Michael Shaw, director of Tes Resources, shares his vision for the next stage for the world's greatest lesson-sharing site
In January I started my dream job as director of the world’s greatest lesson-sharing website.
For those who don’t already use Tes Resources, it lets millions of teachers all over the globe share lesson plans and other digital teaching materials with each other, and last year it saw its billionth download. Yet, amazingly, it began almost by accident.
The story so far
I joined Tes back in 2002 - when it was still known as The Times Educational Supplement - and spent my first decade on the journalism side. So I can’t claim any credit for the work our tiny tech team did setting up the lesson-sharing platform in 2006, though I was in the same small office in east London.
Tes had launched a series of webforums at the end of the 90s that had proven extremely popular as a place for teachers to compare notes on their days in the classroom, rant about the latest education policies, and even, sometimes, to flirt and arrange dates.
By the mid-noughties, however, there was a growing trend for educators to use the forums to share digital copies of teaching materials they had made. A geography teacher might describe a terrific lesson they’d done on, say, glaciation, and pretty soon that chat thread would be filled with other teachers asking for a copy of the lesson plan and leaving their email addresses. This created problems for our tech team, including that it attracted web-crawlers to the site to vacuum up the email addresses, but the biggest problem was for the poor original teacher who would then feel duty-bound to email out their lesson plan to an ever-expanding list of potentially hundreds of others.
So the tech team decided to create a file-sharing place where teachers could freely upload and download lessons to their hearts' content.
Several of us who worked at Tes thought this sounded like a cool idea. None of us predicted how far it would go.
Since the Resources site went live more than 10 million users have registered with Tes, the vast bulk of whom have joined to access teaching materials. The majority of our new registrants these days are outside the UK.
Even back when I was still a reporter, I’d visit schools in far-flung parts of the world and be astonished to discover that they were using teaching resources they’d downloaded from our site. In central Madagascar I watched a laptop being moved between classrooms showing PowerPoints made by teachers in Hong Kong and Wales. In the village of Laguna de Perlas on the east coast of Nicaragua, a deputy headteacher proudly showed me a folder on her computer full of history and geography resources her staff had found on Tes.
Those experiences, and many conversations I’ve had with teachers in the UK and US, helped me to see the power of our site for Open Educational Resources (OERs), freely-shared materials for teaching and learning. A few years ago I wrote a book chapter arguing that, while universities had got a lot of publicity for putting teaching notes and videos of lectures into MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), what they were doing was not as true a form of Open Education as that done by school teachers, who were creating materials others could remix, reuse and redistribute.
Shortly afterwards, I was among those at Tes who made the case for the introduction of Creative Commons licenses on our site to encourage free sharing, and I was delighted more recently when colleagues helped me make a quick, free microsite for educators working with refugees.
So from all that you’d expect me to be a bit of a free-sharing hippy. And you’d be largely right. I can get misty-eyed talking about how a lone teacher with a mobile phone – anywhere in the world – can access lesson materials of a quality they might only have previously encountered if they had an unusually impressive set of colleagues, or worked in a private school.
But my experience writing about Open Education projects, and edtech more widely, has also made me see very clearly that many well-intentioned projects fold because they turn out to be unsustainable.
If the first phase of Tes Resources proved it could be globally popular, the second phase – the last three years – was about showing it could cover its own costs.
We need to pay a team to keep the site running and to improve it, and we don’t want to beg for donations. Various monetisation approaches were explored by my predecessors, but the one that has proven best is one that was actually requested by many of our teacher users: letting them sell some of their resources to each other, should they wish.
Since that option was added three years ago, thousands of teachers have bought materials from each other. The crucial bit is up to 80% of what they spend goes straight into the pockets of other teachers. We already have a handful of superstars who’ve earned more than £40k, but we’ve hundreds more who’ve received the equivalent of a shift up the payscale for lesson plans they’d made anyway.
I’d admit I was apprehensive that introducing payments might damage free-sharing. But the reality is that usage of the site is greater than ever, thousands of new free resources are uploaded every week, and more than 90% of our downloads continue to be free. I still believe, however, we should make Tes’s support for Open Education Resources more overt, and improve the user experience for those who want to find them.
The next focus
We’ve proven our lesson-sharing site has global reach, and that enough teachers are willing to pay other teachers for it to be sustainable. For me, the next phase is all about quality.
Teachers clearly continue to find Tes Resources crucial for lesson planning, and there’s no shortage of truly brilliant lessons on the site.
But we need to make our systems better, not just at ensuring the very best resources rise to the top, but also that the material shown really is the most relevant to the specific gap a teacher wants to fill.
I believe that teachers are the best judges of what’s useful for them, and have a lot of faith in the wisdom of the crowd. However, just because a lesson idea is highly popular doesn’t necessarily make it good.
We’ve been consulting our users since the start of January on how we can better surface the highest quality materials on Tes. They’ve found it as tricky as we have to come up with clear indicators that a piece of teaching material is of a high standard, as so much can depend on context.
But they’ve found it easier to define what unsatisfactory looks like, and we’re going to be getting far tougher on the tiny minority who try to upload such materials.
My colleagues and I will be providing more details in the coming weeks and months on the changes we’ll be introducing, and the new approaches we’ll be trialling around areas including reviews and royalty incentives.
In the meantime, though, I can answer a question that came back in the consultation from one of our users, “Thinky”, an author of many popular lesson guides around punctuation.
They asked what our real goal now was. Was it to create a site that would simply allow us to sell more materials we had made in-house to teachers, or to drive up the sheer volume of sales in the marketplace? Or was our goal to do something else: did we genuinely want to create “a community of authors providing high-quality resources for educators”?
Spoiler alert: it’s the last one.
Michael Shaw is director of Tes Resources