Administrator Magazine: Technology
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Hidden Costs in Free Software

When Free Carries a Cost

Beware the hidden costs that can accompany free software.

Who has not passed a basket of kittens or puppies with a handwritten "Free" sign without pausing to consider bringing home an adorable new family member? Why not scoop up the cutest one? Not to discourage pet adoption, but free is not always free. There are hidden costs with pets (food, vet's bills), and similarly, hidden costs schools may face with free software.

The allure of free software is easy to see. Schools and districts battling economic restraints still want to implement technologies that appeal to classrooms of digital natives. The need to "do more with less" has become a mantra endorsed by the highest levels of our educational system.

Allen Martin understands. "With limited funding, we may choose a free alternative versus no technology," says the district technology resource teacher at Bowling Green City School District in Kentucky. "But with the lack of resources and training, lack of product testing and tech support, and the limited functionality or integration options, these solutions might not be solutions at all. If we put something in the classroom, we want it to work, and work well."

Given the complexity and dynamics of most schools and districts, understanding the hidden costs of such software can be almost impossible until after an implementation, which can result in throwing "good money" at "no money."

To determine the feasibility of a free alternative, administrators should evaluate the following potential cost factors in the context of the school's/district's specific needs and resources.

Security issues: Free software downloads should be assessed for virus risk and compliance with student data security policies.

Availability of training materials and resources: Evaluate the availability and quality of materials, documentation, and classroom resources.

Configuration/support: Does the software meet technology standards? Does it integrate with other applications? Is it easy to use, or will it require a high level of support?

Potential for product abandonment: Developers of free software have no financial incentive to continue offering the solution. Assess the risk if the product is no longer available or not updated to work with newer technology platforms.

Kentucky's Bowling Green district was using OpenOffice. This year it moved back to Microsoft Office. With the state's transition to the Microsoft and e-mail platforms, the district can also capitalize on integrations with Office 2010. "While there were only a few technical issues with OpenOffice, there were minimal training and resources available," says Martin. "With good pricing through state purchasing, the decision made sense. Now we can tap into training tutorials and free online resources."

Florida's Orange County Public Schools makes Moodle's open source learning management system work, even though the product does not meet the district's technology standards. "Our district has centered around the Microsoft platform. Moodle uses MySQL and a Linux/Unix base," says John Lien, senior administrator for technology PD. "However, we have been using Moodle for the last three years very successfully."

There is a place for free/low-cost technology alternatives in educational environments. But they are not always as free as the hand-written sign might advertise, and a decision to adopt free/low-cost instructional technology comes with the risk of having to abandon the project after hours of sweat equity and possible significant financial investments. The research leading into the decision is critical, and securing funding for miscellaneous support such as training or hardware will determine the longevity and success of each implementation.

Tina Rooks is the vice president and chief instructional officer at Turning Technologies, which develops interactive response systems. Linda Mikels is an educational consultant at the Ohio-based company. 

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