The “Uberfication” of Online ELT

ELT Online

by Rachel Boyce

Learning with computers is nothing new…

………..as they have been used in language teaching since the 1980s, if not longer in specialist language areas.

The definition of computer mediated discourse is simply when people interact by computer. This can be asynchronous (participants messaging at different times) or synchronous (simultaneous communication). My context uses Skype™ for live audio & video feed, which is called synchronous computer mediated communication, or SCMC for short as it’s quite a mouthful! With the development in smartphones and tablets over recent years, and the current trend to be constantly wired to the internet, there has been a dramatic shift in how we connect with each other and so how people are choosing to learn a language.

According to recent data* the global market for English e-learning (or English Language Teaching – ELT – online) reached $1.8 billion in 2013 with a worldwide five-year annual growth rate of 11%. Growth was subsequently predicted to double by 2018.

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In fact, this research reported that while the worldwide language learning market (all languages combined) was a
$56.3 billion industry in 2013, this market was shrinking as learners opted to transfer to cheaper technology-based learning routes, moving away from the classroom and use of printed products. So, e-learning appears to already be a dominant choice for learners, which could only get stronger going forward, presenting concerns over teacher-training, course design and lesson delivery. Young adults now feel not only comfortable in using technology but have the ripened confidence to take ownership of their learning.

Now, I am sure you are wondering how can this in any shape or form make a connection with a taxi firm?
Recently there was a legal case in the news, all about Uber drivers and whether they can be considered self-employed or employees. Obviously, there was more than meets the eye to this dilemma, but the crux of the matter was whether Uber drivers qualified for holiday pay.

According to an article in the Guardian dated 10 Nov 2017, two Uber drivers from London, James Farrar and Yaseen Aslam, argued and won their case that they should be classified as workers, citing Uber’s control over their working conditions.

Yaseen Aslam was quoted by the Guardian as saying,

The judge confirmed that Uber is unlawfully denying our rights. Companies are hiding behind technology, bogusly classifying people as self-employed.

This ruling basically ensures Uber workers get minimum wage and holiday pay.

At the moment, ELT professionals who work online have the same ‘technological’ ties as those Uber drivers. Whilst they set their own rates on most sites, so are in control of whether they receive above or below minimum wage for their efforts, there is still the matter of competition and hours of availability.

So… now do you see the connection?

Teachers online are competing with each other for students, and one website in particular, which may prove to be the forerunner of this trend, is rumoured to now want to start listing teachers in search results on their platform primarily on the basis of the number of hours they offer up to students. When a student visits language learning sites to find a potential teacher they most often complete a search and the teachers are presented to them in a list according to filters chosen by the student (such as native speaker, price range, specific skill set etc.).

This new algorithm will further refine teachers to be listed and shown according to hours available to teach. This is instead of other popular means, such as most recently online, most active, best reviews etc.

The new system could, potentially, be open to abuse by teachers who are tempted to lie and state they are available 24/7 just to get to the top of the list, and simply amend any booking requests that come through to something different that reflects their true availability. Subsequently, good, highly qualified, experienced, reliable and honest teachers would find themselves at number 200+ on the search list with no apparent opportunity to climb back up. Anyone who looks for information on Google knows that you never really go past page 2 of your search results, so the chances of them getting new students, or even getting any new regular work going forward would look nigh on impossible.

Now, it transpires that the platform has suggested that such teachers who do declare false availability will be dealt with. Only time will tell if this really happens. If the platforms are making their money there may be no incentive for them to hold people to account. Perhaps they have taken on too many teachers, and want to naturally lose a few, using this as a way to get the part-timers who reduce their income to go elsewhere! Probably, yes, as the market is now flooded, with a mix of the serious and the occasional teacher.

Whilst there is no definition between true professionals qualified in education and English Language Teaching, with those who, for example, did a sports degree and then a quick 160-hour teaching certificate to just try and get a few extra bucks in their back pocket whilst they figure out where to work next, it is not fair to try to dictate a person’s work-life balance, which this availability issue may now do. This kind of situation has the potential to ruin work opportunities for all, whilst applying pressure on true ELT professionals who rely on the site for work to make more and more hours open in their calendar, from dawn to dusk, weekends and national holidays.

These teachers are ‘technically’ self-employed and merely agree to abide by the terms and conditions of the platform that markets and connects them with the potential learners. However, if companies begin to compel teachers to make themselves more and more available to work, putting pressure on work-life balance, health, and fitness (at risk of constantly being sat in front of a laptop) then surely, they are presenting the same case as those drivers from Uber and a quantity of paid holiday allowance should be accrued and awarded.

Yet, there is a spanner in the works here for those who work online in ELT. A lot of the companies state that it is your own responsibility to declare tax on your earnings. In fact, you have to ‘check the box’ to confirm this on the online form every time you make a withdrawal. This is obviously to release the platform providers from getting involved with tax systems across the world, as the teachers who support them are global. Yet, it does nothing to encourage those teachers who use the platform to do as they ‘click’. In fact, when I started working for one such well-established site, and I emailed them for the corresponding details in order to complete my tax return correctly in Italy, I was informed that I was the first teacher to ask for this information! Am I to deduce from this that I am the only one being honest and paying tax? I dare not think.

The conclusion?

If the teachers are not declaring their earnings there is no way that they are going to be able to make a valid case to get any kind of holiday pay. We have shot ourselves in the foot!

The world of language teaching cannot ignore that things are changing. Just by looking directly at the shift from face-to-face instruction to online learning, it’s clear that more effort must be made to try to provide support for teachers in this new environment, looking at aspects of theory, practice, tools, tasks, and skills development. It is not about transition to include technology in the ELT classroom. Technology alone is now a new and growing global classroom in its own right, with that its own needs, problems, dilemmas and headaches, for all parties involved.

It is curious to note that there is a real dichotomy between the world of academia behind teaching professionals, favouring those who are institutionally based, which leaves no quality, controls or guidelines for the ELT professional who works solely online. I have worked in schools, but I now choose to work online. It suits my lifestyle better. Yet, I have the distinct feeling that online teachers like myself are considered the ‘dirty little secret’ of ELT, with preferences, professional development programmes, support and advice always being offered for institutional ‘only’ teachers, so I don’t think anyone important in the field would want to get their name connected with the very idea of making improvements in SCMC.

The reality seems to be that trends look to be working in direct opposition to what some of the most recent ideology in the field of ELT currently proposes and provides. The independent teacher is filling a growing gap here, often untrained, unregulated, unrecognised and distinctly unsupported.

Taxi…!

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