Are Free Products Worth It?

To pay or not for edtech products? It depends. Free is especially rewarding if you're part of an active teacher community, but products with a price tag can offer benefits too.

July 28, 2013
CATEGORIES In the Classroom, Tools

This post by Steve Midgley with John Micklos Jr is part of our Thought Leader guest blog series. We're asking educators and others working on various elements of edtech to share their perspectives. Join the conversation!  

Everyone loves a bargain! And what’s a better bargain than free? When it comes to educational resources, however, is there such a thing as a free lunch? Do teachers sacrifice quality for cost when they choose free resources over traditional published material? And is free really free? Sometimes free apps, sites, or games seem like come-ons designed to lure you to places where you have to pay.

So is free bad? Hardly. Sometimes free materials will do the job as well as -- or better than --  products you have to pay for. In other cases, it can be well worth paying for features or ease you can’t get elsewhere.

Let's look at the example of lesson plans. Say you want to try a different approach to teach multiplying fractions. If you’re not fully confident with this topic, or you have limited planning time available before class, the type of highly structured lessons you might find in a commercial workbook or textbook may be just what you need. If you have time to adapt or personalize, you might prefer a free lesson shared on a teacher site. You can find great lessons online, but how do you know which ones really work? That’s where the power of teacher communities comes in.

Increasingly, educators are starting to build communities using the open source model where teams of people collaborate to develop things that they then give away to everyone else. At a time when pressure to “teach to the test” threatens to sap creativity, many teachers find it empowering to share, discuss, and adapt Open Educational Resources (OER) with colleagues from around the world.

Imagine the power when teacher communities come together to assemble resources into lesson plans, rate lessons, combine lessons into units, fix errors, update information to reflect the latest data, describe how the lessons have worked in their particular setting, or adjust a lesson to work better with a different group of students. These types of activities are happening more frequently through sites such as BetterLesson, Curriki, Teachers Pay Teachers, and Share My Lesson. Some of these sites are commercial; others are run as nonprofit entities, and you'll find engaged groups of teachers collaborating and sharing their expertise on all of them.

Consider Flocabulary, a free-to-try platform for teaching content through entertaining hip-hop songs. According to reviews by Common Sense Education, students and teachers alike love Flocabulary. However, there are far fewer songs for science and social studies than for math and reading. But what’s to stop an imaginative science teacher from finding or creating songs based on this concept and then sharing the results? For example, here's a strange but informative rap song created by some physicists at the Large Hadron Collider, which could be shared by any teacher who finds it. Another example of the power of community!

One more important thing to learn about free is that some things you'll find are truly free, meaning they were created by someone who wants you to use it without many restrictions -- the LHC rap video is an example of this. Other resources might be free for a limited period or a limited number of uses. Some companies offer a small set of resources free in order to encourage users to buy their full catalog (this is known as "freemium"). How do you know which is which? Generally if a video is posted on YouTube, you're allowed to share it with others at no cost. But if a site offers a "free trial" or wants you to give away a lot of your personal information, chances are eventually they'll ask you to pay. Remember, though, paying for something isn't always bad -- it might be worth it, if it's inexpensive and saves you a lot of time.

So are free products worth it? It depends. If you're short on time and need something you know has been field tested, traditional published resources may work best. But if you have the time to investigate and build your own solutions, then you often can find high-quality free materials. And as teacher communities offer an ever-increasing array of peer-produced content, these free products become even more abundant and reliable. Try a little bargain shopping today, and see what you can find.

What do you think about free products? Let us know in the comments section. 

Steve Midgley is the former Deputy Director of Education Technology at the US Department of Education, as well as former Director of Education at the Federal Communications Commission. He is currently a principal at Mixrun, a technology consulting firm working with non-profits, governments and commercial organizations around the world. Follow him on Twitter @stevemidgley

John Micklos, Jr. is a freelance writer and the author of 16 children’s books. Visit