Is Italki worth it?

I’m a former tutor on Italki who clocked up close to 3000 lessons on the platform between 2019 and 2022. Based on this firsthand experience, I feel I have a few informed points to share with the novice user of Italki who is wondering if it is a quality resource for languages.

My short answer to the question is: if you’re a language learner, maybe. If you’re a professional, no. If you’re Italki, yes. Three different interests, and three different perceptions.

The obvious advantages of Italki are the ones that anyone can figure out for themselves. They have volume, they have a big choice of languages, a safe payment system, they’re cheap and they’re easy to use. There’s nothing here that you won’t know already.

Now let’s speak of the downsides.

The first criticism towards this platform is that the whole Italki experience is flawed both for the teacher and the learner due to the dynamic interference of the website, in other words the “algorithm”. And second, because of Italki’s self-serving priorities. The simplistic explanation of Italki is “A website on which tutors can advertise their services”. But it’s no so easy. It’s not just a neutral standstill website in the manner of a telephone directory.

From italki’s perspective, language teaching is good money. They take 15% off any transaction on their website in exchange for which they act as a go-between between teacher and learner. The money is in escrow, blocked until released when the lesson has taken place. If all goes well, you will never hear from Italki directly nor will you know anything about them. They are a willingly anonymous platform whose staff operate in the shadows. They only step in when there is a dispute and the rest of the time run a website which provides them with an upstream of money.

From their position, they want the most business to take place on their platform which means the most tutors and the most learners. They want to sail a steady ship, and will only make themselves heard if a teacher misses a lesson. Other factors such as teaching quality or teacher’s satisfaction are not on their radar. This fact will have quite a bearing on your success as a tutor and will carry a few disapointments especially if you lose sight of the fact that Italki looks out for Italki.

They will always want a newer tutor to be more visible to the customer than an older tutor. (Likely, to keep tutors signing up and to keep a sense of novelty happening.) Your exposure as an older tutor will be moderated by said algorithm. I’ve had learners tell me how glad they were to have been “lucky” to find me, as if they had made the right choice between so many other tutors. I had to tell them in all frankness that their choice was predetermined by the “hidden hand” which assigned my profile to their search queerie. In other words, two different language learners will see two different results of available tutors.

It may at first glance sound well thought-out, but a noticeable consequence of this “hidden hand” is the fact that a tutor will only have a limited amount of interest coming from new students in a month. You quickly start to feel as if there was an unnatural flow of inquiries. You will ask yourself “Why do I only get 2 or 3 inquiries in a month? Why not 7? Why does it feel so controlled?”

As a new tutor, the upside is you will be put straight to work by Italki independent of whether you are any good at your job or not. You will feel as if the platform was wonderful and you will naturally start to project yourself in terms or a “real world” business logic by telling yourself that if you keep doing this, you will build up popularity and expertise. Makes sense, wouldn’t it? The better you get at your trade the more customers you get?

Nothing could be further from the truth. Italki has long thought of this potential problem for them and has made it so that such situations do not happen. It is not in their interest to run the risk of their reputation as a business in such a way and to rely on the presence of some excellent tutors who could leave at any time. Their interest is to “spread out the talent” so that the product remains Italki, not the teacher.

In the world of Italki, experience or expertise at your trade plays no part at all. A tutor does not develop “their little business” within an online marketplace and strive for excellence and reputation. Italki is not the marketplace, they ARE the product. In a sense, we could say that they run a socialistic-inspired system in which customers are distributed evenly between traders. If you are an unlucky customer, you will be assigned a poor tutor. Or at least given the choice between tutors that may not be ideal for you.

Riddle me this: for the longest time, I advertised myself as a French and English tutor, clearly explaining where my expertise lay. (I wanted to teach English to French speakers and vice-versa, just as I do here on OuiCommunicate) Regardless of this, my students were Russian, Brazilian or Chinese. Where were all the speakers of English? Where were all the Brits, the Belgians, the Americans? Did they all happen just not to see this amazing bilingual tutor? “Another Brazilian student!”, I used to think. But I don’t speak a word of Portuguese! Why is it only them who are seeing my profile?

The few times I was lucky to meet an Irish, Brit or American student they were delighted and stayed with me for months, even years. “This is so great to have you speak 2 languages”, they would say. EXACTLY! I thought. But where are all the OTHER students like you??? The fact is that they were hidden to me, and couldn’t see my tutor’s profile. Blame the algorithm.

When I set out on Italki, it was with the innocence of the positive-thinking tutor who thought he could build up a reputation based on quality and numbers. I decided to aim for 1000 lessons on Italki, thinking that it would show my commitment to teaching and transform this into more business. It turned out that one thousand made not the slightest difference, neither did two thousand, nor did three thousand. I was actually working much less than when I had joined during the first year despite the improvement of my level of experience and the quantity of my learning resources.

In which world does it makes sense that a professional with thousands of hours of experience and the reviews to back up the quality of the service actually works LESS than during the first year when he was a novice? It’s not that I was losing customers, it’s simply that I wasn’t getting inquiries. It had to do with Italki’s algorithm that was either out of whack or on the contrary doing exactly what it was programmed to do: promote the newer tutors as a priority. These suspicions were confirmed to me by visiting the tutor’s forum and seeing the exact same grievances from other “senior” tutors as mine. How odd.

When a tutor contacts the ever-elusive Italki asking why they have no customers, Italki will send the same nonsensical message they send to all tutors. “You have to change the description of your profile, participate in the forum and change your availabilities to suit the times that are most in demand”, a handy way to get rid of the question and place in the lap of a tutor a problem they could not possibly solve.

The fact of having to change your description every so often to revive your profile provides a glimpse into of the functioning of their algorithm. Whereas I wanted to improve the quality of my teaching, their priorities rather lay with the refreshing of an image. “New is better”, they thought. But does a baker refresh the image of the shop or change their opening hours every few weeks? Provided the bread is good, playing on such variables would be the reasoning of a madman.

As to the supposed participation in any forum, it benefits no one but Italki who now gets a dynamic forum kept alive by tutors who work for free by answering questions by the learners. These learners who use the forum are usually people who have no intention to ever take a lesson. I know this because not once in my 3000 lessons has any paying learner ever referenced one of my interventions in any forum. A paying learner goes straight from A to B and does not first go to a forum to see which tutor seems the most knowledgeable. This student would not make a potentially nonsensical comparison between unrelated answers to unrelated questions between unrelated language tutors.

A further problem with the Italki forum are the many “community tutors” (unqualified and mostly doing classes for free) They answer questions on the forum faster than you could read them. The professional tutor is then caught in a race with unqualified tutors and wasting precious time out of their working day when they should rather be earning a living. Lastly, even if it was a tool for getting noticed, the way it is designed makes this impossible. The forum operates as a “news feed” constantly pushing the older questions downwards. A teacher’s answer to a question would quickly disappear from sight and never be seen by a potential customer.

Whether the quality of teaching is any good on Italki is impossible to know. In my experience, an overwhelming majority of users purchase conversation practice. Their motivation for using Italki is the supermarket format in which they have an availability of thousands of tutors. Actual teaching or learning occurs very rarely.

A new tutor should be aware that the average Italki user is not one who comes with an academic frame of mind wanting to learn something new. They rather want to put their language skills to use and chat. The Italki tutor quickly becomes an expert “chatter” who is able to fill the space of an hour with chit-chat covering any topic under the sun.

In this, Italki provides a fascinating look into the human psyche as we analyse this behaviour. Countless times, I encountered learners whom I could help progress but who all had in common a preference for a chit-chat session that had neither purpose nor origin. We were neither going anywhere nor were we coming from anywhere. I had no assurance that I would see the learner again after our session, no more than I could program some kind of plan in view of a progression. I just opened my emails every morning and randomly saw: “Oh, so and so are back!” I never knew who was going to show up or disappear.

Only twice did it ever happen (out of 3000 lessons) that I met a learner who wished to commit to a regular appointement once or twice a week. And even then, there is the case of one Brazilian lady who booked with me for close to two years on a Sunday and never made the slightest progress. She was just as much a beginner at English as she was two years earlier. I genuinely could have done miracles for her in that time but it seems that her intention was rather to be an “Italki user”.

More disconcerting still is the fact that most students show up expecting to be entertained by a conversation. They would wait for the teacher to lead the way and animate the talk like a radio host. I never once met a proactive user who ever came up with a list of topics or a plan for a “lesson”. If the lesson fell flat, the responsibility fell on the tutor.

Just like the Brazilian lady, the users of Italki endorse a kind of “Italki identity” in which they become a purchaser of this product more than a learner of languages. One noticeable side of this “Italki identity” was a desire to always include Italki as a “third partner” in our classs. I saw this repeated time and time again which led me to believe that the atmosphere of the website influenced their future performance as language learners.

I mean by this that signing up for Italki as a language learner had such an impact that students became language learners “in the style of Italki”. They never remained independent people. It was almost as if choosing Italki guaranteed that students would only be half-invested in actual language learning.

Only one or two learners I met realised that they would be getting far better service if they booked straight through the tutor. But many thought that excluding Italki would somehow diminish the already very low standards of the lesson. It proved to me that the student was more comfortable in the role of “Italki user” than they were in that of “language learner”. They were buying a brand instead of buying the service that the brand was selling.

Sometimes, I asked a certain user: “Hey, listen. Option A you just get a chat for your money / Option B you book with me directly and get my full commitment as well as hours of free learning material at your disposal. You get videos and worksheets. More for your money. Which one do you want?” Contrary to any sort of logic, Option A was always the prefered choice. Just as a budgerigar who was given too much freedom and dared not fly through the window. They prefered to get much less and continue buying the Italki brand. And not learn anything.

One further point I would bring to the attention of a professional teacher wanting to work through Italki is their way of handling disputes. If you are a professional who won’t accept last-minute cancellations, you will have a hard time setting certain standards, since out of the three you are the weakest partner. (1) Italki has thousands of customers, (2) the customers have thousands of tutors which leaves you (3) wanting to please the few customers you have. You are in no position of strength to ask for any sort of “justice”.

A learner can ask for a refund of their prepaid lessons at any time and go and search for a more accommodating teacher at the drop of a hat. This leaves you either saying yes to all cancellations or losing a learner.

On the topic of money, the rates you set will be those of a conversation and not of a class because students will only pay so much for the service. Especially if their first motivation isn’t to learn but to chat. (As 99% do) On the very same Italki website students can find people doing this for free, the so-called “community tutors”. Knowing that an Italki user generally wants a long-term chatting partner, the rates will have to remain low.

When setting your rates, you must realise that in some countries a rate of 9 dollars an hour is plenty. Those are some of the teachers you are in competition with. If you wish to apply rates that suit the Western World cost of living you will be at a disadvantage. I never looked in detail at the other teachers’ profiles but the few times I did I was surprised at the disparity in standards. I saw lawyers dipping their toes into language teaching, retired business owners, professional TEFL or CELTA teachers and on the other side of the spectrum you will see people with dreadful English accents who make basic grammatical errors in their video presentation. No apparent standards in quality.

Logical thinking would have us believe that a natural weeding-out process would take place and leave more room for the better tutors. This would be so in the physical world if you ran a bakery. But not on the Italki platform. A mediocre tutor will have just as much chance at earning money as an expert tutor. By lowering their standards and accepting so many people as professional teachers, Italki have created stability for themselves and for the learner. However, the genuine and quality teacher will have to compete with thousands of others who are just as much in the spotlight with 3 lessons under their belt as you are with 1000.

There are so many Italki tutors out there that you will never manage to make a name for yourself and besides, the website was not designed for this to ever happen. Day to day, there will be an unpredictable flow of lessons, ranging from many to nothing. Some of my Sundays were chockablock with as many as 8 lessons back-to-back, but then it stopped being. No student was ever interested in Sundays again. For over a year, I had no more Sunday bookings whereas the year before they had been so popular. In all aspects of their platform, Italki creates a sub-reality in which the governing principles find no equivalent in the physical world.

The payment options on Italki are problematic also, since they pay in dollars and only to Paypal or Payoneer. When I had made a sufficient amount of money, I would transfer it to Payoneer (I can’t remember if Italki charges for this) then to my bank in Pounds Sterling (for which there definitely was a charge) Unless they have sorted this, withdrawing your money was costly and impractical.

Taking a break or holiday can have dramatic consequences on Italki. The one time I did this, I noticed a drop in my post-holiday enquiries which never went back up again. My profile went to the bottom of the pile, somewhere lost in their opaque algorithm. It was the begining of the end for me and a few weeks later I was off their platform.

When for weeks on end you have no enquiries from students, you begin to question yourself and your skill as a tutor. You wonder about your rates, about what it is you did better before and what you could improve on. The fact is that you will never know what happened. There was a shift in the Italki algorithm and you disappeared from public view. The Italki search robot does not care if students can’t find you and might just as well prefer it so as to make way for newer tutors.

I hope my experience with Italki saves the enthusiastic tutor unnecessary disapointments and provide them with an understanding of it from the inside. Remember that Italki is algorithm-regulated and that making a name for yourself will not be possible because not in their interest. Going full-time on Italki will not be possible either, nor will part-time. A trickle of lessons will come your way until one day you will realize no one new has contacted you for a few weeks. What happened? You just got spat out by the algorithm.

If your interest as a tutor is supplementary income, I’d say “Why not?” If you are rather looking for a place to progress and grow as professional, I will say “avoid at all costs”.

For students and users of Italki, I couldn’t say whether it is recommendable to use them. At best you might find a pleasing conversation partner, at worst you’ll find an opportunist wanting to make a few bucks on the side by tutoring. Remember that Italki always prioritises what is good for Italki, which has nothing to do with offering quality language teaching. It is a “money trickle upwards” pyramid of a website that wishes for the largest number of tutors to sign up so they can take their commission.

Don’t forget that just as Google it is a dynamic search engine that influences your results. Italki is not just an innocent alphabetic listing. Yes you have an entirely free choice of tutors but only according to what they want you to see. Because of their opaque nature, you will never know how they choose tutors or even if they know what a good tutor is.

In a way, Italki remind me of a little mouse in a wheel. It thinks it is getting somewhere but it really isn’t and you the tutor are that little mouse.

Never forget that Italki is a self-serving website that always looks out for their own interest. They don’t explain, they don’t justify, they look at you from the shadow and they take their commission.

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