5 Ways Free Education Software Can Come at Unexpected Costs

5 Ways Free Education Software Can Come at Unexpected Costs

By Scott Welch     Sep 12, 2014

5 Ways Free Education Software Can Come at Unexpected Costs

If a software company wants to give its product away free to educators, that’s a good thing for schools, teachers and students, right?

After all, there’s not a lot of money in education budgets these days. And if companies--along with their visionary, deep-pocketed investors--now find it fashionable to give their products away so as to show a large user base and good growth numbers, isn’t this a boon that works in educators’ favor?

Many companies give away products that educators can use for free. In a so-called “freemium” model, some of these companies offer premium versions with expanded features if you pay a little money.

What do these services have in common? They all start out free, and they can be quickly adopted by students and teachers without requiring buy-in from administrators and districts.

On the surface, free sounds good. Teachers get easy access to try stuff without any centralized budgetary or IT approval required. In most cases, users just create a user ID and log in. If they want to add student and parent access, they just create additional accounts, also for free.

But IT professionals and school administrators we speak with tell us they’re starting to worry about very real risks and pitfalls associated with free systems in education for five main reasons:

1. Free systems usually aren’t very robust

Free solutions in education are usually relatively simple technology. The feature set is designed to minimize support costs instead of supporting sound pedagogy. So, district and state grading schemes, stranding, streaming, state standards and more are simply non-existent. Support for school or district-wide reporting and data analysis is absent. And what region doesn’t have unique assessment and reporting standards?

2. Free systems aren’t integrated with district systems

Free systems are typically not integrated with the school or district main student information system (SIS), the identity management system that controls logins across multiple applications (e.g. Microsoft’s Active Directory), or any attendance database, report card or resource scheduling system. Sometimes there’s no data sharing of assessment results into your online gradebook. It’s hard to connect to systems like this and do it in an elegant way, so very few free tools do.

3. Free systems often push the administration burden to teachers

Because they’re not connected to district systems, free sites typically have no knowledge of which students are in a given class or school. Teachers are often left with the challenge of inputting students and classes for a gradebook or student rewards system, for instance, and removing and adding students as they come and go. When it comes to parent communication, some teachers take on the burden of running their own email lists, managing updates themselves as parents and their email addresses change. Some technically advanced teachers even attempt websites for individual classes and resource sharing. Teachers shouldn’t be shouldering these additional responsibilities!

This opt-in nature also makes for inequity across a school or district. Students with the keen teachers get access to the cool tools, but other students are left out. Often, teachers in the highest-need schools are already overwhelmed. The last thing they need is to become experts in CSV files or email service provider list management.

When you add up the number of hours it takes for teachers and administrators to manage “free” systems, how free are they, really?

4. What's free today might not be in the future--or may even be gone

How can you budget to maybe have to pay at some point for a tool you count on using today for free? What if there’s no money in your budget the year the vendor decides to start charging? What do you do? Stop using the system?

The freemium model is not working for everyone. Many companies that are giving their software away--and their investors--are waking up to the fact that freemium is great when it works, but it doesn’t actually work all that often.

If a vendor doesn’t find some way to make money, no matter how much capital they’ve raised, their funding will dry up and they'll go out of business. In other words, even the most well funded companies need to crack the revenue code, and not all will. And that’s going to lead to even bigger headaches for schools that will cost even more to fix. Companies need revenue to continue development and to support existing installations, i.e. to survive.

5. You may find yourself paying an unexpected price

Users of social media like Facebook have been learning the old saw: If you’re not paying for a product or service, you’re the product. While there are guidelines in education and laws in many countries worldwide aimed at protecting student data, even big companies like Google that should know better have made mistakes. Now, if Google can mess up, how many other companies may cut corners as they try to monetize teacher and student information because that’s their only path to revenue?

At some point free solutions can suddenly come at an unexpected cost. That cost may be through licensing fees, fees for upgrades, or service fees. Maybe advertising you may not want. Or perhaps that cost comes in the form of lost data when a company goes away because it couldn’t stay in business and refused to give you a way to export your data.

District IT personnel sometimes get involved, but not always for the reasons you might think. IT staff are increasingly being called on to police teachers’ applications to mitigate school districts’ legal exposure. How many well-meaning teachers understand the potential for litigation for accidentally sharing a student’s academic information with someone they thought was a parent or guardian? Or maybe who was a parent at one time, but isn’t any longer after a court ruling? Teachers shouldn’t be expected to shoulder the added burden of knowing about and managing critical information that the school office or district is already managing.

It’s only smart for educators to look carefully before tying themselves to free or freemium services. Schools and boards will forego free software for the right software. For instance, 29 New York City schools opted out of a free Department of Education-developed data management system in favor of a paid one.

The takeaway here is clear: “Free” solutions can cost your school or district real time, real money and real results. When looking for future systems, place special emphasis on platforms that integrate with your district-wide legacy applications, such as student information systems, so that teachers aren’t shouldering the burden of data entry. And last but not least, plan for properly managed school or district-wide rollouts to ensure that all students and teachers get the benefits of modern tools, not just the early adopting teachers and their students.

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