I’m a huge fan of free. I believe in what my teacher friend Mike Soskil says: a teacher’s favorite price is FREE.
For years in the classroom, I scoured the Internet for the best free digital tools and web apps.
On this blog, I’ve tried for years to show educators the amazing things that can be done with the fruits of the Internet for free.
Now, however, I’m starting to change my tune a bit about only using free tech tools in the classroom.
Free is still awesome. But if a website or app is a great fit, I don’t think we can count out paying for it.
Google is free, but it’s not
One of my favorite sets of digital tools for the classroom has been and still is G Suite (Google Apps).
Google’s productivity tools are powerful. In fact, in many ways, they’re just as powerful as the software many school districts bought for years as software and still buy now. (Yep, I’m looking at you, Microsoft …)
- I love designing with Google Drawings.
- I pop open and share new Google Docs all the time.
- Google Maps is a go-to classroom tool for me.
- Some of the lesser-known ones, like Google MyMaps, have amazing classroom potential.
Google is free to use, but in a way, it’s not free at all.
We’re not paying with dollars. Instead, we’re paying with our attention.
Google has made billions of dollars — and will continue making billions of dollars — through advertising. Even if some of Google’s immediate methods for generating income are off-limits in schools, they’re creating Google advocates (like me) out of students. Eventually — when kids get off campus and when they graduate — Google will cash in by displaying them ads.
This isn’t enough for me to quit using Google. But I think we have to remind ourselves that free isn’t really free.
Also, remember that with a behemoth in the room like Google, it can stifle the attempts of start-ups to create great products in the marketplace.
(Again, not saying that you should abandon using Google products. I just want us to keep this in mind as we use them.)
How KidBlog broke my heart
So, let’s talk about those start-ups. Any web tool or app that you use in the classroom was a start-up at some point.
One of my first digital tool loves was KidBlog.
I loved that I could manage a class of students. That they could find and read each other’s work easily.
That they could comment and discuss digitally.
It was all so easy. It was perfect.
Then KidBlog went to a paid platform, and I was irate.
I had built my class around having my students blog. What was I going to do if I had to pay for this tool?
The annual fee for KidBlog is currently $54 per year (or $12 per month). On a $40,000 per year teacher’s salary, that was about 0.1% of my gross annual salary. With taxes to pay and a family with three kids to support, that wasn’t easy money to spend out of pocket.
I tried alternative blogging tools that just weren’t as good, and I never went back to KidBlog.
But now, I wish I had.
(Quick disclaimer here: I still LOVE KidBlog and think it’s a fantastic option for student blogging. Just because I was irate back then doesn’t mean I don’t love them now and don’t support them … as you’ll see …)
Helping apps go from good to great
I didn’t realize it at that moment, but I passed up an opportunity when I jumped ship on KidBlog.
They’re like any of the dozens of other super popular classroom tools right now (or the hundreds of lesser-known tools). Here’s what I’ve learned about them:
- These companies are often driven by someone with a vision to make life easier and make learning greater in the classroom. (Yes, I know there are money-grubbing exceptions to that rule, but I’ve seen more saints than sinners here.)
- The teams that create these products often start small. They have equipment to buy, office space to lease, families to support.
- They don’t have the billions of dollars of ad support that companies like Google have. So they have to scrap. And if they do have money, it’s often venture capital — investment money with investors who want a return on their investment.
- An advantage they have, though, is accessibility. You can often get through to real people who can help you immediately — or pretty quickly.
- Plus, they’re agile. I’ve seen these teams make changes to their products in a matter of days —sometimes hours! — based on feedback from teachers.
The opportunity I missed with KidBlog was this …
I could have supported a product that was perfect for me and my students.
I could have done my part to help them develop something that would enrich my students’ learning.
Finding funding for digital tools
My problem at that time was likely the same problem you might have have.
Classrooms often aren’t super well funded. (Surprise!)
How much money teachers spend out of their pockets is well documented in the news and in social media posts. (A lot.)
My budget for my classroom many years was $100. For a few years, I spent half of it on a subscription to quia.com because I loved how it helped my students practice vocabulary.
We don’t have to break the bank by subscribing to all of the en vogue online services. But if there are one or two, there’s often a way to find some funding. (Especially since a year’s subscription to many of them is less than $100.)
- Ask school leadership. Sometimes, we don’t have because we don’t ask. Talk to your school leaders about how a digital tool can impact learning. Sometimes, there are funds we didn’t know about. (Sometimes.)
- Ask the school community. Sometimes, there’s someone — a parent, a grandparent, someone whose kids have graduated through your schools — who wants to support education. (Sometimes.) They get the blessing of having helped, and you get access to the tool you love. Everyone wins.
- Look for business or community foundation partners. The two rural Indiana counties where I’ve taught weren’t flush with cash. But both had community foundations that were looking to donate to worthy causes, and schools were a favorite target. Local businesses are willing to donate as a tax write-off sometimes. (Sometimes.)
- Start a Donors Choose campaign. This is an easy way to promote awareness of your need. Plus, its reach can go far beyond your community. People you may never meet might help fund your project.
Often, you get what you pay for
Some digital tools that are free aren’t really free … kind of like Google.
Some free tools are clunky, glitchy and short on features because they aren’t well funded. Plus, their security may not be great. They may not be created for an educational setting.
Some are funded by investors and will need to turn a profit at some point.
The rare exception is a passion project that’s run by someone doing it out of the goodness of his/her heart.
There are no truly free digital tools. Somebody’s footing the bill.
I’m not under any pressure from any company to write this post. Nobody’s giving me kick-backs for registration.
If you haven’t done it before, start thinking about where the money comes from with the tech tools you use in the classroom.
And if you find one with premium features that supercharges learning in your classroom — and if you believe in it — consider paying for a subscription.
It’s one step we can take to help the tools we love to grow, to improve and to stick around.
It’s up to us.
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