Is it Worth it? The True Price of Free EdTech

Monday, August 20, 2018
Is it Worth it? The True Price of Free EdTech

“Free” edtech products can be a great resource for cash-strapped schools and parents—but what is their true cost? Let’s examine some of the models used by edtech developers that release their products for free, as well as how to get the best bang for your (lack of) buck.  Just remember that even if a program doesn't cost any money you may be paying for it in other ways.

 

Ad-based

Although ad-based edtech software and mobile apps are given away for free to customers, the developers make money from companies that pay a fee to advertise to users. The software company or app developer gives away the edtech product in hopes of making a profit off the advertising revenue.  


Benefits

There are thousands of free ad-based programs that are easy to obtain and switch out as needed. Simply download one and, if you don’t like it or find something better, you can delete it and download another without losing any money.
 

Drawbacks

The product user may be subject to variable amounts of advertising that could be delivered at the beginning and/or end of a lesson or as a banner across the top or bottom of the screen, which may interrupt the flow of learning. The strategy with ad-based programs is typically quantity over quality, so developers don’t necessarily have the funding or the need to hire subject matter experts. Consequently, you never really know how developmentally and subject-appropriate (or not) the advertising will be before you begin.

 

Data sales

Similar to the ad-based model in which a product is given away for free to produce advertising revenue, some developers create free products with the goal of collecting personal contact data (e.g., email, location, social media accounts) from users for sale to third parties. App creators may also collect usage data to sell or use for their own future product development.


Benefits

As with the ad-based model, thousands of free products are easily available through the data sales model. Download one, try it out, and enjoy the freedom to download another without losing any money.


Drawbacks

The drawbacks of the ad-based model also apply here, along with lack of privacy and an increased chance of receiving spam or unwanted product advertising if your contact information is sold to a third party.

 

Freemium

The “freemium” model provides basic access to an edtech product for free but requires payment for full access or additional features. Sometimes, access is time-restricted (e.g., 14 days for free) or level-based (e.g., only level 1 is available before payment is requested). The freemium model is designed to engage the user in the product, as an engaged user (or parent, or school) is more likely to pay for full service and spread positive word-of-mouth recommendations to friends, family, and colleagues.
 

Benefits

A freemium trial is beneficial in terms of evaluating whether a product will work in your classroom, be compatible with your hardware, engage your student/child, and live up to its marketing messaging. If the product doesn't deliver, you haven't lost any money by testing it out; if it does, you can confidently make the purchase.
 

Drawbacks

You or your students/children may get excited about a product you ultimately cannot afford.  

University-based

Researchers at universities receive research grants to study and develop edtech products for classroom and/or home use. Since the development of these products is usually bankrolled by nonprofit organizations or taxpayer-funded research grants, the products themselves tend to be free for use.


Benefits

University-based products tend to be rigorously designed, thanks to input from leading experts in the field during the development process. They are typically both free and high-quality.
 

Drawbacks

The process of adding features, fixing bugs, and updating a beta version that isn’t quite right can be lengthy—and you can’t just call customer service when something goes wrong. Moreover, when grant funding runs out, university-based products may no longer be supported and updated.

 

Evaluation tips

In sum, “free” edtech products can be used for everything from supplementing classroom instruction to helping your child get some extra spelling practice while waiting in line at the grocery store. However, keep in mind that you should spend time evaluating these products' subject matter and developmental appropriateness to understand just how you will end up paying for something “free.” Tips include:

  • Check out the product yourself before giving it to a student or child, and consider the following questions when you do:  

    • Does it seem age- and subject-appropriate?

    • If there are ads, are these distracting?

    • What terms are you opting into?

    • Is the product too limited in scope to truly be useful?  

    • Do the activities align with what you are trying to teach, as well as with best practices for teaching the subject?

  • Visit review sites like https://www.commonsense.org/education/ or http://reviews.childrenstech.com/ctr/home.php or https://www.edsurge.com/product-reviews to see what other parents, educators, and experts have to say.

  • Use free products as a supplement, not as the only educational tool.

  • Create lesson plans that can be tool-agnostic instead of building these around a product that may not always be available.

  • Read the terms of service to be sure you know what personal information is being collected and how this will be used or shared.

  • Consult other friends, colleagues, and parents for their product recommendations, and ultimately trust your gut.

 

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn and let us know your thoughts and experiences on this topic!

 


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