Saturday, September 9, 2017

Why free is not always best in education

We seem to think that everything on the net must be free and are very reluctant to pay for any service, no matter how good it may be. In education we use a wide range of services and tools in our daily work that are free to use in their basic form. Most of these are so-called freemium services; the basic version is free but if you want more interesting features like personalisation, greater storage capacity or extra functionality then you have to pay. The problem is that the idea of the free internet is so entrenched that few of us ever move on to the commercial version of the tools we use and love so much. We seldom stop to wonder how the people who invent these tools get money to pay their bills. We love free but we dislike all the ads that accompany it. In general if you pay you lose the ads, or at least the vast majority.

So I enjoyed reading Nik Peachey's excellent post this week, Why the culture of ‘free’ is damaging edtech & education, dealing with exactly this question and I just sat there nodding in agreement all the way through. The logic is pretty simple; if we don't pay for these resources the companies that offer them will soon go out of business and we'll lose them. The only exceptions to this principle are resources subsidised by advertising (like Google)and where you are the product, and the open source tools that are developed by enthusiasts without commercial interest. How many digital tools do you actually pay for? I pay for only a handful, the ones I love most, and the yearly cost of the pro versions is often very low. At the same time there are plenty of tools I only use in their free version.

We need to look beyond the mythology of the free internet and accept that good and reliable tools and services cost money, as in the physical world. Teachers are understandably unwilling to use their own money to subscribe but Peachey proposes giving teachers a small budget for digital tools to spend as they see fit, in the same way as many teachers are able to buy relevant literature for professional development.

A better alternative would be for schools to provide a budget for teachers to purchase licences for the tools they want to use with their students. I know that most schools and colleges already have a technology budget, but this is usually a centralised one with teachers often excluded from the purchase decision making process.

Giving teachers a part of this budget would not only ensure that they were able to access the tools and services that they like and need, but would also empower them to be part of the edtech development process within the school and make them much more likely to adopt and use more digital resources.

Of course, the most important digital resources are provided by the institution, such as the learning management system, file storage, e-mail and so on. But there is such a vast range of attractive digital resources out there that it is impossible to restrict teachers to only a handful of approved ones. Each teacher should be able to choose the resources that are most fit for purpose. Which tools would be on your list for upgrading?

1 comment:

  1. Certainly a big question inside the TEFL industry is how to make living if you don't have a sustainable teaching job. Ever more of our colleagues in the TEFL-Industrial-Complex (TIC) are in this position. Developing their blogs, seeking teaching gigs, inventing useful stuff in digital mindscapes. Alastair stresses: "accept that good and reliable tools and services cost money, as in the physical world." Better perhaps is "in the current capitalist world." Many people work, innvoate, passionately, not to earn a living but to be who they are, not selling their ideas in a marketplace. Many of the articles we write and publish, involving scores of hours of input, are never paid for in an monetary sense. Listen to the recent interview with Chomsky, he says some interesting things about why people work: We should in every reasonable and radical way be struggling to have cost-free dissemination of knowledge. That will require a different architecture of economy and society. In the one we're in, what Nik says (and Alastair underscores) of course seems to make some commercial even rational sense. But the sense we need is inexorably counter-hegemonic, in TIC and elsewhere.