IELTS and learning the hard way what ‘disruptive innovation’ really means

There’s been a lot of anger amongst the ELT community in Australia over the past few days as we digest the implications of changes to the marking of IELTS writing scripts.

According to John Ross’s article in today’s Higher Education Supplement of The Australian, IELTS examiners** at “IDP-run testing centres in Australia” were told via an “information pack” last week that

the written components of IELTS will be assessed by independent home-based contractors using specially designed “MarkManager” software.

Current examiners will be forced to apply for the new positions and to have Australian Business Numbers, high-speed internet, dual-screen computers, home offices that meet occupational health and safety standards, and $1 million worth of professional indemnity insurance.

They must also be prepared to mark 50 written tests a day and to work at least six hours a day, three days a week for two weeks a month.

There hasn’t, to my knowledge, been any official public announcement from IDP but their Chief Strategy Officer Warwick Freeland was quoted in today’s article:

IDP said the new approach would suit examiners as well as meeting its own needs.

“We’ve found that’s the sort of model that will work best for people,” said chief strategy officer Warwick Freeland.

“They’ve got a 15-hour work window so they can mesh it in with their childcare activities. The flexibility of being able to work from home at hours that suit you has been an entirely attractive aspect to examiners.”

Sources also said the new pay rate of $3 a written “item” was a significant cut from present pay rates, which are negotiated with individual testing centres. Mr Freeland acknowledged that some examiners might see remuneration changes.

“But compared to similar job classifications in teaching, it’ll be a good gig. If we don’t pay them the right amount, we won’t have anybody to do the task.”

So few words, so much said.

‘We’ve found that’s the sort of model that will work best for people.’ Interesting – where/who are these people that have apparently been calling for this ‘model’? It’s never come up in any of the conversations I’ve had with or about IELTS examiners. But, to be fair, just because I don’t know anyone trying to ‘mesh their childcare activities’ in with their ’15-hour work window’, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist…I would be willing to bet, however, that this is the complete opposite of any ‘model that will work best’ for the IELTS examiners I know. I think what would be an ‘entirely attractive aspect’ to all the examiners I know is proper employment not the sort of 21stcenturyflexiblegigeconomy scraps now on offer.

But, reading it again more closely, Mr Freeland seems to be referring to some research that’s been conducted into the current and preferred working conditions of IELTS examiners. Perhaps he could release the work he’s done which apparently enable him to speak for examiners with such confidence?

‘Compared to similar job classifications in teaching’ What is he referring to? Similar jobs in teaching where teachers mark the writing scripts of a global high stakes testing monopoly and are given a 40% pay cut?

It’s interesting/completely understandable that Mr Freeland would choose to use the word ‘gig’…

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The article concludes:

[Freeland] said the change had been motivated by a need to “move with the times”, not cut costs. “As a global organisation it enables us to control the flow of activities in a more efficient manner, so it’s a logical improvement for us.”

What drivel. Mr Freeland, using technology to ‘control the flow of activities in a more efficient manner’ = cutting costs = ‘moving with the times’. That’s why this move has already been likened to Uber’s business model: it’s about shrugging off expensive liabilities such as insurance, superannuation, tax and well actually the employee him/herself, using the internet to centrally control and monitor their work and deskilling people so they are stripped of whatever economic resources/power they might have.

He said that while “clerical marking” was already performed by IDP’s 300-strong workforce in India, all examining of Australian test-takers would be undertaken in Australia. There was no proposal to automate IELTS marking, as is planned for ­NAPLAN school tests.

Well, that’s a relief.

So, all the talk about innovation we hear from plenary speakers at our conferences…well, this is what it actually means in 2015. This is the nasty reality of ‘disruption’: someone’s livelihood is made more precarious or eliminated entirely while those doing the disrupting tell us that they’re just ‘moving with the times’.

‘There’s people disrupting stuff all over the place and we thought that sounded more logical than actually looking after people and it certainly sounded much more efficient so we decided to give it a go plus it required no actual imagination on our part and we’ve completely lost touch with what education is supposed to be about anyway so what does it even matter as long as the customers don’t know any different.’

More info about MarkManager and its recent introduction in the New South Wales and Western Australian education systems:

** I used to be one, incidentally

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