The ‘sharing economy’ is apparently making inroads in the education field. These days, savvy teachers are selling their wares on a site called TeachersPayTeachers.com, which is a kind of Etsy for teaching plans and the like. In fact, the CEO of the company is a former executive of Etsy, who apparently figures that peddling quizzes and worksheets is no different than selling beaded necklaces and sock monkeys. But is it?
I read with mixed emotions this piece on ‘Teacherpreneurs’ that appeared in the New York Times last week. The concept is simple enough. If you are a teacher who has spent the time and effort to come up with a solid lesson plan for teaching something (the article uses the example of an English teacher getting students to study Shakespeare’s Othello) you can offer that up online. If you are a teacher looking for a way to teach Shakespeare’s Othello, you can buy that learning plan. The first teacher makes money, the second teacher saves time, and the students benefit from the getting the material taught in a tried-and-true way. All good right?
As someone who gave teaching a shot a couple of years ago, I can totally understand the appeal of using shortcuts. In my case, I taught economics to an MBA class. I thought it would be an interesting experience, something completely different than I had tried before, a new industry to explore. What I had not counted on was how long it would take to translate textbook material and theory into three-hour blocks of material. If I could have spent a few dollars and saved a bunch of time, maybe I would have done it. I did, to be sure, explore other online resources (including Youtube videos of people teaching economics) to see how different people taught, so I can see that sites like TeachersPayTeachers are just an extension of that.
And the prices are certainly reasonable. I took a quick look at the resources available for teaching that old high school staple, William Goldng’s Lord of the Flies. Sure enough there were lessons plans and ‘task cards’ and project suggestions – even bingo cards and categories. Prices for each were generally in the $3 to $10 range, although some complete units were closer to $25. That’s pretty appealing, and I’m sure in many cases you are getting great value for the money. And for the teachers doing the selling, the money can certainly add up: according to the New York Times, some teachers have generated sales of over $100,000.
So is there something wrong with all this? In an economic sense I don’t think so but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some clampdowns on what people are allowed to buy and sell. Really, I am amazed that even now teachers are allowed to sell lesson plans that they put together while in the employ of a school board. If you work for Apple and come up with an idea of how to do something, you can bet the rights to that belong to Apple. Selling it to Microsoft and the bragging about it on your blog would, at the very, very best get you a pink slip. Much more likely, it would get you a lawsuit as well. So I wonder if school boards might have an issue with teachers making a little money on the side.
The other thing that comes to my mind is that teachers have always made trade-offs between the good (predictable hours, generous holidays, solid benefits and job security) and the bad (working for one employer, legislated pay increases often considered modest, limited incentive bonuses) in their jobs. The sharing economy is apparently changing that. So, if many teachers find a way to create their own bonuses by selling their lesson plans, is that going to be a factor in wage negotiations eventually? After all, that might work fine for the taxpayer: they can agree to modest wage hikes for teachers, while urging them to use the sharing economy to make more on the side. That will work well for the Teacherpreneur superstars, but less well for those who prefer the traditional model.
The Teacherpreneur model is still in its infancy, so who knows how it will look at ten years, or even one. But, like the sharing economy in general, it is a genie that is not going back into the bottle. After all, apples as a bonus are nice, but they hardly compare to actual currency.