An increasing number of teachers and developers have been asking me how I 'manage' to teach English online. I have in the past presented various posts related to my approach to online language teaching (for example, Taking your teaching online - what to teach and how to find your students and Introducing my new (kind of) coursebook series...), and recently on Gavin Dudeney's blog I presented some thoughts on how an online freemium model for expert teachers might take shape.
Also, on a recent post about three kinds of language teacher, I lamented the fact that so many teachers who make it to expert/educator level are inevitably forced out of the classroom or even out of the field altogether. I honestly believe that online teaching presents a new and much more rewarding avenue for those expert teachers, if they can work hard on developing the tech skills required to go it alone and avoid all the 'middle men' between learners and teachers who take massive chunks of revenue on the one hand, and control and - to some extent - manipulate access and opportunities on the other.
For my part, as someone who has been lucky enough to find a route around the schools and the publishers, I'm pretty keen to share this knowledge and encourage as many great teachers as possible to have a crack at achieving freedom, excellence and actual income. Considering the fact that I've also reduced the cost of language education for my online students by the same degree I've actually increased my own personal earnings and satisfaction, I think this is an important win-win scenario worth sharing and developing as widely as possibly. A win-win scenario for the only two participants in this game I really care about: teachers and learners.
So, here it is, folks - my fremium rainbow model for online language education. Please note that I said "a", not "the". It is a model, and hopefully one of many that will emerge and work for teachers and learners online.
I've presented the model in this way because it sort of demonstrates a couple of things about the 'layering' involved in a good effective fremium approach, but also the fact that the main mode most teachers automatically assume or aim for in online language teaching (getting on skype and teaching live classes 1-1) is actually - in my experience - the least realistic and sustainable mode for going about it.
So, let me attempt to take you through the layers of this rainbow, starting from the bottom and outer (A) and working our way up and inwards to (E).
Yes, this is all the free stuff I offer, but to just think of it as "free" I think is an unhelpful simplification. It's more of a sort of bartering system in a lot of ways - an exchange that involves dialogue but also assistance from both sides of the equation.
I regularly post video tutorials on YouTube and a section of my main website has regularly updated screencasts. I have a free forum (5000 members and counting!) with whole practice tests available, linked to simple to use recording and writing facilities for visitors to practice their speaking and writing skills.
But I also visit and contribute to a variety of online forums where students go to discuss English or English tests. I maintain a Facebook page where more than a thousand students have gathered to see my resources and recommendations, but also to chat about their experiences or occasional questions they may have.
All of these efforts feature links back to my regular pay-for products on a website, but, more importantly (as I discovered quite by accident, actually) they feature my name and - well, me. Basically, this online social media presence has generated a bit of a "brand" - and I'm still somewhat surprised that the top search query leading to visits to my main site and pay-for services is actually Jason Renshaw.
I have literally thousands of students contact me now saying that these materials and tutorials and interactive snippets of advice have helped them improve drastically and even pass really important tests. Realistically, the vast majority of such students never needed all that much additional help to start with, and weren't really in the category who might be characterised as needing or wanting to "pay" for some basic help. Strange as it might sound, I actually find it pleasing that I'm not talking independent students who don't need a lot of in-depth or personalised help into paying me for something.
Now, of course all of these online students are getting this help for free - but by "free" I am strictly referring to the concept of money. Looking a little deeper, what becomes apparent is that there is a sort of exchange of goods and services happening here - a "barter", if you will.
What I get out of the "free" arrangement is an in-depth awareness of the needs and inclinations of online students. I also get "currency" in the form of recommendations and links, and the sort of traffic that earns my main sites valuable PageRank and hence invaluable search engine listings. I also earn credibility, by being a real person online who (evidently) knows what he's talking about, can teach things clearly, and really does help students improve. And the somewhat behind the scenes network of personal recommendations and testimonials, while often hard to measure, appears to be incredibly powerful.
So the "free/exchange" layer reaches very far and basically incorporates a "give and take" win-win arrangement. Personally I think it is really important to understand and explore it from that sort of angle (rather than just assuming it's all about giveaways).
B. Pay/Content access
Beneath the free/exchange layer, we have my first (and mildest) "pay for" level. Basically, this involves giving subscribers access to the entire bank of practice materials and recorded tutorials I've produced, which is much vaster than that offered freely and publicly, but also presented in a much more organised and professional format. The material is constantly being added to or edited to improve it.
This caters to two basic sorts of online students: (1) those who have seen all the free/exchange stuff and find it a good indication of what they could get with a basic pay-for subscription, and (2) those who have tried all the free stuff but have come to a decision they need more detail and more information.
The subscription fee here is very low. Basically, for the students who used to go out and pay $70+ for a TOEFL preparation book (not all of which they actually needed) can get even more content, more practice tasks, more tutorials (in a variety of formats: text, audio and video) through my online product for between $15 and $30 per month.
This, again, is mainly for independent students who can take the content, decide what to draw and learn from it, and incorporate it into their own study plan and learning approach. Based on subscription figures, this is a sector within the online learning population that is increasing rapidly.
There is still some regular interaction with these students, usually through the public/free facilities already mentioned above for (A). Hence, it creates a very productive loop between and across the "free" and most basic "pay for" services. But generally speaking, these subscriptions are for good, comprehensive and well-organised content - not for live interactive teaching.
C. Pay/Content access + online practice + checking
Our next layer (the green one, between the "lighter" and "heavier" colours in our freemium rainbow) offers all the content and material already featured in (B) above, but adds to it the opportunity to record or write a number of responses to the practice tasks, and have these checked by me once per week. This is in the form of quick scores connected to a clear set of scoring rubrics.
This is for the students who have tried doing things pretty much all on their own, but figure they need some simple feedback and indications as to their progress. There are less of these subscribers than the "content access" ones, but it does appear to attract the people who genuinely need this sort of help. There is also the very real (and I think usually underestimated) appeal of being able to share performances with other students from around the world and learn from each other's examples.
Obviously, as a teacher the amount of time I need to dedicate to this is small per student, but potentially vast across a large number of subscribers. The recording and writing is managed through a simple but asynchronous system that allows me to schedule all of this checking for certain days of the week, maximising my time and efficiency.
Fees are - of course - higher than for the simple content access subscription, but still enormously cheap compared to 1-1 teaching either online or in face to face learning settings. Technology has allowed me to gather and respond to these recordings and submissions in ways that cheat time and distance. Essentially, for what a one hour live 1-1 session would normally cost these learners, they can access and apply 20 times more practice - according to their own time and preferences - across a period of a month.
And in this case, the content and pre-recorded tutorials are now thrown in for free.
D. Pay/Content access + online practice + personal feedback
This is the first of what I usually think of as "optional extra" or "premium" services. Basically, learners who want it add it on as an extra - at any time - to what they have already subscribed for in (B) or (C) above. They can now choose specific tasks, submit them to me, and get in-depth personalised feedback and suggestions from me. They pay a set (small) fee for each task, but it is limited in scope. Obviously, if they want several tasks checked and given the 'royal treatment' from the teacher, they are going to have to be willing to pay for the time this involves.
This service is also asynchronous, but has a quick turnaround time (24-48 hours).
Only a small proportion of subscribers decide to buy this kind of service. While price will inevitably be an issue for some, it does appear to me that most of my users figure out that they are already getting everything they need with the subscription layers further out. This targeted and personal service helps students who just can't manage, who really need the extra help, while guaranteeing that I - as a professional at what I know and do - get paid a reasonable fee for the time and attention I am giving to a single student.
E. Pay/Content access + online practice + personal tutoring through live 1-1 lessons
This is the innermost layer in my freemium rainbow. It is the absolute royal treatment, for students who are either (A) fussy and demand 1-1 attention in real time from a teacher, and/or (B) have tried the previous layers and just need some live attention to help hone it all and find out as an individual what they really need to focus on.
The proportion of subscribers for this is very small. This reflects - at least to some degree - that many online language learners out there are not willing or able to pay a teacher $35 for an hour's 1-1 class according to a schedule that suits the learner. But it also reflects the fact that, if the outer layers have been effective and have helped students develop sufficiently more or less on their own, most of them don't really need to have a teacher hold their hand through a personal lesson. Such students are also not forking out a premium from the outset to find out that there is a lot of learning and application they can be doing for themselves, on their own.
Another positive side effect of only offering this premium service to people who have already subscribed for the access or basic practice layers is that teachers and learners almost never arrive in the live online lesson 'cold' - so to speak. As a teacher, I've already developed some awareness of their performance and learning needs through the basic practice applications. We can start the lesson with a clear roadmap of what it might be better to start focussing on right from the outset.
Oh, and let me tell you, managing to keep the number of live 1-1 classes to a minimum is very important for the online teacher out there who still wants to have a life and be able to pay the rent!
So there it is, the English Raven Fremium Rainbow model. It's certainly working well for me. It could (perhaps with some adaptions) work really well for you, too.
And the really cool thing?
This is just the beginning...