Recognizing Devaluation in EdTech and Teaching

ISTE 2016 is in full swing and right on cue, my hype-o-meter tolerance has dropped significantly. A huge concentration of edtech vendors and Twitterati all in one place can lead to a lot of mumbo jumbo. But, we'll power through the next four days and try to pull the wheat from the chaff.

Two big things that come up in waves each year: A) If you're looking for tech, free is what you deserve as a teacher, and B) If you're creating things, it should be given freely to the rest of the teaching world.

Free is king in edtech and it's killing good tech.

Exhibit A:

He later goes on to say:

The idea that resources for teachers should all be free because of a moral imperative is dangerous and devalues the hard work that goes into creating content.

If you go through the tweets, the main argument is that a lot of the materials on Teachers Pay Teachers (or similar) are really crappy. There are a lot of crappy products available that I choose not to buy. The guy selling it is perfectly within his rights to sell a product to compensate for the time put into creating it. There has to be some kind of recognition that all work is not equal and that being paid for significant time and effort to create a product is completely appropriate, even for teachers.

Second, my moral obligation is to my students first and foremost. I don't charge them for resources I create, much of it on my own time. I also choose, freely, to give a lot away to the teaching community because I don't feel the time I've put into those resources was significant enough to ask for compensation.

Expecting teachers to work for free devalues those hours and allows edtech companies to fill the gap and make good money while they're doing it.

There's another parallel to explore: expecting free software for the sake of teaching devalues the hard work of development, QA testing, troubleshooting, and maintenance of code. The time is valuable and it is completely appropriate to be compensated for that time.

The free-as-best mindset is a dangerous delimiter being placed on what is valuable or invaluable in education based on price alone.

Unfortunately, in order to appeal to the education community at-large, the free-as-best standard is being encouraged by edtech companies. The following was shared by PhET Sims:

The image is well-intended. But, the message is the same one that's plaguing edtech: all software should be free. (If you're not familiar with PhET, it runs from grants and individual donations. I'm a big user of their sims in my own classroom and I've taken the step to donate some money to the continuation of the project.) I'd be willing to bet that the developers working for PhET to create and maintain the simulations like to be paid for their work. The sims aren't free and the cost is not exposed clearly enough to the user.

ISTE concentrates these ideas and feeds the perception that price point is the main factor in the usefulness or value in a product. There are costs everywhere and to keep doors open as a company, you have to meet those costs. If you're not paying cash for a service, that cost is most likely data you're contributing, and that's for another post.

If you're at ISTE right now (or if you know someone who is) please keep this in mind as you research and share about new tools. Don't perpetuate the free-as-best narrative because in the long run, it's going to cost us all.

7 thoughts on “Recognizing Devaluation in EdTech and Teaching

  1. Heather says:

    A “moral obligation” to give away amazing things for free? Why?

    Do NBA players have a “moral obligation” to play for free, since they are amazing?
    Do the best surgeons in the world have a “moral obligation” to perform surgeries for free, since they are amazing?
    Do the best singers have a “moral obligation” to perform free concerts, since they are amazing?

    It takes time, dedication, talent – and MONEY to get to the point where one can do amazing things. At one point does the person doing these amazing things get to recoup the cost of this?

    To become a great NBA player, it takes thousands of hours of practice and coaching. This isn’t free – if you are devoting 20 hours a week to shooting free throws, that’s 20 hours a week that you aren’t doing some other sort of work that can pay the bills.

    To become a great surgeon, it takes years of education. That doesn’t come cheap. Who pays for it? Doctors graduate from medical school with hundreds of thousands in student loans – and then they have to pay a ton of money for malpractice insurance and continuing education. But what they do is amazing, so they should give it away for free.

    If you make something amazing, chances are it didn’t get thrown together in 5 minutes. You probably didn’t do it without spending time honing your craft and developing your skills and knowledge. You probably used resources to create it – software, graphics, etc. – and those resources may not have been free.

    I give a lot away to my colleagues and other educators. I help freely when they have a question. But I also know that my computer that I use to make the resources I sell was $1200. I know that the software I use is $240/year. I spent $99 on stock photos and another $200 on fonts and other clip art. I spend $500+ on having a native speaker proofread and edit my products. And I spent a LOT of time learning to use the software, looking for the right graphics, and coming up with the idea for the product in the first place. So if I’m supposed to give it away for free, how do I cover the cost of those things? Nobody is giving me a grant or supporting me with time off to create amazing things.

    If a teacher goes to work for an educational corporation and creates the sort of things teachers on TPT do, the corporation will pay them. No teacher will work for a corporation for free. The corporation will then market the product, districts will buy it, and the corporation will make a profit. But somehow if a teacher skips the “educational corporation” step of things and makes the EXACT SAME TYPE OF PRODUCT, they should give it away for free?

    I make my products not knowing if they will be good sellers or not. If I spend 8-10 hours on something and it only sells a few copies, I lose out. If it sells a lot of copies, I get paid – and I’m going to make similar products in the hopes that they will also sell. If I make a crappy product, it doesn’t sell and I make nothing. I spend my evenings, weekends, and vacations working on products – improving existing ones and writing new ones. I choose to do this ONLY because there is a pay-off for me. If I were expected to give my work away for free, guess what? I won’t be working! I’ll be reading novels, watching TV, and getting an extra nap or two.

    NOBODY should be expected to work for free.

  2. Lisa Nielsen says:

    Thoughtful piece Brian. Thank you for pointing to it in your comment on my blog post on the same topic.

    Here are a few of my thoughts on the subject.

    1) I create a ton of content and I want others to benefit from it without paying for it. I’ve already created it for myself and because I enjoy being able to make teachers jobs easier, I agree with Steven Anderson. I feel morally obligated to share it.

    2) If I created materials specifically for the purpose of helping others use my materials, instructions if you will, perhaps I would feel differently. I am then creating something outside my own work so that others can benefit and these materials would never have been created otherwise.

    3) If a teacher wants to spend their own time creating quality materials that they aren’t already using with their students, I can see the reasoning for them being compensated, but I don’t believe the compensation should be given from other teachers who are often paid inadequately. There are several other funding models which I believe are more appropriate.

    4) I do believe companies should make an investment in providing quality materials free for teachers. It is a philanthropic decision that helps our society as a whole. I also believe school districts should compensate teachers for creating materials that they in turn provide freely to the world. An example of this is what we have done in New York City. We worked with students during the school day and teachers after school hours to create social media guidelines for students. Along with those are a teacher’s guide, a parent’s guide, lesson plans, infographics, and activities books. The teachers were paid to create the materials by a district from grant funds they received. The world can now enjoy these resources freely by visiting Schools.nyc.gov/socialmedia

    I appreciate the conversation and have enjoyed thinking through this more fully. Let me know what you think about what I’ve shared.

  3. Laurah J. says:

    I find it interesting that everyone is riled up over the fact that TEACHERS are making money off of selling educational resources and that’s somehow “wrong”, but no one is riled up over how much the big publishing companies or software companies are making SELLING materials, apps, and software to teachers.

    “If a teacher creates something truly amazing, they have a moral obligation to give it away.” Why does this apply only to teachers and not publishers or software developers? What about consultants who do workshops? Should those be free too? Why am I, as a teacher, expected to give my hard work away for free?

    The fact is that teachers have always spent money on their classrooms. Back before the advent of the internet, teachers bought materials (from their own pockets) in the form of scholastic books or teacher’s mailbox magazines or whatever. No one has ever seemed to have a problem with teachers spending their own money on those types of resources. But- buying from other teachers? *Gasp*

    Personally, as a teacher, I would rather compensate another teacher for tried-and-true classroom materials that are actually created by someone in the classroom. Are there “crappy” (as you put it) materials out there on TpT? Sure. Are there fabulous materials out on TpT? Absolutely.

    On the other token, selling my materials allows me to continue doing what I love- teaching. Without the extra income, I would have had to leave teaching long ago and would no longer be able to continue making a daily impact on my students. The very fact that I create materials to sell has significantly improved my own teaching practice, and my students get the benefit. I know I will be compensated for that extra time I put into a lesson or activity, so I am motivated to spend extra time to make it look professional, to research the best methods and practices and to find the most engaging methods and strategies- motivation that I wouldn’t have if I was giving it away for free.

    And I do share freely too- my blog is full of ideas, strategies and activities that I have made freely available to other educators out of the desire to help teachers AND students. There are nearly 30 free items in my store, as well.

    In the end, I think it’s better if we all agree to disagree- villifying teachers for their opinion on this (whichever opinion that is) only hurts us all.

  4. Laurah J. says:

    I also meant to add that yes- there are other “second jobs” I could get to supplement my teaching income. I waited tables and bartended through college and grad school, or I could be a greeter at Wal*Mart. BUT- any “second job” besides TpT WOULD take time away from my teaching- I’d be losing hours to a physically exhausting job with not much intellectual stimulation to make ends meet. I’d be tired at school, I’d have less time to plan and grade, and the overall quality of my teaching would suffer. In the end, I’d likely burn out more quickly.

    Instead, with TpT, as I mentioned above, allowed me to significantly improve my teaching practice and added a little motivation for going the extra mile to create “stellar” lessons rather than just “great” lessons for my students. Most of the TpTers I’ve spoken to share the same sentiment.

  5. Wm Chamberlain says:

    We need to differentiate between creating work for our classroom and creating work to sell. When you create work for your classroom, you may not even have the legal authority to sell it without your school’s permission. In that case, you do need to share the great stuff you make with others.

    If you create content specifically to sell, then by all means you have no obligation to give it away.

  6. John Gensic says:

    The best work I create is for my classroom. I imagine it would be easier to sell because it would be vetted and iterated with my own experience. Wm Chamberlain, I don’t think we need to differentiate, unless our contracts explicitly state this. Even then, we can advocate for improvement.

    It is true and I agree that “you may not even have the legal authority to sell it without your school’s permission.” That’s a reality. It may not spur the most creativity, but it is real.

    I disagree with “you do need to share the great stuff you make with others.” If schools aren’t going to give a teacher the time and resources to disseminate material, a teacher has no moral obligation to share with others. It is good to do share great material, but not sharing with other teachers does not equal “sin”. Getting materials into shareable form and actually sharing takes effort and time that few teachers are compensated for by their schools. Therefore, the incentive is purely in the good will of teachers. An author who can’t find a publisher is not obliged to self-publish at their own expense, or even put free material online.

    And while good will gets some good done, money also can get good done.

    My visceral reaction to “In that case, you do need to share the great stuff you make with others.” was that this feels like “from each according to ability, to each according to need.”

    Generally, teachers like sharing and money.

  7. […] points of view on the debate of selling or share freely, visit Brian Bennett’s blog post, “Recognizing devaluation in edtech and teaching” in favor of selling resources and Megan Hayes-Golding, “Why Teachers Pay Teachers Irk the […]

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