More than meets the eye: A closer look at Onestopenglish.com

In August 2009, Sara Hannam launched her highly thoughtful and challenging blog, Critical Mass ELT. In it she asks so many key questions about the language teaching industry. What particularly caught our eye was:

 What I want to do is step outside my comfort and safety zone sometimes and look between the gaps of the way people understand things to see if there is more to things than meets the eye. 

And it is in this spirit we would ask people to examine the role and purpose of  Onestopenglish.com in English language teaching. A seemingly benevolent website that even promotes the articles of Critical Mass ELT and Marxist TEFL Group, through its onestopblogs.

 Now the decision to charge visitors for the use of material in 2006 was a controversial decision as: 1) it had previously been free 2) was the product of an academic publisher, Macmillan, which already made handsome profits from the industry anyway. Of course, Macmillan Campus (responsible for the blog) can justifiably claim that the website had an expensive makeover before going subscription only and that 32 pounds per year is hardly excessive given the wealth of teaching resources available. However, we would go beyond this argument and remind readers that Macmillian publishers are part of an aggressive  media empire with a murky past where benevolence and generosity are mere marketing tools designed to improve its market position.

The founder of the Holtzbrinck Group, one Georg von Holtzbrink, which has owned Macmillan since 1995, was a card carrying Nazi who made his fortune during the Nazi years, publishing and distributing Nazi propaganda. After the defeat of the Nazis, Holtzbrinck faced imprisonment for his wartime activities but a judge found that his motivation for collaboration with the Nazis was economic and not political (oh, so that’s okay then?) and fined Holtzbrinck a mere 1,200 reichsmark; a tiny proportion  (1%) of the 120,140 reichsmark he had made during the war years.

The Holtzbrinck Group have, of course, gone from strength to strength since the judge’s leniency. Here is the Wiki entry

In the 1960s, it purchased Droemer, Kindler, Rowohlt and S. Fischer Verlag, two German publishing companies. In 1985, it acquired the retail book division of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, naming it the Henry Holt Book Company. One year later, the company acquired Scientific American magazine for $52.6 million. In 1994, it purchased a majority interest in Farrar, Straus & Giroux from retiring Roger W. Straus, Jr.. A year later, it purchased a 70% majority interest in The Macmillan Group, and then the remaining shares in 1999.

Holtzbrinck has total annual sales of 2.1 billion euros (as of 2005); 49% of sales are in Germany and 23% in North America. It had 2005 earnings before taxes of 142 million euros, and a total of 14,000 employees.

When an article by David Margolick appeared in the June 1998 edition of Vanity Fair (original not available), however, concerning Georg Von Holzbrinck’s Nazi past, the company’s reputation was under threat. Apparently, in this original article the group’s representatives claimed  that the company had been “almost a member of the Resistance” and was stripped by the Nazis of its license to publish, This was of course untrue, but the company did hire a journalist, Thomas Garke-Rothbart, who was given “free access” to all relevant documents to report on the company’s past. After ten years of research, Garke-Rothbart published the results in a book, “für unseren Betrieb lebensnotwendig…” (Essential for our company’s survival). The book contains classic statements like:

Dieter, Monika and Stefan, said they saw “evidence of opportunistic behaviour,” but remember him as “a man without anti-Semitic or militaristic character traits.” After the war, in word and deed, he worked to compensate the people “who suffered under Nazi Germany. We share his commitment,” 

Garke-Rothbart concludes:

“Georg von Holtzbrinck’s behaviour was typical of the many owners of medium-sized businesses who came to terms with the equally medium and lower levels of the party and ministerial bureaucracy and the Wehrmacht offices responsible for producing books for the front,”

 Personally, we would have thought, “Making a Killing” or “Profiteering from Fascism” would have made better titles.

 Now, we are not suggesting, of course, onestopenglish is in fact onestopauschwitz. The activities of this website have nothing whatsoever to do with fascism. Nor are we saying that Macmillan or the Holtzbrinck group have any current ideological link with such politics. Indeed, Macmillan now refuse to publish work by the holocaust denier and general low-life, David Irving. Our point is that such economic opportunism is an insidious disease which eats away at ethical behaviour, undermines values of solidarity and the principles of protecting the vulnerable. From Holtzbrinck, to the Judge who fined him a trivial amount for his war-time activities to the journalist hired by the Holtzbrinks to “investigate”, there is this belief that profiting from misery is okay, not nice, but okay. 

Prior to 2006, teachers did what they always did/do, share material. They sent it off to onetopenglish. Some with the hope of showcasing their talents as potential textbook writers and others, the majority no doubt, because they just did/do (that’s the way teachers are, they stumble across a great idea for a lesson and they share it). And onestopenglish soon became an extremely popular resource for new and experienced teachers alike because, well, because the textbooks are inadequate. What a discomforting thought; a teacher pays an extra 32 pounds a year because the books produced by publishers (despite their cost) are inadequate for the task and who does he/she pay the money to, well the exact same publishers. Have we become so blinded by the prevalence of economic opportunism that we see this as inevitable and okay?

Here at Marxist TEFL, we want to heed the call of Sara Hannam, and look between the gaps, to challenge natural assumptions. For us, therefore, there is a gap between the service onestopenglish provides, and the company that provides it. A contradiction, a contradiction that is not easily visible because economic opportunism is seen as okay, the natural order of things. The jovial small shopkeeper, the dynamic entrepeneur, charging a small commission for their services. This, however, is no small shopkeeper or entrepeneur but a small part of a huge powerful media empire, a media empire that made its original fortune out of collaboration with the nazis. Something worth thinking about before you hand over your 32 pounds to those nice people at onestopenglish.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “More than meets the eye: A closer look at Onestopenglish.com

  1. Nice bit of digging, Melf – very well done!!

  2. Don’t know if has improved at all, but the YL section over on Onestop used to be pathetic.

    I do have to admit though, since it has become mostly a pay site and given that the very small academy I work for can’t really justify the expense, I do miss it when coursebook and plan-your-own lesson fatigue sets in.

  3. Thank you for this link up to my blog and my first posting. It would be good to do some postings together if you are intersted? It seems we have a lot in common.

    • marxistelf

      Yes Sara, there is some considerable crossover. It would be great to reprint some of your articles as a guest writer rather than have to find some excuse to link to your articles. The one on getting organised was particularly relevant.

      We are also making noises around the blogosphere to create an alternative IATEFL conference (like the socialist carnival) and would love you to come on board, Sara. The same for you Troy, we need people like you to set an alternative agenda to the miserable one currently being offered.

  4. You are welcome to use anything you want from my blog – no problem. Keep me posted on your plans. Thx.

  5. alexcase

    All good points, and the fact that I could publish my stuff elsewhere and people could access it for free was one of the reasons why I wasn’t too upset when my onestopenglish work faded out and so didn’t push too hard for it to start again (wouldn’t go as far as saying I quit doing it or that I would turn down their cash if it did start up again though, not claiming I’m some TEFL Saint Francis of Asisi here!) The fact that stuff that was free has slowly become paid is also a little irritating. To be fair to them though:
    – There was almost certainly the plan for it to be a paid site later on from the moment it was decided to set it up, hence the amount of effort they put into it
    – You don’t have to pay to see any of the Lesson Share stuff, and they pay writers for all the stuff you do have to pay for (plus the one free lesson plan per section that is supposed to get you hooked). That free stuff on its own compares well with other sites
    – The sites that do offer stuff for free almost all do so through Google Ads, which is hardly the most morally blameless of ways either (looking forward to your piece on that!) It obviously also pays okay, because the most popular lesson sharing site (ESLPrintables) seems to have taken over a competitor! There are also obviously issues with a publisher ending up with Google ads for other publishers on their pages!
    – No one seems to have set up a genuinely non profit worksheet sharing site that I know, so once we have done that we can really start criticizing the more commercial ones. Are where are the Marxist worksheets guys??

    Re the IATEFL stuff, saw your announcement on BELT Free (via a Google alert- gotta love and hate Google at the same time!- as I rarely go on BELT Free) and had a couple of ideas:

    – Call it IAltTEFL (the letters don’t have to stand for anything, just as long as it’s like IATEFL but Alternative is understood)
    – Make the theme “Themes that would never be allowed in IATEFL (or are at least seriously under represented)”, which should give people a bit of ideological space to express themselves in, as should hopefully the name. Should get something nice and offensive from Sandy as well
    – Ask bloggers to post one thing within that remit on every day of the IATEFL conference (either stuff they wrote themselves or guest pieces, or just comments on others’ IAltTEFL pieces), then have a Blog Carnival of those pieces to tie them together afterwards

    As you suggested, very happy to lend my blog to the task. Organisational and networking talents you will have to find elsewhere though! Do you want to officially announce it here or there, and if there do you want me to write it or will you write a guest piece?

    • marxistelf

      So much to answer there, Alex. thanks. Will cut and paste your contribution to alternative TEFL conference as a blog entry.

      As for onestopenglish, sure there are mitigating circumstances but to us their actions were more than “irritating”.

      Firstly, they put in a lot of effort because they had the financial resources to corner a piece of the market; operating no differently to other
      media empires, offering free cable tv channels which later became pay per view. A fact of life, yes, but that doesn’t make it acceptable.
      Secondly, the quality of onestopenglish was never under question. It should be able to assure quality with such financial backing

      Your comments about Google Ads are spot on but isn’t that what keeps blogging “free” . The contradiction has not been lost on us.

      As for Marxist TEFL worksheets, that is not the purpose of this particualr website but we apreciate those that do provide lesson plans and ideas in as principled a fashion as is realistically possible, most notably yours.

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