Tools come and go. Learning should not. And what’s a “free” edtech tool, anyway?

This guy just found out Padlet is now a paid service and spent the day recreating his walls in an analog space.

I like free things. It’s neat when I can log into a service, do my thing, get the most bang for my buck – $0 – and then continue on my day.

But I’d like to think that educators, specifically those who use educational technologies, understand that nothing is truly free.

Not even free services, not by a long shot. More on that in a bit.

There was sadness across the interwebs when Google Reader went away. Simply designed, wildly impactful Google Reader. We’d been subscribing and bundling and organizing all the feeds that mattered to us and our learning and then, they took it away.

We had to find other solutions, and frankly, nothing really came close to replicating the experience we had with Reader. At least in my experience.

But we couldn’t stop reading, subscribing, learning, and sharing, in the absence of that tool. We had to find alternatives, we had to consider: What purpose did the tool serve? How can I replicate that with another service or via other means? And why should I bother? Is it essential to my learning to have a tool like this at my disposal? Or was it an extra? Something unnecessary? Something frivolous?

People are voicing loudly their criticisms of Padlet’s decision to move to a paid service. You get to keep your current Padlets, they’re not going away, +3 on your freebie plan. Additional walls and features are something like $99/year. Steep, for sure. More info on that here.

I’ve used Padlet since it was Wallwisher. I have 30+ walls saved. I used it as recently as last month with my grad students as a break from the drudgery of Blackboard interface. I demo it at workshops. I use it to get participant feedback during conference sessions.

Sure, it sucks that I will have to explore other alternatives, but I don’t need Padlet. You might not need it either. Your students probably don’t need Padlet. 

And yet, maybe they do. Maybe you do. That’s a decision you have to make as a leader of learning, with the people in your school that support technology integration and instructional design and who write the checks. Maybe ask your students, too. What do they get out of using this tool?

We love to shout “pedagogy first, tech second” and “don’t teach your kids tools, teach them skills” and yet when an announcement like this is made, we respond with rage and, heaven forbid, a closed mindset about what this really means in the grand scheme of the most important thing that should be happening in our classrooms: Learning.

If your students can no longer learn because Padlet (or insert any formerly-free-now-paid-tool) is now inaccessible to them, then I think it would be wise to come together as instructional teams and determine what it is that they were doing with Padlet in the first place, and how that experience can be replicated in a different way, if it is something that truly helped them learn.

It’s annoying, for sure. It’s unfair to continue to ask more from teachers, specifically money, when they’re already wildly underpaid and spend hundreds of dollars on classroom essentials and building classroom libraries, but ed tech tools moving from free to paid versions isn’t the most impossible obstacle we have to overcome. We deal with far more alarming problems in our children’s lives: poverty, hunger, racism, inequitable funding for schools, lack of leadership, placing value on the wrong things (standardized tests and assessment measures), failure to have the means to support communities.

Now, back to the “free” services discussion.

When you create an account with a free service, when you offer your name, email address, demographic information, school’s name, and you do the same for your students, you’re relinquishing your – and their- privacy and personal information on a number of levels. Certainly there are privacy policies and terms of use in place for these services that you should absolutely be reading, reviewing, and deciding as a school whether or not the costs of doing business with the service are worth your exchange of information. By the way, you should be communicating all of this to parents, too, and allowing them to decide whether or not they want their children’s information submitted to each service. More on that here.

Those are the costs, for freebie services. The companies may be using your personal information elsewhere. They may be tracking your activity, logging your data, and selling it to other companies. These things happen behind the scenes, aren’t always obvious to the user, and smart people like Bill Fitzgerald and Audrey Watters and other leaders in this space are trying to keep educators more informed about this. Companies love giving free perks to teachers with the expectation that teachers will share their use of the tools with colleagues and in social spaces to help build the brand. Some consider that exploitation, other teachers are happy to do it. When it’s done with classrooms of students who don’t have say in the choice and use of tools, that might be viewed as a questionable practice. And, let us not forget the many giant companies and corporations who are funding many of these ventures, and the motivation behind these “generous” fundings. What’s in it for them?

So what should your next steps be? And prior to bringing new technologies into your schools, what should you be thinking about?

  1. Do I need this tool? Why? How does it really support learning?
  2. What are the costs, both monetary and otherwise, of using this service? Do the rewards of use outweigh the risks?
  3. Is there a paid service I could explore that will meet my needs and better protect the privacy of my information and my students’ information?
  4. How can I inform parents/community members about our use of this tool and what mechanisms are in place for parents to opt their children out of using it?
  5. When this tool and/or its plan changes, how will we adjust? What will our plans be to make seamless transitions to other tools or strategies when the inevitable happens?

Would love to hear your thoughts on this issue in the comments here!


More to Read:

Edmodo’s Tracking of Students and Teachers Revives Skepticism Surrounding ‘Free’ Edtech Tools

Education Technology and the Power of Platforms

Education Technology and the Promise of Open and Free

The ‘Price’ of Free and Freemium Edtech Products

7 Replies to “Tools come and go. Learning should not. And what’s a “free” edtech tool, anyway?”

  1. Great points in this post Lyn. I especially liked how you pointed out that instructional teams should come together and determine what it is that they were doing with Padlet in the first place, and how that experience can be replicated in a different way if it is something that truly helped them learn.

    It is certainly more about empowering the students and improving their skills with or without tech tools.

    1. Thanks, JP, I totally understand the frustrations behind the reactions I was seeing and changing tools will mean annoying time spent on researching alternatives, but ultimately, shouldn’t we constantly be evaluating tools and the ways in which students are using them anyway?

  2. I really love this paragraph:

    We love to shout “pedagogy first, tech second” and “don’t teach your kids tools, teach them skills” and yet when an announcement like this is made, we respond with rage and, heaven forbid, a closed mindset about what this really means in the grand scheme of the most important thing that should be happening in our classrooms: Learning.

    So well said. Losing a tool is not a crisis. It’s just the ebb-and-flow of tech. We’re making do without AOL Instant Messenger and Napster – we’ll make do without Padlet.

    1. Hi, Tom! You’re right, when we bring any tool or resource into the classroom, we have to consider its shelf life. Not only with technology-infused resources, but things like curricular guides and literacy programs, etc. Eventually, the changes come… and hopefully they’re always in response to what kids need in the current moment.

  3. I love the thoughts here. I agree that $99 a year for a service is probably steep. However, nothing is free. I have seen teachers balk at the $48 price tag on KidBlog — a service they use on a daily basis with their students.

    And yet, I have seen teachers spend more than fifty bucks on bulletin board materials. We frequently go well over the $99 mark when we decide to do pizza parties in classrooms. Most field trips are three or four times that amount.

    If something is a tool that you use nearly every day in your classroom, it’s not unreasonable to pay between $50 to $100. True, teachers shouldn’t be footing the bill. But that’s also true of the hundreds they spend on reams of paper, markers, and sticky notes.

    1. Thanks for the comment, John. I completely forgot about Kidblog moving from a free to paid service until I read your comment, but yes, there was similar pushback, however diehard fans paid the subscription, because their students were all in with blogging and it was an integral part of how they shared their learning. Plus, the paid version came with a number of perks that free Kidblog didn’t provide. And while it’s rather snarky for me to say, Hey, if you spend fewer $ in TPT on cutesy barf for your classroom walls that really doesn’t impact student learning, you might have enough saved up for a Padlet subscription if you determine that really DOES impact learning, it’s also kinda true. It’s sad classroom teachers have to invest as many personal dollars into their classrooms as they do, so now it’s a matter of prioritizing those purchases on things that truly matter.

  4. I’m loving this post. Sums up exactly what I’ve been thinking. And this comment… “And while it’s rather snarky for me to say, Hey, if you spend fewer $ in TPT on cutesy barf for your classroom walls that really doesn’t impact student learning, you might have enough saved up for a Padlet subscription if you determine that really DOES impact learning, it’s also kinda true.” Made me lol

    I’ve been thinking a lot about what I think is the exploitation of teachers through “ambassador” programs, etc. I’m working on building some courses on this exact thing. Personal branding, leadership, and most importantly, knowing your worth!

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