Regular interviewee (!) Jason West of English Out There is launching an online campaign against Oxford University Press. Here is the promised interview in which he explains how and why:
What exactly is your complaint against OUP?
Without using legal terminology the complaints I have with OUP are (but might not be limited to):
1) That they claim their course to be the ‘first’ social media English course. This is obviously not true and they know it. There are other claims too, one is ‘unique social media tasks’, in our opinion they are not unique.
2) That their course is in very important ways, very similar to ours. For example, their units all lead up to a ‘social media task’, basically requiring the learners to speak with an English speaker using the language from the lesson. This in and of itself might seem generically sensible but there are some detailed instructions for teachers that are of particular interest to us. This process, or the expression of it, is what gives us great cause for concern.
3) Also some weird stuff, co-author, Kristin Sherman, saying on Youtube in OUP’s promotional video here that she only started using social media to teach in the last year, that she is not an expert with social media and that she is “on Facebook”. The first two statements don’t really sit well with concurrently authoring five whole course books for use with social media; so that’s eyebrow-raising. The other really odd thing is that I tried to find her on Facebook and I can find only one Kristin Sherman in Charlotte, North Carolina and it isn’t her. Why make that claim if you can’t be found on Facebook? Using another name would be odd if that is what has happened, because teaching online requires total transparency for obvious safety reasons and all of the online educators I know like to build their brand and use their real names to do that. In addition, when I Googled her I only found her on one social network, LinkedIn and she only had 58 connections, which I think is very low for someone now doing what she is doing. I might have missed something but I don’t think I did.
4) That 1), 2) and 3) above are highly questionable and need to be properly and publicly explained because OUP spent a long time talking to us about our course (just under three years)
Can you give us the timeline, including who you were in contact with at OUP at each stage (positions rather than names)?
At the start of 2010 we had an agent in the US contact some publishers to see if they were interested in working with us. She made contact with OUP, who signed a confidentiality agreement with us. We then gave OUP a private online presentation and Q&A, a Powerpoint presentation and some samples. It was a serious and involving process.
On 24th May 2010 after asking lots of questions about social media integration the ELT publisher at OUP that we’d been talking to sent us an email that said integration with social media was not really something they could do. It seemed a bizarre thing to write at the time.
Then in October 2011 we got some great press in Outsell Inc about being in the top 10 uses of social media for formal language teaching in the EU and a director of OUP ELT contacted me by email, asking me to go to Oxford to discuss potential collaboration. I did what anyone in my position would have done. I met with three directors of OUP ELT on 2nd November 2011.
They asked me a lot of questions about EOT and social media which I answered openly. I played an audio ‘before and after’ case study, the one with the typical Chinese adult English learner Jane, where she goes from speaking like a beginner to a comfortable intermediate speaker in just six EOT lessons. I was there for probably a couple of hours.
There was an odd moment that I brushed off at the time and relates to the question below. After they had specifically asked and I had told them how to use social media to get the results we do with our course, the director who had contacted me (who is on the legal side at OUP) surprised me when he said they had a course similar to ours and that they could probably do the same.
I thought it was a bit odd to mention that, especially then and not much earlier. I figured that since they had signed a confidentiality agreement in 2010 we were protected (although, and this is odd too, the directors I met didn’t mention or even allude to the previous contact we had with OUP in 2010). Also, ever since I started EOT loads of people have said ‘Oh, we do that” or ‘We have something similar” and it usually turns out that they don’t. So I said, truthfully, something like “Well, it took us thousands of hours of teaching to get the structure, content and input quantities right so as to enable learners to get into effective social learning conversations.”
I don’t think they mentioned the name of this course they had that was similar but when I saw they’d launched Network – Get Connected I had a better browse of their catalogue. Then I saw it, English for Life by Tom Hutchinson, the other co-author of Network – Get Connected. It came out in 2007, just as we were finalising publication of our materials. It seems they have used English for Life and added the social media element, just as the legal director said they might in the meeting on 2nd November 2011.
I’ve studied one level of the English for Life course and it has to be said it is very close to ours in a number of ways. Firstly that it is so colloquial, secondly that every lesson ends with a positive affirmation (we ask teachers to do this in our manual, I’m not sure how many other courses do this but I think it might be quite rare) and thirdly, if you look at all of the topic and language focus areas and how colloquial they are and different from most course books I have seen, about 60% match ours, across three or so levels. I simply cannot explain the similarity. I know we did not copy their book.
Of course our materials are linked to the CEFR, so that would be an obvious defence, “all courses look the same”…and they do to a large extent if they are based upon the CEFR. However, if as OUP claim, their course is indeed unique, then there should be no other similar courses with similar topic and language focus areas, nor similar intended learner outcomes using the same social networks and tools.
Did they ever give you any hint that they were developing a similar course?
Yes, see above re the meeting of 2nd November 2011. However, they appeared to contradict themselves just five months later when they sent me an email on 20th March 2012 explicitly saying that the use of social networking platforms was not something they could “bring within our catalogue, whether in relation to the current offering or our future publishing plans”.
Looking back, the 2012 rejection email reads a lot like the one from May 2010, in which the OUP ELT publisher said she wasn’t sure that using social media and other methods outside of the classroom “would fit within our current business models”.
Both of those statements, to me at least, seemed very odd considering what they had specifically asked me about and I had provided to them, in good faith.
Why on earth would OUP be developing a course and negotiating to buy yours at the same time?
You tell me?
Have you actually seen the course? How similar is it to EnglishOutThere?
I have seen three levels of Network – Get Connected and one of English for Life. I bought them on Amazon. The similarities that make them both social media English courses are, in our opinion, uncanny.
Do you have any evidence that the authors and editors involved in the OUP title were directly influenced by EOT?
I have database records of an OUP editor downloading samples from one of our websites and the legal director becoming a member of our other site and downloading protected content. Obviously I can’t say what happened to the content after that. And anyway, we gave detailed information to one of their ELT Publishers in 2010 under a confidentiality agreement. The authors, if you Google their names, have virtually zero online reputation between them. That fact, to me at least, seems a little strange, considering that Network – Get Connected is promoted chiefly on the basis that it is ‘the first course to use social networking to help students succeed in English”. I would have thought that a prestigious ELT publisher such as OUP would have wanted to hire authors who have considerable expertise in this relatively new area of English teaching and learning? Wouldn’t you? It just seems odd and gets even odder, to me anyway, when co-author Kristin Sherman starts the OUP promotional video on YouTube with the phrase “I must tell you now, I’m not an expert with social media”. Even that might be fine and an interesting angle from which to commission five social media English course books but the bit about her being on Facebook and my efforts to actually find her on Facebook, make it even more curious. Don’t you think?
Wasn’t it inevitable that one of the big publishers would come up with a course using social media sooner or later?
Firstly, yes it was. But we called our course the ‘first social media English course’ in 2009 in a press release that was picked up by a number of websites. Why would they call their course ‘the first’? Especially after all of the contact they’d had with us and our materials.
Secondly, the words ‘social media’ and ‘social networking’ cover a lot of different platforms and products. I don’t think anyone has argued yet that there is just one type of course that merits the description.
Personally, I can think of a number of alternative ways to use social media and social networks to help people improve their English and I am sure there are teachers, writers and technologists using and working on new combinations of learning content and online social tools as I write this.
However, we made the last ten practices in the EU competition in 2011 that I mention above and I think there were about 80 entries in total. Our way of using social media and social networking to help learners improve their English was different from all of the others in the competition. So, it seems a bit odd to me that OUP’s course is so similar to ours.
Put in that context, and bearing in mind the size of the authors’ online footprints, the YouTube video, the access OUP had to certain information, them grilling me on specifics, the almost identical reasons given for rejection in two seemingly unconnected emails by two seemingly unconnected groups of OUP employees and then, five months later, the launch of five course books….to me at least, it needs independent investigation and a full explanation.
The main page on this title doesn’t even mention social media: http://elt.oup.com/catalogue/items/global/teenagers/network/?cc=global&selLanguage=en Does the cover of the book talk it up more?
That’s the wrong link/product! It is a bit confusing isn’t it. I made the same mistake you just did. This is the link to Network – Get Connected.
The cover has the words ‘social media’ in a box at the top and inside the words ‘the first course to use social networking…’ are very prominent.
Couldn’t it just be the marketing department who are responsible for talking that bit up?
It could, but selling something using a misrepresentation is illegal.
If so, can’t you just go to the British Advertising Standards Authority?
I briefed my local Trading Standards office and, I think I’m allowed to mention this because it is true, they have evaluated my complaint and the evidence and tell me they have contacted the Oxford Trading Standards office.
How likely are you to start legal proceedings?
I’ve been told that there is a good case in relation to passing off. That is serious. I don’t want to comment in detail on anything else. Whether we do start legal proceedings or not depends upon a number of things and most of them are out of our control now. The main one being money to pay the legal fees.
We (Languages Out There Ltd) are tiny, I am the only employee of the company these days (when we had the year round school in London we got up to 12 to 15 staff at one point); it is me, two computers and some incredibly effective content that I try to make money from for me, the company and our shareholders (all of whom worked on or with EOT for years).
It has been incredibly tough and I have a young family that I want to provide for (although in a purely financial sense I have not been doing a very good job of that for the last four years). Janne, my partner and the mother of our two boys has been incredibly supportive of me. Not many people would have put up with what she has. I don’t wish to cause unnecessary trouble for anyone or further hardship for my family but those who know me know that I have always had a very strong sense of right and wrong.
In contrast to our situation OUP gave £53m to Oxford University this year, have 5,000 employees and publish 26 other young adult courses amongst possibly the largest ELT course book catalogue on the planet. They are one of the top three ELT publishers in a market estimated to be worth in excess of $60bn per annum and boast in their annual report that one in five English learners uses their content.
We will need money to take legal action and the only way I can see that we can possibly do it is to ask the crowd to get behind us and ask them if they will donate to our campaign.
Wouldn’t you need a lot more than 30,000 pounds to successfully sue OUP?
Yes, probably, this could just be the start. I’m under no illusion as to the scale of the task. But I’d embrace anyone in ELT who looked at the facts and decided to back us. This isn’t just about EOT or me, I think it’s about the way ELT has been and still is run; by the few for the few. It is out of date, arrogant and elitist.
In my opinion what has happened to EOT is poignantly illustrative of the main problem for big old publishers. That the tide is turning fast as far as technology, pedagogy, transparency and inclusiveness are concerned.
I think it is also quite appropriate that the creators of the world’s first social media English course (EOT) should use social media to defend themselves against an industry giant (OUP) that appears to have not quite understood the medium it so wishes to exploit.
Questions and comments for Jason below please, and more info about this campaign and donations here.
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