The Podcast: Why I’m Not a Fan of Free (At School) (Infrastructure, I Mean)

UPDATE: In the comments below, Mike advocates for free versions of desktop software.  I am completely in favor of those options for students and schools.  I also like free and open source software for digital infrastructure.  (Both the software packages I mention in the podcast are free and open source tools.) The “free” I’m talking about here is quite different.  Forgive the poor title choice.

In today’s podcast, I talk a little bit about my reaction to a Twitter conversation from yesterday about free tools and why I’m not necessarily in favor of them, at least for what I believe are basic educational needs.  We’ve got to support our schools and our classrooms and our educators and our students, but not on the backs and whims of third-party kindness. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts as I continue to develop my own.

Links I Mentioned

Steve‘s “luxury” tweet.

A smattering of some of the Twitter conversation. (These don’t do it justice, but will give you a bit of the flavor of the conversation.)

Vicki Davis’s posts on her Lively project/protest.

Direct Link to Audio

13 thoughts on “The Podcast: Why I’m Not a Fan of Free (At School) (Infrastructure, I Mean)

  1. Have to disagree here. Many students cannot afford the Office Suite or Adobe Suite even at educational prices. Anyway to allow them to access tools, and later make these decisions when they earn money of their own is best. The costs of most software packages lead to piracy if they have any interest of using them at all. It’s like saying don’t use libraries because they are free.

  2. Mike,

    Perhaps my title isn’t the best one – and perhaps you should give the podcast a listen and then come back and comment. I’m not talking about free software for students to use on their computers. As I read the post above, I see some room for confusion – which I think the audio will clear up for you. That said, I’m going to edit the post so that it’s a little clearer.

  3. This is one we’ve fiddled with for a while. We do have a WPMU site, Moodle and B2Evolution, MediaWiki, Joomla, you name it.

    Where I struggle is, teachers feel comfortable setting up a blog on blogger or blogmeister or a wikispace and for the most part are happy.

    The other issue is manpower and capacity. Someone has to administer these things. Our Moodle install was a direct result of BlackBoard’s poor support by our province. We’re happy with it. But at the same time, I’m not ready to tell folks, they have to use the district stuff.

    So we’re definitely in between on this issue.

    Dean Shareskis last blog post..What face to face is good for

  4. Dean,

    I hear you. I think what I’m interested in is providing a basic minimum level of service and tools for folks. And I’m even willing to tell folks they have to use district stuff – once the district stuff is comparable in quality to other options out there. But I’d rather sell them on the idea that we will look after the data, and the kids, in a way that is better and more sustainable in the long run.
    Yes, there is a manpower issue. But we find people to manage kitchens and drive buses and look after kids before and after school. We need to find people to do this work, too. Or to properly and sustainably pay to have it done. How long will we be able to rely on the complete kindness of strangers? Why should we sell ourselves short like that?

  5. I’ll come at this from the angle of a provider of free services. In your podcast you said that teachers shouldn’t rely on these companies (like mine) and sometimes expect too much (like 100% run time, consistent speed, etc).

    I beg to differ. We host free Moodle and I can’t tell you how much stress is caused as we constantly look to improve the service, expand server capacity or upgrade our servers. We understand that teachers are using our services and that they probably are not using us with a backup plan, so if we go down, someone’s learning opportunities are impacted (this seriously keeps me up at night!).

    Sure teachers expect a lot (but we WANT them to!). We put ourselves out there as a provider of a service–a quality service–and if it is subpar, we’re out of business. Companies in the realm of education have to understand that there will be lots of requests, lots of support and lots of customer interaction; if they don’t, I argue that they are in the wrong business.

    Additionally, these companies should have a clear revenue stream to support the free services, look at TeacherTube or Ninehub (advertising/advanced services), or 21classrooms (Advanced services), or edu20 (sell the platform to businesses). If these companies aren’t making a value proposition that makes their business plan work then there will be issues. Free can only be free if $ is coming from somewhere else.

    It was a great podcast and I’m glad I listened. I just wanted to chime in that teachers should take full advantage of these free services, but they should also understand that Free =! forever and they should always consider how a free service is supported.

  6. Bud,
    Great podcast about shifting the roles and responsibilities for student and staff publishing to the district. Our district has been discussing that as well. It is something that should be done.
    However, for a district as large as mine (Los Angeles Unified), the manpower to sustain and support this, not only technically, but also in making sure that what is published to the outside is safe and secure (and not subject to “lawsuit-itis”), is enormous. I wonder if we’ll ever get there.
    Getting buy in from administrators, IT staff, and educators is essential. A huge, but undeniably essential task…

    Janice Stearnss last blog post..Grants and Funding Opportunities

  7. Hi Bud,

    There are some strong feelings involved with this issue. I believe you and I see eye to eye on this topic, and it’s important to be very clear when discussing this. Freeware and FOSS (free and open source software) are quite different.

    Joomla, Moodle, WordPress, Ubuntu, OpenOffice, the Python language–they’re all open source and have a strong support community backing them.

    Freeware, though, is something else. Because programmers (even hobbyists like me) can’t get at the source code, we can’t improve freeware. There are features in Engrade (our freeware grading system for this year) that I think would have been non-issues in the open source sphere, simply because someone would have fixed them long ago. Open source development will also bring many features to fruition that a small development team may never consider tackling.

    That said, if a piece of software is good enough, I’ll pay for it. Lately though, there seems to be a suitable FOSS version of almost everything I need in my teaching.

  8. Good thoughts Bud.

    I think when your school has just a few teachers who are really using technology it is important that they start with free services.

    When trying stuff out a free service is great.

    I also think some companies are altruistic and like to provide free service to education as a sideline.

    That being said I also think you put forward some valuable arguments for actually paying for something when you can get a similar service for free.

    Brendans last blog post..Changing the Nature of Education

  9. That’s right… I’m from the same school division as the famous (… or is it infamous) Dean Shareski… see his post above. Dean is a very well known curriculum consultant so he comes from the “education” side of our team. I, on the other hand, am a 26+ year IT professional who happens to be hired by an educational institution. That hopefully sets the stage for my response. To put it most bluntly NOTHING IS FREE!!! To say that there is no cost to open source software (including the undelying O/S – usually linux) is a myth. There is a set of skills that an organization (education or not) that MUST be in place to support any platform… whether it’s MS Windows, Apple OS/X, or linux. Our school division currently supports MS Windows, Apple OS/X and also provides many services on the linux platform… open source and purchased. I know the talent pool that is available for each platform and I can tell you that it is much easier to replace a Windows support person that a linux or OS/X person… it’s a simple matter of numbers… many more people are trained and proficient on Windows. Don’t get me wrong… I’m talking about a minimum level of support here… not the gurus who are only the top 10%… but people who can adequetly support a standard OS environment. I’m fortunate enough to have a group of over-acheivers who are respected in the education sector and beyond. But any “system” is the sum of its parts and if there is not an adequet pool of people available to replace (people leave… they move up… etc.) current staff, then how sustainable is system itself? Highly skilled people are hard to find, especially if it is not a Windows system… excellent Apple OS/X staff seem to be the hardest to find by the way 🙂 There are other issues as well when it comes to supporting a particular platform. What 3rd party tools are available for deployment, management, monitoring, etc. for each platform? I can tell you that developers need to send their kids to college too, so there are many more Windows based tools that ultimatley reduce support costs over the life of the product. Integration is yet another issue that one must consider when thinking about what a platform costs. Can the platorm integrate with organizations authentication system (i.e. single sign-on)? I can tell you that you do NOT want multiple authentication systems operating in your environment or you will have very unhappy users if they need to have numbers of usernames and/or passwords… who maintains that? I’m looking at the strategic value and end costs to the organization up to this point but there is of course, the student’s home computer system to consider. You would be surprised at how cheap some of the Microsoft offrerings are for students (some are $0 to the student if the school division has signed the right Microsoft agreement) as well as staff for home-use. The pay-back here (if you have standardized on Microsoft Office) is that you have “free” training… they use and learn it at home… a huge $$$ savings for any organization… less PD dollars. Of course Open Office/Star Office are excellent “free” systems that can read/write Microsoft files if necessary. Like I said, we support 3 basic platforms at this time and work very closely with our curriculum team as well as the business side of the organization to come up with great solutions that support student and staff on the curriculum side as well as the people that support them on the business side. I think it’s more about building/nurturing an organization that is a “team” rather than any particular technology platform. Great conversation peeps… keep the posts coming!

  10. Bud,

    I agree with you. Here is the set-up we’re running here in Bangkok.

    http://www.thethinkingstick.com/?p=764

    Nothing is free…but if we want these systems to continue to work for our students and teachers we need to take responsibility for them as educators, districts and schools.

    Our issue, free services like wikispaces, and edublogs which teachers use here extensively are great, but the problem is most of them do upgrades at midnight or 2am USA time…which is in the middle of our school day. Making these systems unreliable to teachers when they need them most.

    We also have the benefit of living in Asia where network and IT support staff are cheap comparatively. We have 13 IT support staff for 1900 student and 250 teachers, and they cost us very little. Beyond that our school provides teachers with a 2MB line to teacher housing (shared among staff…but still..it’s a priority that all teachers are connected even at home).

    My question to those school districts in the states:

    Have you looked at outsourcing your IT work?

    Seriously, you don’t need to employ someone locally to look after a Moodle/wordpress/wiki server. The cost of the server itself is minimal in the long run, it’s the people that cost money…and what happens when you are paying pennies on the dollar for support? I don’t know to many schools in the states who are looking at outsourcing these kinds of jobs as a solution, and yet that is the solution for many companies in the states.

    We outsource all over Asia here at my school. We outsource custom application creation, data backup, etc. because it is a good financial move.

    Again, I think this is why International schools will/are leading this reform in education. We don’t just use the network we have for learning, we use it to lower costs, communicate and collaborate with different people around the world.

    This comment from Janice sums it up for me:

    “However, for a district as large as mine (Los Angeles Unified), the manpower to sustain and support this, not only technically, but also in making sure that what is published to the outside is safe and secure (and not subject to “lawsuit-itis”), is enormous. I wonder if we’ll ever get there.”

    If you’re worried about these issues…you won’t!

    Just my 2cents,

    Jeff

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