Educational Technology: What is the Cost of Free?

I am so tired of the question “why should we buy your product when we can get the same thing for free?”

No, you can’t.

I get it, I really do. I was a teacher for a long time, wanting to improve my classroom with limited funds, and I was constantly on the hunt for “free”— free lessons, free stuff at conferences (books, rulers, pencils, etc.). I was also an administrator, having to make decisions about what to purchase with an ever-decreasing budget, so free options were always a consideration, although not often the choice. Because sometimes you have to weigh choices against more than just a price tag.

I could quote research here why one product is a better choice over another, or respond to other people’s thoughts on free technology, but I am going to take a much more personal approach. Why would I choose a product that costs money over a similar product that is free (or just significantly cheaper)? I write as an educator—my reason for purchasing or obtaining a new ed tech resource is to improve my instructional strategies or to help my students and teachers understand and learn better. Sometimes free is the right choice, sometimes paid is the right choice. But your choice should be based on more important factors than money—which product/resource will truly help you reach your end goal of improved learning and understanding?

My thought process for deciding between free vs. paid educational technology:

  1. Who created the product? When a product is created by people who actually have a background in the product they created, are experts in the field, and have years of proven products that work and do what they promise, I am more likely to go with paid instead of free (or more expensive over less expensive).
  2. Does the product do what it advertises and have a proven record? Can I verify that it will do what they say? Where are the facts? Where are the “consumer reports”? How widespread is its use and how long has it been on the market? What is the feedback from others who have used the product?
  3. Is the product reliable? Does it run as expected, consistently? Does it behave as I expect it to once I learn it (rather than changing on a regular basis in unknown ways)? Is there support if I have questions or concerns?  Is that support consistent, reliable, and knowledgeable?
  4. Are there resources that help me learn how to use the product or expand my use of the product? What kind of help and training is offered or supplied? Is this training or support reliable? Available? Consistent? Proven to work? Useful and relevant to my needs?

Perhaps I am an over-thinker when it comes to purchasing things. My decision-making process probably seems extreme, especially if we are talking about comparing educational resources. But, if this much thought goes into whether to buy one TV model over another, or a Droid over an iPhone, shouldn’t we give the same, or more, consideration when comparing one educational tool over another?  Isn’t the end product, the student learning, worthy of a true decision-making process that involves more than the fact that one is free and one is not?

To end on a cliché, you do often get what you paid for.

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