The Times They Are a-Changin’

In 1964 Bob Dylan released his third album and the song, The Times They Are a-Changin. Not only did the song become a global hit, but the lyrics are still very relevant to much of what is happening in the edtech sector.
Gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’ © Sony Music Entertainment
I was prompted to write this post after reading Ross Morrison McGill’s post about why he was leaving TES Connect. McGill’s 33 resources have been viewed/shared almost 450,000 times on TES Connect. What prompted his leaving was the realization that, ‘I lose most of my rights once I upload a resource to their website’!
The related issues of IP ownership and profitability will be covering at ed-invent and McGill’s TES defection highlights the problem for edtech businesses built around the ideas and IP of teachers. For example, should teachers:
be able to freely share their content without giving up their IP rights?
share in income generated by platforms built around their IP?
At one end of the spectrum is TES Connect, the world’s largest community of teachers (approx. 52m) where contributors effectively give up their IP to TSL Education (the owners of TES Connect). At the other end there are sites like Teachers Pay Teachers (US) and Teachable (UK) where teachers can sell their content, but they keep IP ownership and most of the income.
What is at stake in these two very different busines models is nothing less than a battle for the hearts, minds and wallets of K12 educators around the world (TSL also have a $10m JV with the US education union the American Federation of Teachers called ShareMy Lesson).
Quite reasonably, TSL Education, having invested significantly to build the huge global audience at TES Connect, wants to generate a commercial return. One way of doing this is by commercialising the millions of shared resources on TES Connect and ShareMyLesson, which TSL can do because teachers who signed up agreed to Terms & Conditions, that currently include:
‘With respect to all Content you post on the Websites, you grant TSL Education a royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive and fully sub-licensable right and licence to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, perform and display such Content (in whole or part) worldwide and/or to incorporate it in other works in any form, media, or technology now known or later developed. With respect to all Content you post to the Websites, you hereby waive any moral rights you have in the Content’.
How many people read T&Cs? Very few, but when people like McGill do, they realise that even in education, there is no such thing as free, or put another way, ‘if the product is free, you are the product’.
After being purchased by Facebook for $1bn in April 2012, Instagram tried to implement new T&Cs that would have allowed advertisers to ‘pay (Instagram) to display your username, likeness, photos (along with associated metadata) ….without any compensation to you’. Described as a ‘PR own goal’, Instagram quickly backed down, not just because of the tsunami of user complaints, but also because the bad press spooked Facebook’s investors.
Could the same thing happen at TES Connect? Possibly, but I think they could short-circuit it by switching to a transparent business model like Teachers Pay Teacher and Teachable. The question is, will their investors agree and if they do, how to implement it?
TPG is the third VC owner of TSL Education in the last eight years. Having paid £400m, they want to increase TSL’s profitability so they can exit/sell at some point in the future (probably less than 36 months). To achieve these goals TSL has to be become more profitable and valuable, which means cutting costs and increasing income. A quick way to increase income would be to buy companies (a buy and build strategy) but this is expensive and would increase TSL’s already sizeable debt (although if they acquired Teachable, the difference on the balance sheet would be almost unoticable). But, inevitably TSL are going to have to try to monetise the shared content and the audience at TES Connect. This won’t be easy because TSL face several problems including:
a possible backlash as teachers follow high-profile educators, like McGill, in abandoning TES Connect
that their actions may actually help build the market share of their competitors (in the UK and US)
more pressure on TSL because TPG won’t want to see their investment go the way of Bebo, Excite, Ask Jeeves, Webvan,………
The times really are ‘a-Changin’!
1- A few hours after I wrote this on the blog, the TES out put a response on their blog. It was a wise move and the statement that Lord Knight ‘will looking both these issues and see if we can come up with a better solution’ is what’s known in PR as a ‘holding action’. I think the midnight oil will be burning in Red Lion Square late tonight.
2 – Ross Morrison McGill has blogged about how he and a small number of inluential TES Connect members will be meeting Lord Knight and the TES advisory board on Oct. 5th.