Yes, but is it FREE?

One of the most fun aspects of my job is that I get to research and use lots and lots of innovative and new technology tools. I get to play with apps that help me improve my math fluency, assist me in learning another language, practice writing, or animating a movie to show what I know. It’s also really fun to be able to share with teachers a tool or trick that will help to make their lives easier.

However, I am often frustrated by the question that seems to jump out of teachers’ mouths before I even have a chance to show all the great things a resource can do. They immediately ask: “How much does it cost?” or “Is it free?” If a product costs money, it seems like it gets dismissed out of hand, despite how useful it may be. I will agree that many products out there claim to do everything and be the “next big thing” in education and fall far short of what they promise. It’s easy for companies to slap a bunch of educational buzz words on their promotional materials and sell it at high cost to schools and districts. As is often the case, these products over-promise and under-deliver. It is easy to see how one could become quite skeptical of educational products that cost money.

Where I find frustration is the expectation that all educational products should do all of these things – have high quality content, be ad-free, maintain student privacy, etc. – without having to pay for it. And it seems like this is an ed-tech phenomenon. I don’t encounter other areas where people demand high-quality food or clothing and don’t want to pay for it. If a product we buy does not suit our tastes, we can usually send it back and get something we do want. But in almost every instance, I pay for it. If an item of clothing doesn’t fit me but I’ve lost the receipt or the return period is over, I am out that money. The expectation that something will work the way we want it to comes along with the expectation that I will pay for it.

While I understand that we all have finite resources, it is unsustainable for a company or person to create products, share them with the world, and not expect to be compensated in some way. Even if he or she is not getting rich off of their product, there are still costs to maintaining the product – keeping it updated, fixing bugs, etc. That money has to come from somewhere.

On the other hand, there are a handful of really high-quality products that have a “freemium” pay schedule, where you can access certain features for free, and others cost. I think this model is quite appealing, because it’s sometimes challenging to envision how you might use a product until you can actually use it in your practice! The opportunity to “try it before you buy it” is a great model and one that I think is useful for teachers. This also allows the creators of the product to continue to offer the basics for free, while generating money to keep the product fresh and up to date, as well as free from bugs and software issues.

What say you? Is the “is it free” mentality an ed tech phenomenon? Do you believe in paying for educational products?

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4 thoughts on “Yes, but is it FREE?

  1. Brad @dreambition says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful post on what I refer to as “the high cost of free”. I don’t blame teachers but I do think a shift in the overall mindset on how schools approach digital products is needed. We are spoiled by the Google suite (lots written about how Going Google isn’t truly free) and other giants like Edmodo, Class Dojo, etc. who have all raised millions on the premise that they will eventually monetize. Some schools/states have figured out that they need to budget for digital tools and digital content but others still have curricular dollars flowing straight into Pearson and other textbook megacorps. Money for “edtech” shouldn’t need an “edtech” budget. If it’s a literacy tool it should come from the literacy budget….if it’s a math tool it should come from the math budget..Your point about unsustainability is the most important part (I reflected on that last winter http://www.21innovate.com/write/when-an-edtech-product-dies). Thank you for bringing the balanced approach to the table when working with your teachers!

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  2. Brian E. Bennett (@bennettscience) says:

    100% agree. I’ve also written on this idea from a perspective outside the classroom as well as inside as a user.

    I think the main break point is in the fact that teachers already pay for a lot of their own materials. Making critical decisions about what to pay for and what not is important and difficult to do. Sometimes the free app is useful enough to do the task. The problem comes when the free isn’t “good enough,” and users feel that it should be without added cost.

    I think freemium is a dangerous basket to put eggs in because conversions to paid users are so, so low – less than 10% in most cases. It still isn’t economical and many freemium services are absorbed by corporations or close doors. I think the conversation should focus on added value to work and not just “this is awesome and free, so you should use it.”

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    • Allison K. says:

      I agree, Brian. That’s where I find a lot of frustration too. If I provide a free tool option to teachers, they are then frustrated when it doesn’t work exactly right or they want it to do something else.

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  3. Brian Bennett says:

    Sorry if this is a double post…I think my comment was eaten along the way earlier.

    This is an incredibly important discussion and one that’s not brought up too often. I’ve also written about the cost of free, one from outside the classroom and another back in teaching.

    I think we need to shift back to value beyond the cost. I understand spending my own money for materials…but I pay for services I find helpful. It’s part of what I work into my budget each year (personal budget, that is) because it changes my approach to teaching much more than making my presentations or slides more interesting. Being critical about the tools we select is important because it helps us focus on actual problems and not perceived needs.

    Freemium, though, poses a bigger problem. Most apps and services convert less than 10% of their users (often much less than 10%) which doesn’t help solve the challenge of staying open. Freemium allows people to say they’re users and then demand more functionality from their “dedicated use” and “promotion.” Free users aren’t customers, but they expect to be heard the loudest, and freemium promotes that behavior. I’d rather see companies begin to really put value on their services by charging appropriate rates. It simplifies the relationship – customer or not – as well as their own work, which means better apps for everyone.

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