The New Education Economy of “Free”

Published: 2014-10-27 09:42 |

Category: Comment | Tags: edtech, education technology, economy, free, fremium

Have you ever been leading a session and been faced with the statement, “That’s great, but what does it cost?” The new economics of education rely on free as the baseline of worth in the classroom, and that’s bad for ideas and growth.

I know that money is tight1. I’ve spent hundreds of my own dollars on classroom supplies, materials, lessons, and tissues…so many tissues. I’m concerned that the value of materials is rooted in what it costs rather than its instructional value, which is both good and bad for education.

We need to differentiate between the free sharing of ideas and the free sharing of products.

The two are not synonymous, yet they are often equivocated. Consider the following:

I may share an idea on Twitter, my blog, or at a conference. It could be a lesson plan, a lab activity, or something to do with students learning. I have no ownership over any part of it, other than it’s something I came up with. The idea is ephemeral…it lives and dies with the action that’s taken.

Someone reads or hears the idea and runs with it. They create a lesson plan, supplemental materials, and other products which can be shared – maybe even a curriculum or an ebook.

Are they wrong for wanting to get some return on their investment of time and energy by asking for a small fee for those materials?

Depending on who you talk to, yes.

I didn’t ask anyone, but I know that making a living off of selling content is really, really hard in today’s education economy. What bothers me the most is that people (individuals, not corporations) who sell materials rather than giving them away are really hearing, “My time as a teacher is valuable, but not what I make with that time.”

A refrain I hear is, “I give all of my materials away for free, so others should do the same.” We’re projecting our own values onto others in the community! I can’t think of a much more damaging sentiment to communicate to colleagues. I’d even go so far as to say it’s bordering unethical behavior by expecting others to work with their products in a way that suits the community rather than their own goals. You can better a community and make money at the same time.

How many entrepreneurs have been stifled because of the “free-and-only-free” expectation? How many conference sessions have been unheard (or even commandeered) because it didn’t focus on free stuff? An economy of free isn’t sustainable, and I’m worried we’re losing valuable insight and growth opportunities because of the path we’re on.

Ideas vs. products. It’s important.

  1. I know I’m not in the classroom right now, but I still experience this reaction when I make suggestions of resources for use in the classroom. Free isn’t always worth the hidden costs.

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