Lost Potential: Confronting the Cost of Free EdTech

Guest post by Sandra Kuipers

Free educational technology is not necessarily open educational technology and failing to make this distinction impacts education on an individual and global level. Online resources and technologies present attractive opportunities to infuse learning with digital media and content. However, these resources are not created equally: they may be either open, provided with a license that enables remixing and sharing; or they may be proprietary, provided with a license that protects and restricts their use (Lessig, 2009; Wiley, 2014). This inequality poses a critical issue in education technology (EdTech). Crucially, these licenses can easily become confused or overlooked when the resources themselves are free. In this critical reflective paper, I confront what the ambiguity between free and open means for education and what it costs. Beyond monetary costs, free educational resources and technology accrue opportunity costs, which need to be considered each time educators choose between free and open EdTech.

Free vs. Open

The difference between paid and free is a lot clearer than the difference between free and open. Educators and institutions are acutely aware of how much money they’re spending on their technology and resources. However, the difference is not as clear when they choose between free and open EdTech. In my inquiry into this topic, I realized this distinction was often neglected or misunderstood, which presented a compelling area to investigate further. My aim is not to argue the case between paid and open EdTech, which is well stated (Blomgren, 2018; Olcott, 2012; Wiley, Bliss, & McEwen, 2014), but rather to critically examine the resources and technology which are already free.

As an open source developer considering the topic of free EdTech, I found myself asking: Why do creators choose to make something free, yet not open? Why not take that extra step? I was curious to consider the implications of EdTech that is free and closed, versus EdTech that is free and open. Throughout this inquiry, when I use the term free EdTech, I am referring to resources and technology that are free yet proprietary: those that are protected under a restrictive license. When I use the term open EdTech, I am referring to resources and technology which are both free and open: those that are provided with a permissive license. These include the Creative Commons license (Lessig, 2009) or one of the many open source licenses, including the GNU General Public License or MIT License (Open Source Initiative, n.d.). This distinction is critical to establish, as my inquiry has revealed a high degree of ambiguity in this topic.

Free has many meanings. In the software world, this ambiguity is famously characterized through Stallman’s (2002) slogan: “Think free as in free speech, not free beer” (p. 133). This statement highlights the difference in English between giving something away “for free” (gratis) and providing something “with little or no restriction” (libre) (“Gratis versus libre,” n.d.). In the copyright world, one meaning does not necessarily imply the other: something can be given away for free yet still retain a proprietary license (Lessig, 2009). Stallman’s analogy conveys the misconceptions surrounding the word free and how these misconceptions can affect the licenses that creators choose to apply to their work. Although Stallman’s statement was aimed at software development, the ambiguity of the word free also impacts education. Educators and institutions continuously choose between which technologies to use and invest in (Weller, 2018), and each decision represents an opportunity cost.

Opportunity Costs

The opportunity cost of choosing free EdTech over open EdTech may be difficult to assess but is nonetheless vital for educators to consider. Opportunity cost, a term used in economics, refers to “the loss of other alternatives when one alternative is chosen” (“Opportunity Cost”, n.d.). Although primarily used in an economic context, opportunity cost considers any potential loss when making a decision. When both alternatives are already free, as in the case of free versus open EdTech, the consideration entails many hidden non-monetary costs. Assessing these costs requires looking at the “the bigger picture of educational technology” (Selwyn, 2010, p. 70), from the micro-level of individuals to the macro-level of globalization. In my inquiry, I’ve explored these opportunity costs on an individual, local, and global level.

Individual Costs

Free EdTech may not have a monetary cost, but it often offsets its expense through other means. Student data may be collected, from clicks and page views to individual metrics of aptitude and behaviour, and critics of online privacy are wise to question what is being done with this data (Polonetsky & Tene, 2014). For example, Google Classroom is a free educational platform, provided by the search-engine giant under the banner of its Google Apps for Education program. Lindh and Nolan (2016) warn that concealed behind Google’s offering of a “free public service” is a business model for online marketing. Through this business model, “Google’s information on users’ behaviour on the web is collected through the DoubleClick server and is thereafter packaged and sold to advertisers” (p. 647). Lindh and Nolan argue that educational institutions assuming that Google is providing them with a free service have been severely misled. “It is, in fact Google that has access to free digital labour, as people through their everyday practices produce the commodity that creates Google’s economic wealth” (p. 647). In the crucial and often alarming topic of data privacy and surveillance, free EdTech is not the same as open EdTech. An individual’s privacy is a critical consideration among the unseen opportunity costs of free EdTech.

Local Costs

Resources that are not open remain fixed in the original context in which they were created. Blomgren (2018) notes how publishers and content creators may “attempt to provide accurate content” (p. 61), yet they cannot possibly contextualize learning materials for every local area or culture. The result is that the context of proprietary resources is either highly generalized or relates to a specific instance that may not be relevant to local learners. Localizing and contextualizing learning is an essential part of how learners connect and engage with new topics: curriculum becomes more relevant when it relates to a student’s local area or current events (Davis, Sumara, & Luce-Kapler, 2000). Blomgren suggests that the “the need for place-based learning highlights how the older model of educational [resources] has become challenged by the [Open Educational Resource (OER)] movement” (p. 62). Free educational resources may help a teacher build their lesson plans, but unless those resources are also open, they do not provide the opportunity to localize or contextualize those lessons.

Global Costs

Free EdTech is often presented under the banner of altruism but may ultimately fall into the trap of solutionism. Morozov (2013) warns that humans are increasingly looking at technological solutions for problems that are necessarily social and cultural. This technological solutionism often doesn’t address the root of a problem and is more than likely to have unintended consequences. In my critical inquiry, I looked at Khan Academy, which promotes a “mission to provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere” (Khan Academy, 2018, para. 2). This platform provides visually appealing educational resources, including videos, step-by-step tutorials, and discussion boards. However, looking towards the goal of democratizing education, Hansen and Reich (2015) found that free learning resources do not necessarily “benefit the disadvantaged” or “decrease gaps between rich and poor” (p. 1245). Presenting free EdTech as a solution to global education reduces the issue to a matter of cost, which research into the digital divide has found is not the only consideration.

Several of the free EdTech platforms available online are products of educational philanthropy, which raises questions of motives and social implications. Regan and Steeves (2019) examine the impact of technology company foundations, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. They cautioned that EdTech offered by these foundations may come at a social cost, including a weakening sense of “the public in public education”, and desensitization of youth to the “surveillance state” (para 3). While free and attractive to educators, these initiatives aim to use big data and learning analytics as a solutionist approach to issues in education. “Rather than supporting smaller class sizes and better-paid teachers, elites such as the Gates and Walton foundations are advancing ideas linked to measurement, testing and performance” (Polonetsky & Tene, 2014, p. 19). EdTech from billionaire philanthropists may be offered for free, but it is not necessarily open. Rather than open EdTech authored by and representative of the many, this free EdTech represent the motives and perceived solutions of the few.

Read and Write Culture

The ability to copy one another is central to the human learning process. In Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony, Laland (2018) identifies copying as a primary mechanism of cultural evolution. Human culture evolved by watching, learning, repeating, and improving on each other’s actions. In considering the implications between free and open, I wondered: What happens to learning when we prevent this essential process of mimicking and modifying creative works? The choice between free and open EdTech revolves around the type of culture educators want to foster: a read-only culture, or a read-and-write culture of iterative and generative creation (Lessig, 2008). Openness is an invitation: it offers the potential to participate in the evolution of human knowledge and creativity.

Educators need not be passive consumers of the content they teach. Jenkins (2009) illustrates how the internet offers the potential of a “participatory culture,” particularly in education. Yet, this potential relies on the inherent rights and affordances of its digital infrastructure. In Free Culture, Lessig (2004) explores how copyrights and patents are a relatively recent invention and tend to benefit corporations over individuals. For much of human history, Lessig explains, creative works were not controlled by the law. Inventors and artists throughout history were free to imitate and copy each other: and they did. Educators, as participants in the continuum of human culture, need to be acutely aware of copyright and licensing issues. If educators come to see free EdTech as “good enough,” then they have lost a freedom truly essential to human culture.

Realizing Potential

An opportunity cost, however, does not matter if the opportunity itself would be wasted. In my inquiry into the issue of free versus open EdTech, it was easy to fall into the trap of open determinism. Open licensing offers potential and potential alone. Adding an open license to resources, software, and technology does not automatically solve issues of relevancy, diversity, privacy, and contextualization (Blomgren, 2018; Olcott, 2012). The difference between free and open EdTech is moot if the potential isn’t realized.

Education can benefit from openness. However, as an advocate of open source and open culture, I realized I need to temper my enthusiasm with a pragmatic perspective. Open Educational Resources (OER), for example, face many challenges, including discovery, sustainability, quality, and localization (Wiley, Bliss, & McEwen, 2014). Olcott (2012) reminds educators and researchers that “there is no silver bullet solution to the “open” road ahead. OER are not a panacea for resolving all the issues in a global society or in the higher education sector” (p. 289). As advocates of openness present open licensing as a social good, they too are in danger of perpetuating “technological solutionism” (Morozov, 2013). The potential that open licensing offers needs to be met with the intention and empowerment to utilize it. The cost of free EdTech may be lost potential, but for potential to matter in the first place, it must be realized.

Final Thoughts

Both the concept of free and the concept of open are hard to define. My inquiry into this topic began with a look at the ambiguity of the word free. However, the concept of open suffers from a similar ambiguity. Cronin (2017) notes that “open education narratives and initiatives have evolved in different contexts, with differing priorities” (p. 16). As an open source developer, I realize I can often be blind to how confusing the concept of open can be for the uninitiated. Cronin explains that open is used to describe everything from resources, to teaching practices, to technologies, as well as to refer to the values of open culture itself. This wide “umbrella term” for open (Weller, 2104) may make it difficult for educators to understand the specific implications of using open technology and open resources. Watters (2014) also “cautions that while such multivalence can be a strength, it is also a weakness when the term becomes so widely applied that it is rendered meaningless” (Watters, as cited in Cronin, 2017, p. 16).

Communicating the opportunity cost of free versus open EdTech is an issue of both awareness and articulation. In 2007, the Cape Town Open Educational Declaration boldly declared that, through open initiatives, “educators are creating a world where each and every person on earth can access and contribute to the sum of all human knowledge” (para 1). However, in the follow-up 10th Anniversary project in 2017, they recognize that there remains much work to be done to realize this vision. “The challenge is not in reaching enough people, but rather in articulating the meaning and value of open education in a way that resonates with mainstream audiences” (Cape Town Open Educational Declaration 10th Anniversary, 2017, p. 4). To help teach educators the opportunity cost of free versus open EdTech, advocates of openness first need to articulate what open education actually means.

When educators see the word free, they need to be encouraged to look closer and dig deeper. Free is not the enemy of open, but it can easily overshadow it. Blomgren (2018) suggests that “rather than simply being for or against [Open Educational Resources], educators at all levels need to be deeply aware of the various and connected implications of the OER transformation” (p. 65). This awareness begins with an intentional decision for educators to learn about open EdTech: to look beyond issues of free or paid, and critically assess the underlying licenses of the technologies they use.

The cost of free EdTech is lost potential: the difference between a read-only culture and a read-and-write culture. If educators wish to create participatory, contextually relevant learning opportunities for their students, they need to be aware of which culture they’re choosing to foster. As stewards of human knowledge and creativity, educators need to be aware of copyright and licensing issues. However, awareness alone is not enough. Educators and advocates of openness need to take action. We have work to do. Realizing the potential of open licensing requires a commitment to articulating the value of open culture, as well as empowering others to reuse, remix, and redistribute educational technology.


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