• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


What If I Don't Want to Be an Entrepreneur?

Sites like Udemy may allow me to make (relative) riches for teaching.

February 4, 2015

As I read Jeffrey R. Young’s article from the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Here Comes Professor Everybody,[1] and I learned that a young man named Nick Walker, not long out of college, made $20,000 in a single day selling his self-produced course on making iPhone apps through Udemy (“the YouTube for courses”), my first thought was, maybe I could do something like that?

The 20k is about half my teaching salary for the year, and while I know nothing about app development, the long and winding road of my career has left me with a number of areas where I could generate course content relating to specific, potentially desirable topics – technical writing, public speaking, humor writing, short stories, novels, marketing research reports, grant applications, book proposals, screenwriting, blogging – you name it, I’ve probably done it or taught it.

As a non-academic who has spent a lot of time in academia, I also believe I have a knack for translating these concepts to regular folks, the kind of people who go to sites like Udemy looking for help. I give pretty good lecture – my student evaluations say that I’m funny anyway – and I already know how to use video production and editing software.

On one level, our inexorable move toward an entrepreneurial economy seems exciting. A “sharing economy” where anyone with a phone can earn extra money driving others, or where a college graduate (or non-graduate for that matter) with a knack for explaining something others want to know how to do can become a “teacher” without having to take the time or suffer the expense of additional training or jumping through regulatory hurdles looks to be efficient and empowering.

The market for tenure track faculty in the humanities is gone, never to return. If I’m to escape the NTT trap, it’ll have to be my own doing.

At times, the contemporary university resembles a feudal estate, with positions like mine a hair above serf, so when Google chairman Eric Schmidt argues that, “we really want to democratize the access to education, and the access to teaching, and then let the marketplace figure it out,” maybe I should see him as my liberator, come to break my chains and unleash me on the open market.

“Competition” seems to be a magical concept to people like Schmidt who says, “You’ll discover that teaching is an art[2]. That there are people who are gifted at it, and because of the way the Internet works, eventually the very most talented teachers will emerge, from everywhere. It’s a great thing.”

As reported by Young, Udemy CEO Dennis Yang agrees, “What we have is competition among teachers. It’s one of the few environments where teachers and instructors have to compete with each other.”

In the Udemy universe, the metrics teachers are expected to compete on are star ratings by previous students and the number of students enrolled. The higher the rating, the more students enrolled, quite obviously the better.

Of course, star ratings may have nothing to do with how much is learned[3], but never mind, competition[4].

In many ways, what Udemy promises is similar to the effect Amazon has had in publishing. The opening of the Amazon Kindle store to individual authors has allowed thousands (millions?) of writers to bypass the gatekeepers and take their work directly to the reader.

The result has been revolutionary. Writers like Hugh Howey and H.M. Ward have made actual millions outside of the traditional publishing industry, while quite clearly filling a consumer desire. Hundreds (thousands?) of others are able to make comfortable livings writing, where before they made bupkis because those powers that be in New York didn’t find their work up to snuff.

It’s tempting to see these movements as a kind of justice. Those snooty editors and publishers don’t have a monopoly on what people want to read, and why should we have to go to these boring old professors when we want to learn something?

But as Astra Taylor argues in her book, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, the apparent democratization of publishing or teaching and learning via this kind of individual entrepreneurship is mostly illusory. In reality, we are simply trading one lord in for another, and the new lord doesn’t have any responsibility to things like quality, or in the case of education, the public trust.

As Amazon has become the dominant marketplace for self-publishing writers, they have steadily moved the parameters in their favor, most notably with its launching of Kindle Unlimited, a “streaming” service for books where customers pay $9.99 a month for access to over 700,000 titles, many of which are self-published, and must be given to Amazon exclusively.

With Kindle Unlimited, almost overnight, circumstances changed for these entrepreneurial authors, as Amazon unilaterally grabbed more of the pie for themselves.

As reported by David Streitfeld in the New York Times, Bob Mayer, an expert in e-book self-publishing and consultant, claimed, “Six months ago people were quitting their day job, convinced they could make a career out of writing. Now people are having to go back to that job or are scraping to get by.”

Even H.M. (Holly) Ward, who has sold more than six million books through Amazon is chagrined. “Your rabid romance reader who was buying $100 worth of books a week and funneling $5,200 into Amazon per year is now generating less than $120 a year. The revenue is just lost. That doesn’t work well for Amazon or the writers.”

Except, as Streitfeld observes, “Amazon, though, may be willing to forgo some income in the short term to create a service that draws readers in and encourages them to buy other items. The books, in that sense, are loss leaders, although the writers take the loss, not Amazon.”

Nick Walker’s fortune seems similarly tied to Udemy’s largesse, as his $20k day was fueled by a Udemy promotion. At what point does Udemy start to charge for superior placement? When does it demand more of the cut for his courses, no matter how popular he may prove to be?

In The People’s Platform, Taylor argues that our mania for unbundling leaves us more, not less vulnerable to corporate control. Additionally, when platforms are open to amateurs, it makes it harder for professionals to get paid living wages. The collapse of the record industry – about as predatory a scheme as you could imagine – has nonetheless left most artists much worse off, as advances that formerly kept midlist acts afloat, have entirely dried up.

The same phenomenon is happening on publishing. Advances for so-called literary fiction are routinely 1/10th of what they were a decade ago.

When it comes to commercial products like music and books, we may be willing to accept these tradeoffs – let the market speak and all that -  and there’s no doubt that Udemy can fill a niche for self-starter, motivated types who want to learn discrete bits of information or skills,  but is this really the direction we’d like to take higher education? Are we ready for that particular race to the bottom? Are we okay with companies like Udemy profiting as we go down that slope?

Let’s say I, personally, could do pretty well on the open teaching market, and I become a superstar of the medium. But what about my vanquished competitors? They’re probably still pretty good teachers – not as awesome as me, but pretty good – what are we going to do about them?

What’s happening to the thousands and thousands of Kindle Unlimited authors who haven’t made a dime?

And really, I don’t want to be an entrepreneur. I want to teach and write. I like the work. I’m pretty good at it. Every moment I spend selling myself and competing in the marketplace is a moment not spent doing the things I enjoy most, and which convey the most benefit to others.

I think some of these institutions that allow us to concentrate on the work, rather than the marketing, institutions that shelter us from unproductive competition are worth not just preserving, but strengthening.

I worry that my side is losing that argument, though.


[1] Now paywalled. Sorry. It was open when I first clicked.

[2] This is actually not true. While there may be some elements of artistry to teaching, like all art, the creator gets much better over time and with significant practice. Even the most gifted teachers are usually not great at it. The best teachers continuously improve and are made, not born.

[3] One possible source of Nick Walter’s popularity is a promotional video where he dances goofily to techno music. https://www.udemy.com/ios-8-and-swift-how-to-make-a-freaking-iphone-app/

[4] They are also easily gamed, as for a relatively low fee you can pay services that will inflate customer ratings on platforms like Amazon or Yelp.  A federal appeals court ruled that it’s legal for Yelp to manipulate the reviews for business that buy advertising.





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