To charge for EFL resources?

So, as I’m trying to build up a paid EFL worksheet generator, you might not be surprised to hear that I’d like people to be okay with paying for resources from the internet. It’s logical.

But, as I’ve started cleaning up the things I’ve produced to use in my own classes, with an eye towards sharing them, I’ve realized that there isn’t a point in trying to charge money for them.

My thinking can be organized into three questions: why would a teacher pay money to access things that I’ve paid? Why would it make sense for me to charge money? And why would it make sense for me to give things away?

Why pay money?

I’m a teacher. And a paying customer of EFLlibrary.com and handoutsonline.com. And I happily pay for what they make, because I don’t want to make my own ‘boring’ worksheets. (Sorry, people of those websites.) That’s the word I use for worksheets that explain a grammar point and let you drill it with mind-numbing exercises.

Such things are often necessary, but they’re hardly enjoyable in class and I don’t like the idea of making them in ‘my own time.’ So, I’m glad they exist.

For me, the answer to this question is: I’m happy to pay for resources when they help me improve my lessons and free me up to use my energy in other ways (whether related to teaching or just additional free time). There is some level of cost-benefit analysis where I ask myself: how many hours are they saving me? Is x Euros per year a fair price to pay for such an assistance?

Why charge money?

Charging money seems to be the logical thing to do. I have invested time and energy in making something, so why shouldn’t you pay to use it? I’m a big fan of more of the internet costing money (argument in a nutshell: I’d rather work for you, than to maximize page views and ad revenue) and it follows that I would ask people to pay for what I’ve made.

Considering that my worksheet generator should, one day, cost money, why not include a library of static worksheets that are, basically, amazing in the price? I could add to my ‘unique selling proposition.’

Why give things away?

Here’s the thing, though… I don’t think there is a business in selling ‘static’ worksheets (defined as made once, for as many people as possible) on the Internet. The problem is twofold:

  1. One person has to pay for them, and then passes them around to friends, colleagues, posts them on her own website, whatever.
  2. Another word for ‘one-size-fits-all’ is ‘boring.’ It’s not for nothing that I called them boring worksheets above. But, if you want to make money you need to attract as many people as possible, and that means being as bland as possible. Bland is not a strength of mine.

I don’t like the idea of investing my time in hunting down online pirates. And, I don’t like the idea of not doing it, because then I’m basically punishing the people who do things the right way. Blah.

And, I don’t really want to try to be one-size-fits-all. That’s partly because I’m not the kind of person that everyone likes (ask people who know me). And, it’s partly because I know that I, personally, don’t like those resources.

There is a school of thought which suggests that the internet is big enough that there must be hundreds or thousands of people just like me, willing to pay for the privilege of downloading things that I make. And there’s probably something to that. However, I enjoy making stories and worksheets. And, I enjoy coding. However, I’m not big on promotion, and my recent experience with AdWords suggests that I can’t afford to advertise to all of my users over paid advertising.

The (to me) logical conclusion…

So, to me, it seems reasonable to offer the ‘static’ things I make for free. At some point, I might do the annoying thing of tacking a page on them pointing users to the paid service that I will, by then, hopefully provide. But, that feels like too much work.

Which is why I’m happy to point you towards the Free EFL Resources I make.

Advertisements

Impostor Syndrome

Teaching and coding are more similar in my life than you might think. Not only am I ‘unqualified’ to do both, but at my moments of peak self-esteem, I think I’m good at both, and that my lack of qualifications is a strength.

However, in other moments, I suffer from impostor syndrome.

In Germany, there’s a difference between your job and your profession. Or, as one student put it, “What do you do?” and “What are you?”

And I don’t really have a profession. I have two Bachelors of Arts in German and Communication Studies. (Fun anecdote: When I got married (in German), my marriage certificate was supposed to have my profession on it and it was a very long discussion with the civil servant who was supposed to put it there. “If I write ‘communication scientist,’ is that wrong?” — “It’s not right.”)

But, I learned German as an adult, and feel empowered by that experience to teach English, especially to Germans. (They just learn everything backwards from what I did, easy, right?)

However, impostor syndrome rears its ugly head whenever I’m asked about English for situations that I never had to discuss in English. Many adult topics, such as taxes, financing a house, and divorce, fall under that heading. Even worse, so does the dreaded “‘Business English.”

I never feel more like an impostor than when I teach “office phrases” that I can’t imagine saying or that, worse, sound like something that annoying boss from Office Space might say in order to demonstrate what an utter insult to humanity he is.

71sme

However, I know that phrases that I’ve actually heard myself say in the lesson, such as “In the Army, I was required to answer the phone with…” are not helpful to people who (rightly) assume that the Army is not a language model for their mid-sized German business. So, my experience isn’t really helpful.

I’ve taken some pretty extreme (for me) measures, including taking Business English courses online, to ‘pirate’ phrases they use, as well as actually taking an office job here in Germany (I’m the office’s English-translator / guy to ask randomly for vocabulary) with the rationale that I’ll have stuff to think about in English.

It’s all been great material for lessons (I sound like a comic here, mining my life for material), but none of it has helped with impostor syndrome.

Are you an EFL teacher? If you are, how do you deal with teaching vocabulary that you’re not comfortable using in your day-to-day life? How do you get ready?

What my App does

I had an inspiration last night. I realized — after working on it for the better part of two years, including several reboots — what it is that my app does. I’m talking about the worksheet generator, which seems closer to becoming something now than it ever has before.

First, I think I have to mention what it isn’t.

What the worksheet generator isn’t

It isn’t just another application or website that promises to relieve you of the burden of preparing for your classes. I pay for such websites, and I think they have their place, but I’m not going to be able to compete with them, even by doing the job marginally better.

The worksheet generator will not be just one more place that you can go because you didn’t prepare a lesson and you want to print something out for that class that is starting soon.

Working just as much – or more – for more results

I realized that, if I had to tell another ESL/EFL teacher what it was that my app did, it would be to say that it does a lot of the ‘stupid work,’ so that the energy I invest in prep goes farther. There are a couple of ways that this manifests itself.

  • Organization: Never my strong point, this is what the project originally was supposed to help me with. The idea is to have a virtual record of what you’ve done with each group, in terms of grammar and vocabulary. The strength of this organization will be in helping to review regularly. And that brings me to the second thing:
  • Permanence: Maybe this is just one aspect of organization, but it’s something I’ve known that I’m bad at. I’m great at creating a single, excellent, engaging lesson. I’m not so great at tying them together into a series that makes sense in a meaningful way. The extent of my understanding of ‘permanence’ has been to say that, if we’re working on the simple past, I can do a series of lessons about the past.

    What I’d like to do in the future is to have a more clear sense of repetition, by which vocabulary that came up once is reviewed again and again in the exercises of the following week. Even more, I want to say “hey, we practiced this structure three weeks ago, let’s do it again with the vocabulary from last week.” And that brings me to the last main point:

  • Modularity: I don’t know if it’s just me, or if every teacher is lazy, but I suspect it’s the latter. If you’ve ever had a teacher, you probably know what I’m talking about. I’m talking about teachers who create one set of PowerPoint slides and then teach them forever. Or,  in my case, who prepare an exercise for one class and then modify it only slightly for another (generally to realize that I overlooked an inside joke meant for the first class and completely without meaning for the second).

    The thing is this: Most of the worksheets I create in OpenOffice are great for the class they’re created for, and only the top half of page two is really great for the next class. So, I could just copy and paste but, inevitably, searching through everything I’ve made to get enough material feels like more work than creating a wholly new worksheet.

    When I talk about modularity, I’m talking about defining — in XML or in code — the basic structure of some exercises and stringing them together (simple past is comprised of these 10 or so modules, some are text explaining regular, irregular and the ‘be’ verbs in the past, others are exercises practicing them…) and then just saying to my app “hey, we’re starting this block on the simple past” and it adding one module to each worksheet until the block has run its course.

    It’s important to note here that this is going to be in addition to the other ‘modules’ in each lesson’s worksheet — whether they’re vocabulary review or a reading text to take home as homework. And, further, that a module is going to define how the exercise is created, but I’ll still be prompted to generate new content for it (“Enter a sentence in the simple past using word ‘ginormous’.”) (Fun fact: I’ve never taught that word in my lesson.)

Looking at what I’ve written, I’m beginning to think that maybe the unordered list might not have been the best way to get that done. Still, I think that summarizes what will eventually make the worksheet generator different from the “we do the work so you don’t have to” websites.

Becoming Politically Correct

So, working on the worksheet generator when I have time, I recently added a list of stock names to it, so that it could generate exercises with certain names. No biggie, it just meant I wouldn’t always be using my own and my family’s names.

But, then something got to me. The thing about my ESL teaching is that I often feel like an unpaid diplomat. For a lot of my students, I’m all the exposure they’re going to get to the United States and, well, that’s unfortunate for a lot of reasons.

Adding the names, though, I realized that I was sort of defining what were ‘American’ names. At least for my students. And my initial plan to just find a list of ‘most common American first names’ (in lists like this one) seemed obviously inadequate, as the names seemed to be very white, even to me.

I’m white, and tell stories about white people to my student. But, obviously, there are other names in the United States.

So, I wound up looking for ‘common african american baby names’ to fill in my list of names. And, to be fair, I even got lists of German names.

It’s genuinely strange to me how much effort I put into getting the names right. But, it’s such a minor detail that it has me wondering two things: whether I’m overthinking the whole thing, but also, second, what other ways I should also be thinking about how I ‘whitewash’ what America is.

Teaching a computer grammar

It seems reasonable to say that the best way to develop a killer product might be to make one that you yourself would pay for. One of my recent business ideas (not the one I shared, obviously) was to make a sort of ‘worksheet engine’ that would automatically generate ESL worksheets from a corpus of text.

Naturally, I’ve since had other great ideas (it should manage lists of vocabulary to review, so that those words come up more often in activities, it should make it as easy as possible to re-use work done once already…) I’m focused on implementing the intial idea.

And, while I’ve had very little difficulty with any one aspect of the project (lets hear it for Python!), there is one thing that’s difficult: I’m finding it hard to concieve of a system for categorizing grammar activities.

The idea is that there would be a ‘recipe’ for how they’re made that the program will later be able to follow with a new set of text, generating a worksheet tailor-made to fit the needs of an individual or group.

It’s easy to write something that will remove all articles in a sentence and replace them with a blank space. Or to write something else that will find all the verbs in a sentence and change them to a space followed by the infinitive in parenthesis.

What I haven’t been able to do is to find a scheme to describe these things in such a way that I’m confident that I’ll be able to describe my next worksheet project using it.

Naturally, that means that things are growing as-needed now, and I suppose that’s a perfectly reasonable way to go about doing things. But, I’m a bit frustrated to think that I’ll never be able to be confident that the finished system will be able to quickly realize a new idea.

That is, I think, what the goal of the project is: to know that there’s a syntax by which I can say “this is the kind of worksheet I want to make, focusing on these particular constructions, and with this vocabulary showing up as often as possible” and have it quickly guide me through the steps of turning out a well-designed worksheet.

I guess I’ll just have to call this the beta-version.