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The Freemium Problem

"Freemium Presentation Chalkboard Slide" by PLEXKITS is marked with CC0 1.0

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It’s hard to believe that it’s been over one year since the pandemic radically changed, well, everything for K-12 schools. A lot has happened since then, and the obvious change was the quick upskilling on technology tools for remote learning. Many tech companies came to the rescue by providing or expanding their free offerings for teachers to utilize in their instruction. Most of these “gifts” began to sunset over the summer and into the fall, and while they were greatly appreciated, let us keep in mind that the motives were not entirely altruistic. The pandemic allowed companies to expose their consumers to the additional features of their service that are only available for a fee. In essence, it was a marketing campaign in addition to community service. However, once the perks went away, teachers and districts were faced with a dilemma: start paying or revert back to the features (or lack thereof) that are available with the free version. [need ending sentence]

What is Freemium?

The freemium business model works something like this: a company (often flush with venture capital) launches their service for free as a way to get ‘buzz’ in their target audience. There’s a phase of accelerated adoption (hey, who doesn’t like free stuff, right?) followed by market research and analytics to improve the product.

But the party has to end sooner or later. Investors want to get paid for their capital outlay, and, to be frank, a business offering everything for free is not a business...it’s a charity. As such, a decision has to be made on revenue generation.

Let me be clear: I don’t fault businesses for wanting to make money. Nor will you find me screaming from the rooftops how everyone should provide everything to educators for free because “whataboutthechildren”. However, there are three paths that generally occur.

  • Rip the band-aid: start charging for everything. You’re likely going to see a mass exodus.

  • Sell data: continue for free, but harvest data to sell for profit. Works in some places (i.e., certain unnamed social media platforms), but in education, there are some inherent problems with collecting data from the under-18 crowd: CIPA, COPPA, FERPA, and other pesky laws companies try to skirt.

  • Freemium: offer a few crumbs of free features to everyone, but if you want the cool stuff, be ready to pay up. Company looks good because it looks like they care about equity.

(note: it is possible to combine freemium and data collection models for a double win...for the company, at least)

In response, teachers generally do one of two things. First, they can resign themselves to the freemium model and the lack of features and sign up with their personal or work account, because they know their building or district won’t take the dive on a school or enterprise license. The second option is that they fork over the money for the paid version of a tool out of their own pocket, because, well, we all know how much personal money teachers spend out of pocket due to inadequate funding from the state and federal government (but that’s a post for a different day). They might find some grant money here and there, but since that money is never guaranteed for the long term, a teacher’s use and personal investment in using a tool is limited because what happens when the funding period ends? On a final note, because the product is free, companies can easily change what is actually provided with the free service. Again, this can be a marketing tool. Why prepare teachers in advance of changes coming over the summer, when you can limit a feature in January, but offer a temporary discount to upgrade?

The Real Problem with Freemium

But there’s a larger problem underneath all of this. The point of this discussion is not about changing the evolution of technology business models (good luck with that); rather, it is about the secondary effects this model has on teaching and learning in general. Because there is no school-wide license, there is little coordination on how a particular tool is used across grade levels and disciplines to improve outcomes. Siloed teachers become beholden to their particular tool, cultivating years of lessons surrounding it. Students have to adjust each year (each hour?) to a different set of platforms with goofy names, and everyone thinks we’re promoting 21st Century skills without any discussion of vertical and horizontal alignment, let alone data collection to see if it’s making an impact.

As we begin to emerge from the disruptions of the last year, it might be a good time for teachers, administrators, and technology leaders to collect data on what platforms were used across the district, success stories (hopefully more than just anecdotes and testimonials), and have a serious discussion about which services to invest building/district-wide (read: both the service AND in the design of PD to promote increased learning outcomes aligned to school goals), and which to tell teachers to politely move away from in order to focus on these goals. In addition, teachers should be working with their tech directors to get appropriate consent from parents/districts about student data that is being collected.
 

Jason Siko is an instructional technology consultant for Wayne RESA. Learn more about the instructional technology department and how it can serve your needs at resa.net/edtech.

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