Nov 16, 2018

Students for Sale: The Hidden Price of Free Software

It's now a truism that if you're not paying for a software product, the real product is you. 

The same principle applies when we're talking about free educational technology. But in this case, the product may not be the teachers and administrators making the decisions, but the students who end up using the software. 

There's No Such Thing as a Free Ed Tech Solution 

Many of today's most popular ed tech products have been built on the "freemium" software model. These programs—such as Edmodo, Notify and Schoology—are free to download and use for individual teachers. This model allows companies to inflate growth during the critical early phase when investors are looking at usage as a key metric to make decisions for continued investment. 

But no matter how innovative and fresh the software solution, ed tech companies cannot continue to survive on infusions from investors alone. Eventually, they have to make a profit. There are a variety of models that allow them to do this:

  • Start charging a user fee for functionality that once was free. 

  •  Develop additional functionality, such as enterprise solutions for whole districts or premium features for users, to upsell to their existing user base. 

  • Sell advertising on the platform.

  • Directly sell student or teacher information to third parties for use in targeted advertising. 

Putting Students at Risk with Free Ed Tech

When making decisions on what types of educational software to use with our students, we have a responsibility to know exactly what kind of revenue model the company is pursuing. Some models, such as upselling premium features or switching from free access to paid user accounts, may be an unexpected pain in the budget, but at least they are transparent. Models that depend on advertising or selling student information are much more risky. 

Recently, Edmodo got in trouble when ads for beer and e-cigarettes turned up in student newsfeeds. While students are exposed to advertising across a multitude of platforms every day, special care must be taken with advertising shown to students within the apps or programs they are accessing for school purposes. Ads seen within these educator-approved platforms may be seen as having added credibility; students assume that content they see alongside their schoolwork is trusted and safe. After all, we would not allow textbook companies to place ads for beer or tobacco inside a biology book, even if they promised to drastically reduce the cost of the books. Why should the software we ask our students to use be any less safe?

Many privacy experts also wary of the ways that education technology companies may mine and sell student dataGoogle has come under firefor being less than transparent about the ways it is harvesting and using student data and its plans for monetizing the education apps it is making available for free to schools. A report by Fordham Universitysays that third party companies gathering data from school websites and education apps have made lists of student data commercially available that include characteristics such as location, ethnicity, affluence, religion, lifestyle and even social characteristics such as "awkwardness." These lists are sold to other companies for the purpose of targeting advertising to students and their families through web browsers they access from the IP address associated with their profile. 

Advertising is a fact of life in modern society, but schools—and education technology companies—should be very careful about they types and quantity of ads students are exposed to while engaged in educational activities. School district leaders, principals and teachers should be wary of apps with no clear path to profitability. Ultimately, it may be students who end up paying the price.