When Free Isn’t Free

My friend Laurene and I used to work together until she went back to academia to pursue her doctorate. I’m really glad she has this opportunity, but I miss the conversations we used to have about some new technology we had seen or other developments in the EdTech world. Her former experiences using technology in classrooms and school districts have given her a healthy perspective in terms of the reality of technology integration and she taught me a lot. For example, I am confounded by the number of new technologies that we would find for free. “How can a company afford to give this product away?” I’d ask. “What kind of business model is that?” And Laurene would say, “Free like a beer? Or free like a puppy?”

You see, when you get an offer for a free beer, or your favorite age-appropriate beverage, you thank your friend, drink it, and you’re done. No more obligation. But when your friend offers you a free puppy…it’s just the beginning of obligations. I’m not saying you shouldn’t take the puppy, because there are benefits to puppies that can outweigh the obligations, but I think you should consider those obligations first.

The Ning Heard Round the Web

My original article for this issue was about free social networking tools you can use to support language instruction. There are many different applications out there to support social networking, that in turn support a variety of instructional activities you can use in the language classroom. If you have a Facebook or MySpace account, you’re already familiar with social networking tools. You may even have some favorite blogs (short for Weblog) or wikis that you visit on the Web. You may not even realize that’s what they are, because they look just like a Web site. I hope to get back to that article at a later date.

Blogs and wikis have purposes they meet well, but one of the powerhouse social networking tools that has become popular in education, and elsewhere, is a Ning. Ning provides a powerful suite of tools all in one place. You can run discussions, post pictures and videos, embed a blog, attach documents, and many more things. You can limit access to your Ning to invited friends or approved guests, or it can be completely open to anyone on the Web. And just like smartphones, software developers have been creating “apps” (short for applications) that can be added to a Ning to provide even more functionality. And all this for free! Or it was.

New corporate leadership at Ning announced they plan to stop providing access to the free version of Ning software, sending reverberations across cyberspace. Ning supposedly refers to the sound a Chinese temple bell makes when it is struck. It means “peace” or “peaceful.” Ning. But the loss of free Nings raised such a cacophony that the reverberations have yet to fade away.

There are many, many education-based Nings on the Web with an untold number of participants. I use a Ning to support trainings I do, so participants in my workshops have a place to go during or after the workshop to download handouts, share ideas, upload their work, or communicate with me once we’ve left the computer lab. I’ve participated in two book studies through Nings (which is where I first heard the news), and I’ve used Nings with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. There, the Title III staff members have used Nings to create communities of educators who work with English language learners. My fledgling Ning efforts impact a few dozen people, but there are Ning communities with hundreds of participants, some estimates are hundreds of thousands total, who have been posting content for years. There’s a lot of information in those Nings.

Ning has always offered some for-fee services with the fees being relatively small. Just not free. The Ning leaders have been suggesting they will help their free customers transfer their content and data to other providers, and those providers have been jumping in to offer help, too. Others have thrown up their hands in defeat and there are reports of people just abandoning their Ning communities. Unfortunately, it appears the answer to my question is that unlimited services for free may not be the best business model, and I sympathize not only for the Ning communities that are stressed and struggling but also for the Ning employees who lost their jobs.

But we’re educators. We embody lifelong learning. We have a chance to learn from this. So, what have we learned?

The Care and Feeding of Your New Puppy

As educators, we’re pretty addicted to free stuff. As a teacher, I used to love to get free stuff. I’d come back from conferences with my arms loaded, carrying as much free stuff as I could gather. I would get books I’d never read, software I’d never install, and all varieties of knick-knacks and goo-gaws. And now I don’t have to leave the comfort of my own home to find free content, activities, and even free software. They’re available from my computer, and even my phone. And believe me, I see this love of free stuff in educators from the classroom to the state board room. To some, the only thing that can make a product better, it seems, is if it’s free.

But I hope the ning that is still resounding serves as somewhat of a wake-up call to us and we stop to think a bit more about the obligations before we just go with the free option. Ning may have been free like a beer for a while, but sometimes you may just want that puppy. You just have to know what you’re getting into and accept the obligations. Following are a few suggestions you may want to think about as you’re considering your next free puppy, er, technology.

Focus on the process, not the product. About the only thing constant about technology is change. How much do you depend on something that wasn’t available just a few years ago? Wikipedia? Your smartphone? Facebook? And will those things be available a few years from now? In a textbook I co-authored, we deliberately set out to write a technology book that did not tell how to operate technology. You won’t find any tutorials about word processing, spreadsheets, or databases. Instead, we focused on why to use technology, and we embedded a process that encourages the reader to develop strategies for learning about new technologies and how they can be used in order to better deal with the element of change. I know how to copy and paste, format documents, insert images, and other skills that apply to a range of applications. If I lost my word processor today, I could pick up tomorrow with another one. A process that is wedded to only one product may be doomed.

Do it yourself. Once you understand your process, you may find that you can do a better job if you use in-house resources, including people. At least, if you develop a means to support your process in-house, you may have a better opportunity to overcome obstacles like the loss of a product because you and your colleagues will have skills, knowledge, and some vested buy-in about the process. You may also be able to pool resources to get more from your time and effort. The in-house communication you spark may even provide ready-made solutions. I often work with state departments of education, and one of the greatest benefits they report from working with my colleagues and me is that they communicate with more people internally more often and so have a better feel for what resources are available and how they can be used. Very often, we find technology support and resources already available. We just get the two connected.

Build a routine. Once you’ve identified a solution for your process, develop a routine of checks and balances, because either your process, solution, or even your goals are going to change over time. When I’m asked to provide input on product design, I focus most of my time on trying to get people to think about the future. And the end of the product development stage is not far enough in the future. Products evolve. You may have the goal of setting up an online course by the end of the semester, but are you really just going to offer it once? What happens if things don’t work as you planned? Better yet, how about when your course is successful? How will you handle requests for more classes? More students? When you use technology to solve a problem, think of your use as a cycle. You identify needs and your audience, find out what’s out there that matches them, implement a solution, and evaluate what went well and what did not, so you can go back to the beginning of the cycle, always keeping your eye on those needs and potential solutions so you can adjust the next time around.

Housecleaning. Sometimes we focus so much on getting and implementing a technology that we don’t think about the ongoing consequences. All technologies and the processes they support need a little housecleaning, especially those where information may be created that becomes quickly outdated. These can be class web sites, student portfolios, or even social networking communities. When I worked in an office, we used to have “Back-up Fridays,” on which I would remind everyone to back-up their computers before leaving work. While you’re doing that, also consider getting rid of what you don’t need. A process to think about is: sort, prioritize, cull, back-up. Then, if you have a major loss, like the lost of a critical piece of software, you have a strong foundation from which to get back up and running.

It’s all in your mind. Ironically, there is already a free solution to replace Ning that is more popular and may have even more functionality. Facebook. But most schools and districts—and even workplaces—block Facebook and sites like it. That’s a common reaction in the education space to new technologies. All kinds of powerful technologies, like Internet access, e-mail, cellphones, and others were, and in some cases still are, banned from use in schools. The solution for getting these technologies into teaching and learning has been helping students understand how to use these technologies appropriately. But in order to do this you have to think about the technology differently. It’s not a threat, it’s an opportunity. I can’t predict that Facebook is going to stick around forever, but I do think that some schools will begin to open their virtual doors to it and similar tools—just as we’ve done with previous technologies—so they can capitalize on the power these technologies have to support teaching and learning when used appropriately.

Sometimes, it’s o.k. to pay. Before you select a technology, you should determine what you are trying to accomplish. Be clear. Describe it. If you can do this, you will have a better chance of identifying a range of technologies that might meet your needs. Then, as you review technologies, you’ll start to see what is consistent about them, as well as some unique features. Those unique features can either support your goals, or completely distract you from them. One of those features is free. Sometimes, the free solution is the best solution, but not always. Instead, consider whether the cost might help you reach your goals better. Sometimes, even a minimal cost can provide tremendous value added well beyond the reach of a free tool.

I’ll get back to the original social networking article that will provide some strategies for using them in language instruction. In the meantime, I’d be glad to hear from you with questions or concerns.

Crossposted to the National Capital Language Resource Center (NCLRC) May 2010 Newsletter: www.nclrc.org/newsletter.html