Online Blogucation
9Nov/110

Whaddya mean, it’s free!?

In case you missed it, Pearson made an announcement a few weeks ago followed by some serious marketing during EDUCAUSE about one of our newest products, OpenClass. OpenClass is “breaking down barriers and transforming the learning environment,” says Adrian Sannier, Pearson’s Senior V.P. of Learning Technologies. Why? Because, in short, it’s free. As in really free – it’s hosted in the cloud, so there are no hosting costs. There are no licensing costs. In fact, if you’re a school with Google Apps for Education you can start using it right now. Free. Just click here.

But my post today is not to talk about OpenClass directly. I’m not going to try to sell you on it or demonstrate it or talk about all of its amazing features. Instead, I want to talk about some of the reactions we’ve seen to OpenClass. It’s my contention here that we in the educational world (and in our consumer culture in general) have become so suspicious of the word “free” that we can’t possibly believe that something really could be free. Once bitten, twice shy, right?

The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed both wrote articles on OpenClass following Pearson’s press release. Fine articles – balanced points of view, a few questions that need to be answered, and so on. And kudos to them for taking on these national discussions on the idea of a free LMS.

The heart of the matter, though, comes down to the comments posted by many of those publications’ readers. I’m going to share a few of those comments here, not to poke fun at the authors or to say that they’re wrong or that there’s anything wrong with what they posted. I’m all for free speech and for potential end users to challenge Pearson to deliver on its promises. What I want to point out is the amount of cynicism we see in the world of Learning Management System adoption. Let’s start with a sample of comments (unedited):

  • free-hosting sounds great, ...but at what price? what sorts of idiosyncrasies and limitations will this cloud-based LMS have?
  • I can almost picture the pop-up ads in OpenClass--"wouldn't you love to be able to [insert Learning Studio feature not present in OpenClass] ?"
  • Nothing is free!
  • this may not be as “free” as it looks. For a campus to integrate an LMS into their academic mission, it takes time, money and cooperative relationships with faculty.
  • I question how free OpenClass really will be. Pearson is a for-profit publisher and, to use OpenClass, I suspect they will have customers to use their textbooks under the guise of an integrated learning platform…I sense there are many strings attached to this so-called free platform
  • Like other people, I’m also wondering how “free” this can really be. LMS adoption is a costly process -- in terms of time and money. Plus, a newer LMS is bound to have more problems than better-established LMS that have been evolving over a decade or more.
  • While it is nice that "free" (as in gratis) is referenced, it is certainly not Free (as in libre). Of course, one does have to wonder how long the "free" part will last...
  • Can we please define "free?" It seems very limited to think of costs only directly related to hosting the application(s) and maintaining the hardware. Is it free in the sense that open source software is free (e.g. free as in speech vs. free as in beer)?
  • Pearson could cancel OpenClass at any time, or not fix bugs or insert ads or just stop adding any features or upgrades, and there is nothing anyone can do about it - you're locked in.
  • Yeah..it's good.But would you mind if i ask you a question? well I am 31 years of age from Tanzania East Africa I am looking for a sponsor for  my master's degree any where can you help please..

Okay, maybe that last one’s not really on point. But I think you get the picture I’m painting here: people are surprised, suspicious, and even (at times) hostile toward the idea of a free LMS. Several readers/commenters act as if Pearson is a drug dealer, using OpenClass to give people a taste, getting them hooked, and then causing them to take out second mortgages on their universities just to stay in the LMS.

Not true! Look, I’m biased here. I see that. I work for the company that makes OpenClass. But I’m also an academic, have years of teaching experience at the university level, and have years of experience with a variety of LMSs. So I know where these readers are coming from. Nothing is ever as free as it seems, right? There are always hidden costs. We, as a consumer culture, have become desensitized to the word “free” because, as one commenter so astutely wrote above, “Nothing is free!”

For example, there are a lot of other LMS offerings out there that purport to be free, but limit you in terms of the number of courses you can create or the number of students you can enroll. OpenClass is not that. There are other LMSs that provide the backend code for free so that you can essentially create your own LMS using their code. Except that you have to pay for hosting – even if that means just a lousy few thousand dollars on some servers and routers. OpenClass is not that.

In short, these other “free” offerings have brought out the cynic in many of us, that anything that says it’s free can’t possibly really be free. We’ve been burned too many times before.

OpenClass is free. You can get it for free out of the Google Apps Marketplace, create a course, enroll students, and run with it. You can create ten thousand courses with 100 students in each. Let your imagination run wild. It’s free. If you still don’t believe me, try it out. Let me know what you think.

Rob Kadel, Ph.D.
Pedagogy & Training Group Supervisor
Academic Training & Consulting

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