Since I was a kid, I always liked to toot my own horn and calculate my own risks. I never cared for sports or working in large groups. I hate relying on people for things that I can do faster and more efficiently myself. I think that a lot of online teachers feel the same way and enjoy independence but are also feeling lost with so many options, resources, and information to sift through and figure out what’s best. After all, online education is a booming industry, and everyone wants to get a piece of this global multi-billion-dollar market as the future of online education looks promising . But in case you haven’t noticed, teachers aren’t getting a piece. We’re getting robbed.
There have been a lot of discussions around the world recently, both in mainstream media and with lawmakers, about gig workers and we often hear about the exploitative practices of these mega platforms such as Uber and Door Dash. You don’t need to be an economist to understand that these companies are making record breaking profits while customers pay more, and workers get paid less.
In the United States, Amazon and Starbucks workers are forming unions and schoolteachers are striking. Last year, the UK told Uber to provide holiday pay to drivers and classify them as workers. Etsy sellers also went on strike earlier this month against fee increases. Last year, an Italian court fined Deliveroo €2.5 million because of unfair algorithms and rider data collection.
Did you know that Hoxton Ventures, the venture capital group backing Deliveroo, also backed Preply with $10 million in funding in 2020 and then more cash last year? Unfortunately, online teachers have been completely left out of the gig worker discussion often dominated by drivers and food delivery. The fact is that those who control these mega platforms don’t care about anyone or anything except getting wealthier at the workers’ expense.
When I first started teaching online, I worked for Palfish. I regularly ranked in the top 300 teachers of about 5,000. I had a full schedule and amazing student retention. It was fun and I was making decent money. In August 2020, Palfish teachers received a message thanking us for our hard work and informed us that the company received $120 million in funding (from 6 investors). Two weeks later they slashed teacher pay by changing an already exploitative point system that determined our pay rate. Palfish also started hiring Filipino teachers to do the same work as western native English-speaking teachers but they were paid significantly less than me.
Another reality is that if the shareholders of these platforms want to hide or delete your account without reason, create discriminatory algorithms, unexpectedly raise commission fees, go bankrupt and shut down, sell to another company, change rules, or make any other decision that impacts your job, they can, and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it.
As online teachers, we either need to accept and deal with the conditions these platforms give us or invest in going solo and working independently without a middleman. I was considering going independent myself after the crash of the Chinese ESL market as I’ve been self-employed most my life anyway. I understand business and ran several WordPress websites and consider myself relatively tech savvy. I also know how to market myself and utilize social media. So why not?
The Struggles of a Freelancer
Before moving to Poland and becoming a teacher, I was a private investigator in California for ten years. I was self-employed and had my own clients. Some months I did extremely well, others not so much. It was a rollercoaster, and my income was always unpredictable. Sometimes clients paid me late and other times, not at all having to take a few to court. I had no paid time off and needed to pay for continuing education and training. I also needed to spend an enormous amount of time marketing and buy all my own tools. I loved the job, but it was also a constant hustle.
Research by WondaPay found that 55% of freelancers in the UK are having to wait a month or more for each of their invoices to be paid. If that is your only means of income, this could be the difference between paying rent and eating only peanut butter and bread for a few weeks. If you’re a delivery driver, a private detective, artist, independent teacher, or any other gig worker, we all have the same headaches and lack job security, industry power, and a voice in our workplace.
As we have seen in online education over the past two years, more and more venture capital backed platforms are popping up to make a quick profit. The competition has been driving down prices for teachers on big platforms which is having a huge effect on what students are willing to pay for an independent tutor. Big platforms control the market and set the standards and practices.
Shortly after Palfish slashed teachers’ pay, I heard about a group of Uber and Lyft drivers in New York City who started The Drivers Cooperative. They raised $1.5 million in crowdfunding and now have over 5,000 drivers in NYC offering a better wage than Uber, while also a better value for riders. I also learned about Signalise, a platform cooperative of sign language interpreters in the UK who recently raised £300,000, and Outlandish, a tech cooperative.
Cooperatives aren’t a fringe type of business nor are they any type of pyramid scheme. It would be foolish to dismiss them without making an effort to understand the basics of how they work. There are over 3 million cooperatives around the world with over a billion members. In recent years with the boom of platform-based gig work, many platform cooperatives have started emerging in many industries. After doing a bit of homework and seeking the right resources, I had this wild idea to start MyCoolClass, the future of online education. After all, I was bored out of my mind sitting in my apartment in Poland during lockdown, plus the weather sucks most of the year anyway. I haven’t had a good challenge since I was chasing fugitives in California.
The older I get, it becomes more apparent that decent work and fair pay is becoming harder, if not almost impossible, to find and sustain. The rich are getting richer and everyone else is overworked and underpaid. I may be getting gray hair, but I’m still as punk rock as when I was sixteen rocking a green mohawk. I don’t think we should accept a system that a select few created for their own gain at others’ expense. I could have gone solo and am confident that I would be successful. I also could have started a coaching business showing teachers how to make websites or how to create their own courses.
Nope. I decided to take on an insanely difficult task that most reasonable people would never consider pursuing. To spearhead a project to create a democratically controlled, teacher-owned platform cooperative operating on an international level is no simple task. To get where we are today has taken dozens of volunteers and thousands of hours to make MyCoolClass possible. A place that gives teachers a stake in their workplace while keeping autonomy.
We can either continue giving our money to platform owners or swim solo hoping we don’t eventually drown. As Ryunosuke Satoro said, “Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.” MyCoolClass has a real chance of success and the future of online education, but we aren’t a television where you can kick back and enjoy the show. We need teachers, gig workers, and anyone else who wants something better out of their professional lives, wants job security and a real stake in their workplace, online or not. Since launching last summer, thousands of teachers have been watching us and expressed support for our mission. However, that support has also been met with skepticism if we can actually do it.
The founding team behind MyCoolClass has proven to be competent but because we aren’t funded by millionaires, things have been slow. Many online teachers are looking for quick work because many are living paycheck to paycheck, therefore seeking an instant solution. Our plan is to make MyCoolClass the future of online education but it is not a quick fix and is an investment that requires participation, especially in these early stages. We are a movement to reach our aspirations by uniting for fair work. We need masses of teachers uniting to make this possible. If freelancers in other industries can do it, I’d like to think teachers can too.
MyCoolClass needs to raise £300,000 to be able to become the best platform for teachers and students. We need to hire a marketing team, developers, pay for advertising, improve the platform, develop an app, and we also need to start paying our current workers. There are a lot of things we want to do and there isn’t anything stopping us if teachers come together as a community with an identity and needs.
To raise this money, we launched what’s called a community shares offer, in which anyone in the world can become an investor member. Community shares is a user-friendly name for withdrawable, non-transferable share capital: a form of equity uniquely available to cooperative and community benefit societies. Since 2012, over £155m has been raised by over 104,203 people in community shares across the UK. The minimum share subscription per person is £100 and an interest of 5 percent will be paid annually after one year. The withdrawal of capital is targeted after three years, and UK investors may seek tax relief of up to 50% on their investments.
I know we can raise this money if everyone who wants to see this succeed makes the effort to participate. We need teachers to share about us on social media, comment and like our posts, tell others about our mission and encourage other teachers to join. If you’ve been following us but haven’t joined yet, take that leap, and sign up. If you like what we are doing but you’re not a teacher, invest in our cooperative, and share our vision. If you don’t like what we are doing, you are also invited to get involved and help make us better. Until online teachers collectively own a democratic workplace, we will continue to be exploited by platform capitalism.
I’d like to see an Upwork owned by freelancers, an Uber owned by drivers, a Deliveroo owned by riders and restaurant owners, an Etsy owned by artists and creators, and an Amazon owned by sellers, workers, and drivers. We need organization, not venture capital.
by John Hayes, Creator of MyCoolClass