Free for Schools Movement

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Three Shades of Free

Edtech usage has soared with the proliferation of free content and products. While free is nice, there are challenges for companies and users alike
Free vs. Paid Tools
Does free matter for adoption? Let the numbers do the talking

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Source: Company Websites, Angel List, Slate

The etymology backstory of the adjective “free,” offers a fascinating mix of usage and implications: the Old English, freo, meant “not in bondage, acting of one’s own will.” Proto-Germanic usage contributed “noble; joyful,” and Sanskrit, priyah, “own, dear, beloved.” The idea that free means “given without costs,” emerged in 1580s, followed in the 1850s with the lure of a “free lunch” to draw customers into American and British bars.

Free tech for schools has an equally complex backstory—part releasing from bondage, part noble and surely part free lunch. Not all “free” edtech products are the same—whether measured by intent, quality or effectiveness. In 2015, the movement for “free and open” resources grew in strength and depth. At the same time, the for-profit world’s production of “free” products has grown more complex.

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Here’s why.

Think of “free” tech for schools coming in three different shades with varying goals, motivations and supports.

Open Educational Resources: Governments and social activists, among others, see quality education—and the materials that support those—as a basic right and so have supported the development of “Open Educational Resources” (OER), materials that can be freely accessed, remixed, reused and shared. (David Wiley, who coined OER, characterizes it here.) OER are materials that are more than free; they also provide users with additional copyright permissions.

Over the past 18 months, governments and foundations have stepped up their support to help educators thoughtfully use OER. In October 2015, the US federal government launched its #GoOpen campaign to ensure “all students have access to high quality learning resources.” The Department of Education hired its first Open Education Adviser. Eleven states are also working with nonprofits to build out the K-12 OER Collaborative, to create comprehensive curriculum resources for the participating states. Additionally, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) noted that in 2015, more than half of US states (27 to be exact), either “use or promote OER at any level (state, district, school).”

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Using OER materials can be liberating for educators, who can fine-tune the resources to fit their students or pedagogy—but they also frequently involve some work: improving, refining or updating these materials are tasks shared by users. And as more people have both given away and shared OER materials via the Web, finding quality (and standards aligned) materials has become tougher.

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Executive Director and Co-Founder of CK-12
“Our intent now is the same as when we started... to be completely free and to let people use the content however they want to support learning.”
Free—from nonprofits

Some nonprofit organizations are putting the same kind of thought and muscle into building their tools and curriculum as companies do—but they give them away. Notable among these: Khan Academy, which has built and continued to refine thousands of lessons with support from philanthropists and foundations., spearheaded by Neeru Khosla, founded in 2007, first created content. Over the past 3.5 years, CK-12 has developed a holistic system for sharing customized materials, which teachers have turned into more than 135,000 “Flexbooks.” “Our intent now is the same as when we started,” says Khosla, namely “to be completely free and to let people use the content however they want to support learning.” Organizations such as CK-12 create and share their content as open educational resources and provide free access to interactive practice systems and a range of other software tools that support learning. Continuing to make these services freely available depends on their ability to secure supporting donors.

Free—for now

Companies have also offered their tools or curriculum—or a limited version—for free, minus OER’s additional copyright privileges. But increasingly, savvy educators recognize there is a cost. Many companies aim to coax users to pay up for “premium” accounts. Even those that have yet to introduce their premium account will eventually do so, including the likes of Edmodo (50 million users) ClassDojo (35 million users) and Remind (30 million users). As these companies grow older, the pressure to generate revenue will continue to grow—thus likely limiting how much “free” they can continue to provide.

One exception seems to be Google, whose presence in K-12 education ranges from Chromebooks (which are NOT free and Google reportedly doesn’t make money on them) to Google Apps for Education, which boasts 50 million users including students, teachers and administrators. In the commercial world, Google monetizes its vast reach through targeted advertising, a strategy that educators have largely rejected over the past year as they have rallied to protect student privacy. And so far, Google has said it will not take this path—vowing to not expose students to ads.

Free, no matter the shade, is influencing ideas, purchase and usage of content in our K-12 education system.

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Search and ye shall (maybe) find

While over 40% of educators reported using some OER resources in their classrooms just because tools are free doesn’t mean they don’t come at a cost. Many teachers devote countless hours, when it comes to free tools, searching for and vetting the quality of the tools or resources. “In our work at Highlander Institute, we are finding that teachers who meaningfully integrate OER often spend half of their planning time finding and vetting resources,” explains Michael Klein, Director of Knowledge-Sharing and Growth at Rhode Island’s Highlander Institute. A majority of teachers find individual free resources and weave them together with other resources they have access to. However, this work takes time and can be a huge burden for teachers.

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