Hello, Mr Chips! TES brings its teacher resource marketplace to America

By Dan Raile , written on August 24, 2015

From The Sharing Economy Desk

It’s back to the classroom for America’s 3.5 million teachers.

They embark yet again on their customary quest to herd the attentions of the country’s 50 million elementary and secondary school students, a heroic nine-month month slog against distraction, rejoined each fall.

A lot of capital has been recently sunk into various sources of that distraction, and vast fortunes depend on the further colonization of the teen mind by attention-absorbing apps and virtuality.

Certainly, some of the technology now at students’ fingertips can allow for self-expression, or feed a hungry mind with limitless information, but very little of it makes a classroom full of kids any easier to manage, and the relative toil of learning is hard-pressed to compete with the precisely-designed dopamine release cycles that await on every glowing screen. (These assertions are based on my previous job as a public school teacher.)

America’s rag-tag, underfunded army of teachers has stayed up late watching Netflix and sorting out their lessons for the long road ahead. They are as ready as they are going to be to resume their stand before America’s children.

They might be encouraged that, so far this year, a total of over $1.3 billion in venture capital has been invested in EdTech companies. And though that number includes higher-education outfits, and only accounts for the first half of the year, 2015 looks to be easily the biggest year in EdTech funding on record, barring a significant slowdown. Many of these newly-gilded companies have emerged from incubation, and later-stage funding rounds have been gambled on the supposition that they’re ready for primetime – 44% of this year’s total represents late-stage funding, compared with just 20% for all of 2014, according to CBInsights.

This should reinforce the troops with much-needed materiel, if startup hypotheses are borne out. As always in startupland, that’s an uncertain proposition. Fortunately, America’s allies overseas have answered the call and sent a vast resupply mission over the wires from across the Atlantic.

Last week, London-based TES Global launched the American version of its teachers’ resource marketplace, already a force in the UK. Originally an insert in the (London) Times (“TES” abbreviates Times Educational Supplement), it first appeared in 1910, was spun out of News Corp in 2005 and is now owned by the American private equity firm TPG Capital. It’s found success as an online publication and education classifieds platform.

In recent years it has developed a platform providing peer-to-peer sharing of lesson plans, first for free and with a payment option in the UK since February. Now they are making an earnest foray into the American market.

“There are wide open spaces here,” TES Global CEO Rob Grimshaw said, not the first Brit to say so of America, “we are nowhere near our final destination. It’s not as shallow as a change of format, it involves major shifts in the underlying model. I know from my time in traditional news publishing.” Grimshaw ran before taking the reins at TES in November.

TES raised a £300 million ($470 million) bond issue last year to finance its US expansion, and since has gone on an EdTech buying spree, including purchase of two San Francisco startups – Wikispaces and Blendspace, both for undisclosed sums. Last Thursday, the company consolidated its American offerings at newly-registered and opened up the buying and selling of lesson plans stateside.

“There are 7.3 million teachers in the TES community, and about 70 million teachers in the world. That’s a nice chunk of teachers but still lots of upside,” Grimshaw said. “We have 40 percent of U.S. teachers, 75 percent,with no marketing, in Australia, and close to 100 percent in our home market.”

Now TES is hoping to use its reach, its warchest and acquisitions to provide a vast and well-sorted trove of resources to American teachers, for free or for sale. And to get entrepreneurial American teachers to share and sell their creations. The idea is to tap the talent of the profession and provide a big forum for the exchange of teaching materials, far surpassing fusty textbooks. This probably would alarm the Texas State Board of Education or Grimshaw’s former employer, Pearson, which owned the Financial Times until July and is one of the three major textbook publishers in America.

The open access to resources on might give it an edge on the big publishers, who have been stingier in their digital offerings, but TES is not alone on its niche. Similar platforms, notably TeachersPayTeachers and BetterLesson, have gained traction and raised venture capital in recent years, and may have more name recognition among savvy American teachers.

In that respect, TES will rely on its institutional knowledge and deep education industry roots to outstrip the scrappy young techies. It has translated many of its UK lesson plans for the US market (one TES employee quipped that this mostly meant taking the “s” off “maths”) and can draw on its experience from an earlier iteration of its US marketplace, a 2012 joint offering with American Federation of Teachers.

A few days back, I visited TES’ West Coast headquarters in San Francisco, in the former James Lick Bath House, where the young Wikispaces-Blendspace-TES team, largely consisting of former teachers, was busy testing its product prior to launch.

(San Francisco history tangent: the baths, like the James Lick Observatory in Berkeley, a still-existing private technical high school and the James Lick Pioneer Monument in San Francisco, were founded through the estate of the early San Francisco real estate baron, who began gobbling up choice California property –with a boatload of gold from a long-running successful piano business in South America– immediately after Mexico surrendered the territory, and died California’s richest man in 1876, at a ripe old age. He’d originally planned to build the world’s largest pyramid, in downtown San Francisco, to house his remains. Fortunately for the region’s astronomers, students and fragrant working class, he was dissuaded by friends.)

Inside the red-bricked keep on the second story of the former workers’ spa, Grimshaw made a case for why a popular, long-standing British trade publication is a likely source of relief for America’s teachers, and why it should seek to be one.

“The scale of our resources community is far bigger than our historical news audience,” he said. “To be successful as a publisher you have to do much more than news. We are news plus, and this gives us more reach for our news and jobs advertising. Trade publications as a whole need to think more broadly.”

“This set of tools for teachers is very special. There’s no reason teachers wouldn’t use it, and the spontaneous response we get shows us we are fulfilling a need.”

Grimshaw said the resource platform will remain an ad-free “pure marketplace”, and that US entrepre-teachers would initially receive 100% of their sales, until TES eventually institutes a 20% fee.

The good news for American teachers is that there are now ever more places to find and browse a wide array of the tools they use to combat boredom and inattention. With any luck, the best ideas will rise to the top, their inventors will be rewarded, and America’s school children will more often be brought to the trough of learning. At the very least, more of the nation’s teachers might get more sleep. Tomorrow’s lesson-plans squared away, a good night’s rest helps restore that other essential teacher’s resource: Courage.