What Does it Mean to be Free?

by Shelly Blake-Plock

In yesterday's post, we took a look at five essential business and tech features of the EdTech space which are often overlooked or misunderstood by educators. Today, I'd like to start looking more closely at each of those five features.


Coming in a number of varieties, "free" is a facet far more complicated than it may appear. We sort-of know "free" in the form that Twitter and Facebook offer us.

As both companies make money off of advertising, we're free to use the services in exchange for the data we give up; in fact the TOS of each company clearly spells that out. One of the things that data does is provide (relatively) nicely qualified resources for targeted advertising on each platform. The advertising opportunity is one of the reasons it is so important for users to understand what the social graph is. In fact, it makes for a pretty good argument about why the social graph is so important to the future of all sorts of businesses and industries.

Essentially: your social graph is a potential goldmine.

That said, the key thing, fiscally speaking, about these platforms from the average user's vantage point is that they are "free".

Just as Facebook and Twitter pull social data  — including, for instance, who your followers are or where you live or what field you work in or what movies you like — likewise any company using Facebook or Twitter to authenticate users as they log in to their service also have access to certain opportunities to manage and gather data from your social graph. In fact, you generally let them do this when you use your social media credentials to log in to another service. For example when you log into such a service via OAuth, if the service uses permission scopes (as Twitter and Facebook both do) you are informed before authorizing what the 3rd party can collect and do on your behalf. That kind of agreement is now pretty much baked into the Internet.

On one hand, this is arguably good from a security standpoint, so long as the credentialing provides limited access to do things like, for instance, keep track of and post what you are listening to on a social music platform; if someone does hack you via the 3rd party, ideally they will have limited access to screw up your account. On the other hand, you should realize that by logging in via your social media credentials, you are essentially giving license to the 3rd party to access a piece of your social graph.

The often misunderstood (and to some folks frankly scary) aspect of the social graph is that we've reached the point where technology actually improves in some degree in correlation to what amount of privacy we are willing (even anonymously) to give up.

That's the (technological) bed we've made.

There are two other "free" models that I'd like to turn to: freemium and "freely available".

Freemium is the typical model most of us know as "if you want premium features or more storage, you have to pay for it". And freemium is freaking huge in this generation of EdTech.

Part of the allure to the freemium model is related to the difference in how we experience software from the way we did just several years ago. Back then, either our computer came with a limited functionality OEM version of the software or we bought the "home/school/pro" version based on our assumed needs. Now we have EdTech available in a variety of "consumerish" models based on consumer software available via Cloud and SaaS models. Now, whether schools and districts are ready to procure classroom-centric SaaS technologies is the subject of a future post, but it is suffice to say that individual early adopter teachers are increasingly turning towards freemium models (or models that imply an upsell version will be coming in the future).

The leading current-gen EdTech platforms either currently offer a freemium model or plainly appear to be building scale in order to offer tiered pricing and features in the near term. Freemium models are particularly powerful. Just keep in mind that the features available — especially with regards to platforms that charge on the basis of storage space — are set up to make considerable returns in the long haul. Budget accordingly and realize what you are getting into. There is no such thing as free lunch (or free storage).

The latter model, that which offers "freely available" materials or features — especially in the space around content and instructional materials — is particularly something of a Wild West. Nota bene: there is an important distinction to be made here between the "freely available" materials of publishers and the like and the materials available freely as OERs (open educational resources). Nonetheless, and to really turn the whole thing on its ear, OER content is in no way regulated as such and often serves only as advertising and marketing materials serving to provide vendors with sales leads for more profitable offerings. That said, there is a wealth of great OER material out there and there are a number of companies and organizations dedicated to the distribution of the best OER content.

Shop (and search) wisely.

For all of these reasons and more, no educator should assume that "free" means "free". And where something is offered for free, educators and education buyers should be vigilant in understanding exactly what they are getting into and should be conscious that more than ever they are expected to be savvy buyers. Secondarily, the nature of "free" in no way implicates that a given company is more or less "honest". We're talking about business models; how a business actually behaves is a whole other story independent of its preferred model (or lack thereof).

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