareness around copyright. I’m one of the volunteer facilitators on the MOOC. Since I have a background in ELT resources development and open education (with the open-source FLAX language project), I’d like to encourage you to share your experiences in ELT publishing and how this is impacting ELT materials development, and the way resources are being used and misused through copyright infringement.

The bullet points below are the stages of planning for social impact that we would be working through on the course. For example, the Free and Fair ELT initiative is currently growing social impact through social media and is successfully managing to scale this level of outreach. It would be great to discuss ways forward for taking this and similar initiatives in ELT resources outreach further with resourcing i.e. getting funder backing, and assessing the impact of these initiatives. The thought leader behind this MOOC, Henry Mintzberg, is well known for getting initiatives like Doctors Without Borders etc. off the ground with the following approach, which forms the structure of the MOOC:

  • Working as a high-functioning team (Co-Creating)
  • Learning your way to a prototype (Designing)
  • Growing your social impact (Scaling)
  • Finding resources to help sustain your efforts (Resourcing)
  • Discerning when and how to measure your impact (Assessing)

The MOOC starts Sept 16th to Dec 16th to form group-based discussions on a fortnightly basis, and you have up until October 14th to register. The expectation is that groups will connect via different types of social media platforms e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Skype, LinkedIn etc. but to bring the knowledge back to the MOOC platform to work through the stages of the course and share the different social initiatives across the different groups concerned with different social issues.

You can read more about Henry Mintzberg’s Rebalancing Society vision through this free pamphlet ebook, Rebalancing Society: Radical Renewal Beyond Left, Rights, and Centre 

Alannah is an open education practitioner and researcher working in the area of technology-enhanced English language education. 


Mintzberg, Henry. (2015). Rebalancing Society: Radical Renewal Beyond Left, Right, and Centre. Berrett-Koehler: Oakland, California pdf version.

Naughton, John. (2011). Keynote Address, The Elusive Technological Future. The Association for Learning Technology Annual Conference. Leeds, United Kingdom. Retrieved from YouTube.

Phillipson, Robert. (2012, March 13). Linguistic imperialism alive and kicking. The Guardian.

Featured image:


13 thoughts on “Rebalancing English language education: Access, materials writing and copyright”

  1. Alannah, do you know if the instructors of McGill’s MOOC are being paid for leading this course? (For the record, I think they should be compensated…) I think that would be interesting to know, and would give insight on how an institution like McGill, which probably isn’t short on cash, can afford to be generous and provide free education.

    • Jaime, thanks for your question as this gets right at the heart of open business models. OK, so the content in this MOOC at McGill and in others with edX, Coursera etc. is basically a composite of reused content that instructors would already be using in their on-site courses. This would be considered part of their paid teaching work as faculty but their personal motivations are to push out their research and teaching, which they are passionate about sharing beyond the elite university where they work. The learning technologists at the university would also have this work with MOOCs included in their job descriptions in addition to the work they normally do with supporting different departments with creating blended content for paying on-site and online students. MOOC platforms like edX are viewed by universities like McGill as marketing platforms in addition to platforms for enabling access to free education. This is a great way for the university to act in a socially responsible way and to show off famous faculty members and high quality learning resources as a way of boosting their branding, and indeed many universities want to be part of the MOOC movement for these educational and financial reasons. There is also evidence from the research into those universities offering free education that results in some learners then enrolling on paid courses – so, the freemium model.

      Then there are all the different levels of certification with MOOCs, which are being experimented with, for generating further income that goes hand in hand with openness. I think we will continue to see this MOOC landscape shift in coming years as more open business models are experimented with. For example, in Texas the State is getting behind a free first year of college to hopefully get learners on the ladder to then continue paying in successive years to earn degrees.

      So, what I’ve described here are business models which are based on Reuse i.e. reusing what institutions already have in terms of faculty, content etc. and then sharing these for ways of improving their social impact as well as their branding through new models of marketing.

      When we look at ELT Materials Writers we are looking at a different and more traditional business model, as the writers are freelancers and so in many cases they don’t already have full-time paid positions that afford them the privilege of sharing the outputs of their work (content, materials etc.). So, this is why I think the development of business models for openness and sharing in ELT publishing really have to fall back on the publishers as a way of cutting out the middle men pirates. But the materials writers need to take an active role also to involved in these discussions. One of the comments in the previous posts from this blog on piracy and ELT materials suggested that the publishers provide the digital .pdf versions of coursebooks rather than the pirates, and I think this along with other suggestions are well worth exploring. This could bring a lot more traffic to publisher websites for advertising purposes in addition to improving their branding through social corporate responsibility.

      I think you’ll always get those learners who want to and can afford to pay for the print-based versions and you’ll always get those who cannot afford to pay. So, if the publishers aren’t going to get behind sharing then the piracy business will continue to thrive. The resources it would take publishers to police piracy and bring copyright infringement cases against the pirates would be far greater than the cost of sharing digital versions of the coursebooks. So far the ELT publishers are doing nothing about piracy and they’re not looking to develop business models to share at scale either so they’re operating with very old business models which don’t really reflect where things are changing currently with digital publishing. This is something which I’d encourage ELT materials writers to really take a look at. I think most ELT materials writers are like most university faculty. They want to be able to do work that innovates their respective fields through high quality teaching and learning content. They also need to be able to do this without having to sacrifice personal security, so the institutions who they are in collaboration with are, in my opinion, socially responsible for making this happen.

      • I agree with a lot of what you said. Individual ELT teachers or material writers should not be asked to front an investment that furthers an agenda. The more money you have, the more generous you can afford to be. Publishers and schools with deeper pockets should be fronting that investment (and if they want the copyright on material, they should absolutely pay to own the material).

        And I also agree with you that the typical publishing model needs to shift. (I think my final ELTjam post is coming out in a couple days and I mention the issue of publishing and piracy.)

        That said, I am not sure how far I agree with you on the idea that material writers (or publishers for that matter) need to SHARE their material. I’m not sure what you mean by sharing, but… I understand it to mean that someone gives away their resources.

        I don’t think publishers should (or even have to) SHARE and give away their resources. I think publishers simply need to make their resources available for digital purchase.

        Almost half my income is generated by sales of self-study programs on my website. I have a very generous refund policy, but I do not give any of the content of my paid programs away for free. I make other videos that make me credible, and then people who want my programs buy them.

        Why? Because people who value stuff will pay for it (if there is an online shopping cart set up). We need to remember that people find money for what they want. Even students in developing markets. One clear indication of this is that smart phone use has exploded in recent years, and people in emerging markets are buying a lot of them. Yeah, costs may have come down, but smart phones are still “expensive.” Folks in the ELT industry may be quick to say, “Students don’t have any money. They cannot afford to pay for English…” But the fact is that everyone finds ways to get what they truly want (e.g. a slick phone) — so if they truly value an education from a particular teacher, school, or program, they find a way to pay for it.

  2. Hi Jaime, I look forward to your final post here with ELTjam later this week.

    To respond to your comments, I would say that there are many motivations for sharing in education, both altruistic and financial, which I’ve outlined above with e.g. the MOOC model at traditional universities, but you’re right to identify that sharing needs to be sustainable. You mention other video resources that you’ve shared to give you credibility in addition to the assets you have for purchase as part of your online courses, so that seems like the freemium model to me.

    Just to clarify, when we create open educational resources and open access publications in most cases they are not ‘given away’ and instead the copyright remains with the copyright holder whether that is the author or the publisher. Indeed it’s quite hard to give away your copyright as copyright law works to automatically include you, the creator or the assigned owner, so you have to opt out of it if you want to put your work into the public domain. Creating free access to your copyrighted educational materials can have financial benefits through marketing as well as social impact benefits in educational development, and that is why there is so much interest in open business models, and growing momentum around the digital commons for realising the full potential of the Internet.

    There is a cost in creating materials, especially physical materials, which include the cost of time invested by the writer, the copy-editor, the marketer and so on. Duplicating digital copies of materials is, however, pretty much a zero cost. And, this is where digital publishing has become a real game-changer as this is working on a model of abundance rather than one of scarcity as with the traditional print-based publishing model. The article you shared from the Guardian highlights the real problem with access to data though i.e. the cost of reliable and affordable connectivity, so low bandwidth resources like .pdfs are desirable and readily usable. At the moment the pirates are providing this access to no or low-cost .pdf versions of ELT course books, and ELT writers are doing the moral policing work of bringing these stories of piracy to the fore. The big brand ELT publishers meanwhile make the most profit from ELT materials and show very little interest in the issue of piracy and why it exists.

    Yes, the number of mobile devices is expanding phenomenally and the number of free and open educational resources is resulting in an increase in informal learning but not yet with results as far-reaching as we’d like to see. Access to mobile devices and Internet connectivity are valued but that does not mean that we have yet arrived at a point of access for the masses and that is why we still need to work towards development goals in education. That said, I don’t think that it necessarily follows that the things people value are things that people can access or find ways to afford. I wish it were the case but we’re simply not there yet.

    We currently have upwards of 100 million learners seeking access to the formal post-secondary sector (UNESCO report, 2009) and this does not even include the K-12 sector for those parents who cannot afford basic education for their kids. Look at any freely available report from the OECD or the UN or a news item like the one you shared from the Guardian and you will see the value placed on access to education via the Internet. In Sub-Saharan Africa, more than half of all children will not have the privilege of a senior high school education (Ibid). What these scoping studies tell us is that there are just not enough teachers/educators and physical school buildings/learning materials out there. The traditional model of face-2-face educational delivery is simply unable to meet this demand so this is where the Internet and the democratisation of information come in. And, yes, these are very exciting times where digital technologies can be leveraged by those that have access to resources to help develop our world through sharing. Indeed, I don’t believe we’ve seen a greater opportunity for educational development and we can all be a part of this.

  3. I think we’re confusing and conflating two separate issues here – piracy and the need to support education in developing countries. The former concerns publishers and authors directly (and many others indirectly), whilst the latter needs to be addressed through high-level, coordinated and consolidated planning from governments and international support organisations. Publishers and authors, of course, can (and do) play a role in aiding access to education, but it is not their responsibility to initiate or manage these projects. My feeling is that if you treat these two challenges separately, you’ll make much more progress – keeping in mind, of course, that materials alone do not equal education.

    Regarding piracy, you are correct in that the costs of policing copyright often far outweigh any financial benefits that may result in closing down most pirate operations – unless the perpetrators either have an international profile or are operating on a significant scale. Small-time pirate websites can disappear and then re-appear under a different domain name within 24 hours, which means that sustained persuit becomes as productive as a dog chasing its tail.

    That does not mean, however, that ‘The big brand ELT publishers … show very little interest in the issue of piracy and why it exists.’ On the contrary, we’ve been dealing with it for years: it was an issue long before the internet came along, and the reasons why people use pirated products are the same now as they were then.

    The big question, as far as piracy is concerned, is this: has piracy destabilised your business model to the point where in order to survive you have to consider an alternative model? With the music industry it did, but this hasn’t happened yet in educational publishing, and it may never happen. That is not a blind resistance to change, but rather an observation that events in one industry are not guaranteed to repeat in other very different industries.

    You suggest that in order to eliminate piracy, ELT publishers should provide electronic copies of their products for free. This is underpinned by a few hypothetical assumptions:

    1) There will be no loss of existing customers – people who want books will continue to buy them.
    2) Revenue can be created through advertising – the increased traffic to the publisher’s website can be monetised by selling advertising space.
    3)By offering products for free, publishers will enhance brand awareness, which in turn will generate more sales of physical products.

    I personally don’t think we can take any of the three points above for granted, even though they may be bundled together under the guise of a modern business model. Firstly, existing customers may ask why on earth they have to pay full price when the product is being given away for free – and it would be a fair question and a complicated dialogue to negotiate. Some of the customers may also take this as permission to print off the digital copies instead of buying the books. It is free, after all, so why not?

    Generating money through advertising isn’t a model that suits every business. Who would advertise on an ELT website? Other competing ELT publishers? Schools, with their limited budgets? And, unlike newspaper websites, there is normally no reason for daily repeat visits to an ELT publisher’s website. A coursebook needs to be downloaded just once for a year – the visitor may never return until they start a new course. This is not an appealing scenario for advertisers. Dictionaries are the exception to this rule, but even in this case the advertising revenue alone wouldn’t justify the project – dictionary data has to create value in other areas, too.

    Finally, the power and impact of a brand is very difficult to quantify and will mean different things to different people – to some it may mean nothing. You could also argue that high proliferation negates prestige and damages your brand. In short, it’s far too complex to measure.

    • Thanks for your contribution, Brendon. It’s very useful to have someone who works in ELT publishing join the conversation. You present some very common responses to the open education movement, which I’ll attempt to address here for the wider ELT community who may not have encountered much of the thinking behind openness. Needless to say we occupy very different life worlds but we are both in the business of education and it is this interconnectedness that I would like to emphasise here.

      You’re right in that ELT publishers are currently treating the two challenges of “piracy and the need to support education in developing countries” separately. In this post, I’m asking the ELT field, including publishers and those who work in the third sector, to consider the relationship between access to education via ELT resources and piracy as being connected. We’re simply not making progress with the current status quo, so I don’t see how we are going to make “much more progress” if we continue to “treat these two challenges separately”. That said, a balanced world, where access to education is a human right as enshrined in our declaration of human rights, would include respected governments, responsible businesses and robust communities but we have yet to achieve that balance. I’m all for trying though.

      If the big brand ELT publishers who make considerable profit from the ELT industry are not going to take responsibility and initiative for acknowledging and including informal learners in the composite of those who make up the world of English language learners, then who is? At the moment the pirates are meeting, to some extent, the needs of informal language learners and you’ve made many arguments for maintaining this status quo.

      Yes, education is more than access to educational content, but as I’ve already mentioned in my previous post, the world is under-resourced in the way of formally trained teachers and school buildings. The boom in digital educational resources and providing access to these is one very big step toward meeting global educational needs.

      We agree on the point that the financial costs of policing piracy are not worth it. What I was getting at, by saying that big brand ELT publishers have shown very little interest in the issue of piracy and why it exists, was exactly to the make the point that you’ve reiterated here, namely that it does not affect your current business model. So, why should you care? By not looking at why piracy exists and by not acknowledging the need for access to educational resources does not make the problem go away. Having ELT materials writers act as the moral police on this issue of piracy, in addition to the contract conditions they experience with big brand ELT publishers, which are by no means lucrative, doesn’t add up to a win-win situation for materials writers, but it does for big brand ELT publishers. I’m not including those small publishers here who are struggling financially, like many materials writers. I have said from the start that open business models are an opportunity for those that can afford to adopt them.

      Wikipedia has already destabilised educational publishing, and the open textbook movement is growing as governments get behind what has been identified as a credible means to bring down barriers to accessing education as an alternative to costly commercially published textbooks. Open textbooks are also modifiable and easily updatable by educators so there’s no issue with being stuck with costly and out of date teaching materials. So, while you’re arguing for battening down the hatches to protect your current business model and for keeping the status quo, many others in education and in educational publishing are innovating and building new business models to meet the real-world need for access to education.

      I don’t think ELT publishers can eliminate piracy but they certainly can go some way toward owning piracy and what creates it by acting in a socially inclusive way. Following is further clarification on why I think ELT publishers should consider providing electronic copies of their products for free with open licensing:

      1) There will be no loss of existing customers – people who want books will continue to buy them.
      2) Revenue can be created through advertising – the increased traffic to the publisher’s website can advertise items for sale from the same publisher.
      3) By offering open products for free, publishers will enhance brand awareness, which in turn will generate more sales of physical products.
      4) By offering open products for free, publishers will enhance brand awareness, which will in turn demonstrate social corporate responsibility.

      For point 1, there are many ways you can bundle free and pay-for resources. People who can afford to buy books and other high quality assets will continue to do so. Indeed, there is a lot of social status attached with being able to do so. These people are your current market and I wouldn’t underestimate the value attached to corporate social responsibility by showing that you are moving with the times and embracing openness and access to education as these are positive actions for your customers to align with. Those who can afford to drink coffee at Starbucks are also happy to pay more to drink Fair Trade coffee.

      A lower quality .pdf version of a course book is the equivalent of a green Open Access pre-publication version of a research article, which all the major publishers have signed onto allowing authors to self-archive on their institutional and personal websites to create open access to research. I personally think you’d generate more income and more public approval if you made these digital versions of your products available on your own websites. This would also cut down on a lot of the pirate traffic. That’s what I meant by point 2. This is also tied to point 3, as we have seen with universities engaging in open education offerings that in turn generate another stream of revenue through signing on paying students who have come through the open door.

      Finally, and this is tied to point 4, I don’t believe it’s up to individuals in ELT publishing to decide and predict the power and impact of branding by maintaining risk averse mind-sets. This does sound all too reminiscent of the points made previously about Wikipedia, Napster, Craigslist etc. You may be happy with your current-day business model, which excludes the growing informal online English language learning community, but for how long? Pirates can work around you, but the open education movement invites the ELT publishing community to take ownership of these problems of piracy and access by bringing them out into the open through impactful engagement with open business models.

  4. I don’t believe I am in any “camp” in this discussion Alannah but I do believe in the interest of fairness that we might as well face facts. Open publishing will, with respect to print materials, definitely have a effect on the bottom line of publishing companies. This is why I believe there is such a rush to digital publishing. At some point publishers believed that they could “up-sell” old print paying customers to “new, revolutionary” digital materials. Publishers probably believe that piracy and especially open source publishing will and does impact their bottom line so significantly that staying in their old line of business was/is/will be suicidal.

    You stated above that for publishers:

    1) There will be no loss of existing customers – people who want books will continue to buy them.

    WRONG- Books are part of the cost of a for-profit school’s program. If for-profit organizations can somehow raise their prices while eliminating the costs of books (by adopting free books) they will. In addition, once enough for-profit organizations adopt free materials competitive pressures will force others to do so. Over time free materials would definitely impact a publisher’s bottom line. In fact, better to get out of the print publishing business altogether. If I were a publisher I would never publish exceptional free print materials which could in turn haunt my bottom line for years (unless I were trying to put competitors out of business).

    2) Revenue can be created through advertising – the increased traffic to the publisher’s website can advertise items for sale from the same publisher.

    WRONG- That may work today but with Google and others controlling this income stream this is a fool’s bet as your business income now falls under the control or a potential competitor. In addition, I doubt the stock market would reward you for this move.

    3) By offering open products for free, publishers will enhance brand awareness, which in turn will generate more sales of physical products.

    IRRELEVANT- brand awareness for a business only has value if you sell something. How does this “increased” brand awareness impact sales? For business brand awareness is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

    4) By offering open products for free, publishers will enhance brand awareness, which will in turn demonstrate social corporate responsibility.

    HONESTLY- corporate responsibility pales in comparison to profit. Few profit making corporations would trade the second for the first. They would argue it is only by making profits that they can “afford” social responsibility. Naturally, you and I should see much of this as pure self-interest but asking a corporation not to be self-interested is like asking a tree to stop taking nourishment by the roots.

    I just don’t see any reason to ask corporations to change. Open source organizations and for profit publishers are on opposite sides of this issue. Until you can guarantee tpublishers a source of profits far into the future they will politely ignore you FOREVER. And mark my words- they will be polite as they can not afford to upset potential customers.

    My only thought is to target JUST ONE publisher and try to work with them to create a combined print digital publishing platform. Sell them on the idea of combining forces with a global ELT open source movement. I will let you figure out the rest. I suspect you are already on this path.

    Oh, one more thing. The way I see it is that ELT people who write for print will in the future be writing in teams for free or almost free (but for prestige). ELT people who want to make a living writing MUST figure out how to master digital materials where the ensuing “race” will probably change in complexity every 3 years.

    • Thanks, Mike, for your candid contributions as they help to move the discussion along. I’m particularly interested in your last point about the future of ELT materials writing, and I hope some more materials writers will respond to what you’re predicting here for changes to current practices in ELT materials writing and the increasing pressure materials writers will face to produce materials for free.

      I also think that there are some facts that you’re overlooking with respects to open and traditional publishing, however, and I’ll try my best to bring these facts to the fore of this discussion. In particular, I’m going to pick apart your first point as there is a lot to say about the culture of materials development in ELT for classroom teaching and what it means legally to be providing language courses for payment.

      1) You see a rush to digital publishing by traditional ELT publishers but I also see a persistent focus on print-based publishing that is lacking in innovation. I think for as long as the physical language teaching and learning classroom exists there will be a desire for print-based materials. Although at some of the more well-resourced classrooms the world over we are seeing a steady creep in digital resources uptake with increasingly Internet-connected learning spaces and mobile-device equipped students. This uptake with the digital can’t be stopped or ignored and you’re right to look to this imminent horizon.

      However, if you attend any TESOL or IATEFL convention there is still a glut in print-based ELT publications for sale that are essentially doing the same thing that ELT course books have been doing pedagogically for the past decade or more. Brian Tomlinson and Hitomi Masuhara have done extensive research on the dumbing down and one-size-fits-all approach to publishing English course book materials. I don’t think materials writers are creating this problem, however, as it is more often the case that publishers are seizing on and dictating what sells, and therefore what should be duplicated ad nauseam. Digital publishing could indeed be what saves ELT publishing from stagnation. But we could create a whole other discussion about innovation in ELT materials writing and publishing…

      Regarding book sales, language schools have always ripped off commercial ELT publications through photocopying and scanning books either wholesale or in part to make up ‘in-house’ course packs or resources to deck out a Virtual Learning Environment that are sold to students as part of course fees. This practice is persistent and some of the most elite institutions would not bat an eyelid with course packs being sent out to printers to be bound up in volumes with the language institute’s name and claim to copyright on the said materials slapped over the cover. They will most likely site the resources inside the course pack, which are embellished with their own lesson material, to avoid the sin of plagiarism but any thought to copyright infringement may be lost on them. And, should the small-scale printers being doing this? No, but do you the resources to police this also? This raises questions about good practice in ELT materials development…

      There is currently a deficit in formal training on copyright in teacher training programmes. You’re more likely to learn about copyright through informal learning via blogs, visiting websites like Creative Commons etc. I have been designing corpus-based linguistic support with the FLAX project for a free networked course from Harvard Law School on copyright law, CopyrightX, which I’d highly recommend to any interested teacher or materials writer. The received culture in ELT materials development is to adapt and supplement the course book and many language institutions buy a few course books from different publishers, in addition to the freebies given out by sales reps, and have these in their resource centres (ironically, we used to call these the ‘open access’ centres) for exploitation in teaching. It’s rarer to have the whole school buy course books but of course this does happen, too.

      We have to acknowledge the FACT that language institutes that include the cost of course packs and course books (free or otherwise) as part of their course fees is not considered a commercial use of those course book materials. Not in the same way as a pirate or a publisher ripping off another commercial publisher’s material for profit would be considered – with this latter behaviour you could file a case of copyright infringement, if you wanted to spend the resources, to try and win a court settlement based on the amount of money the infringers made off your resources. What language institutes do with course book materials as part of their course programmes, however, is not generating any commercial kickback – providing education, yes, even education that people pay for, is not viewed as commercial activity – and would most likely fall under the fair use doctrine, or be viewed as non-commercial use by different courts depending on which country you’re in.

      So, with all this going on as normal practice in ELT mats development – for the twenty years I’ve been working with language institutes anyway – I don’t see that providing open and lower quality .pdf versions of course books (the same that the pirates are currently offering) will necessitate a drop in sales with high quality print versions of course books and the bundled assets they often come with. Those resources are currently still desirable but they do end up getting hacked by teachers in the secret gardens of their classrooms or password-protected VLEs ☺ Copyright really becomes an issue when you decide to share online beyond your institution’s walls.

      2) I’m unclear about why you think increased language leaner traffic to an ELT publisher’s website would be seen as undesirable.

      3) Brand is not only tied to the products being sold by the company or corporation in question. Brand is as much about the identity and ethos of your organisation. And, being seen as socially irresponsible can be damaging. Anyone working in marketing would have a field day responding to this point, so I invite more people to chip in here.

      4) Corporate Social Responsibility needn’t replace profit – I don’t think anyone working with open business models for publishing or in any line of business for that matter is saying that this is necessary or even desirable. I will say that you’re right in that we shouldn’t expect miracles from corporations to adopt CSR of their own volition. But, commercial publishers can only politely ignore open access for so long. In academic publishing they went kicking and screaming to sign on with Open Access options as a result of public pressure (think socially irresponsible branding) from academics.

      Elsevier were unlucky in being singled out in the Elsevier Boycott, as they were no different really from other commercial publishing heavyweights and the common practices in academic publishing at the time – and we’re not talking very long ago. And, senior heads at Elsevier did roll as it was revealed that top management at the time were completely ignorant of Creative Commons.

      But Elsevier got on board and got up to speed with Open Access and Creative Commons licensing. They now have Open Access options, along with all other big brand research publishers, ranging from Diamond to Green Open Access, and these options are promoted on their websites as part of their newly minted and socially responsible branding. And, they’re still making a pretty profit.

      I had the privilege to be in meetings with Elsevier and an OER publishing project with Newcastle University in those troubled times, and more recently my open-source FLAX language project team were the recipients of an award for using open data in education, judged by the good people at Elsevier in collaboration with the Open Knowledge Foundation, show-casing Elsevier’s work with open and linked data in research publishing.

      So, no, I don’t see open and traditional publishing always operating in parallel universes, but I would love to see at least one of the big brand ELT publishers get behind and embrace “the idea of combining forces with a global ELT open…movement”, as you suggest. It is true that the culture of the digital commons has resulted in different publishing models across the open publishing spectrum. However, I’d encourage yet more synergy between open and traditional publishing, as I am a great believer in the co-creation of collective intelligence.

  5. I have the impression that publishers will increasingly move into high quality and multimedia supplemental materials as the core resources for subject areas move into open formats. The commons will continue to grow and I believe more educators and scholars will turn to open publishing in the future. But they will be writing fairly basic (yet comprehensive) materials with few frills. Those who can afford it will be offered options to buy content that isn’t necessarily available openly because it involves a more complex form of production (editing, design, formatting) than putting together a PDF. The canny publishers are the ones who are working with (instead of against) open materials in order to establish a clear market niche for themselves as providers of additional materials at a reasonable cost (maybe in modular formats so learners can just add the bits they want).

  6. Alannah,

    You stated, I believe, as follows (forgive my poor attempts to distill your thoughts):

    A. An interest in print materials isn’t dying (i agree)
    B. Print materials from major publishers aren’t innovative (I agree)
    C. There is a glut of books on the market (if by this you mean a senseless and endless duplication I agree)
    D. Publishers seem able to both dictate taste and maintain stranglehold on what is new (I agree)
    E. Many institutions now copy books wholesale and in part (I agree)

    Having agreed with all this I do not agree with your conclusions.

    I believe that if a large part of a company’s books were “set free” the result would be a huge drop in income for the company and a downward price pressure on the for-sale books that remained (as they would have to compete with free). The Internet has shown us that most companies find it difficult to compete with good, free alternatives (bye-bye Netscape). I remember when people had to pay for an e-mail account.

    Income, not traffic to websites, is the lifeblood of a company. Companies that make tens of millions to billions on books can not easily or willing remake themselves to “live on” 1/3 of this amount which I am guessing your recommendations could eventually result in.

    Only a failing (interesting!) or a new company (very interesting!) might decide to remake the industry. Never a company that believes their future lies in sticking with the market and making money with “innovative” digital assets (this company would also see quality print assets as a threat to their digital assets).

    If anything, I wonder if some publishers might now be dumbing down new print assets to make digital assets more attractive in comparison.

    In fact, I believe that digitally aligned publishers now see everything that is in print, even what they once produced, as a potential threat. How to wean people off print materials, not make them more attractive is their major concern.

    Of course, with the slow deaths of for profit print publishing so too will slowly end the ELT cottage industry that grew up around it. We also may find that the new ELT digital creators may not be so anxious to draw on the same teats that nourished this once benighted “Great Age of ELT Patronage.”

    By the way, while I think the Elsevier case is worthy of note, it doesn’t really apply here because they never produced nor actually owned the things they sold. Elsevier was more like a public utility that was being operated to enrich its private owners beyond the pale.

    Finally, instead of being someone a print publisher might work with I suggest they see you as a wolf in sheep clothes. If I were you, I would embrace that calling.

    In the end you can also understand my posting as the wild imaginings of someone who has played far too much Catan.


Leave a comment