Why freemium software has no place in our classrooms

Freemium software in education exacerbates the digital divide for students who may be economically disadvantaged compared to their peers. Credit: Shutterstock

Digital teaching and communication tools are increasingly present in K-12 classrooms. In April 2020, shortly after the start of the pandemic, Google Classroom had doubled its users to over 100 million.

For educational technology companies, the pandemic accelerated market and profit growth opportunities.

Whether to facilitate learning, assess learning, or communicate with parents and guardians, digital tools are increasingly becoming part of the school experiences of many children and parents.

In our classrooms and our always connected societies, a notable element is the use of free software– software that can be obtained and used for free by all users, but only with limited functionality. For a fee or a monthly subscription, users can unlock other features.

Educational parameters should focus on fairness, especially when it comes to decisions related to the use of technology for teaching and learning.

In educational settings, software – whether for teaching and learning or parent-teacher communication – should not have tiered offerings where users who can afford to pay get access to a better version of the software with additional features and tools.

School boards and provincial ministries of education should focus on implementing universally accessible tools to eliminate the two-tier access for learners and families that is enabled with freemium software. This may include licensing commercial software that has been carefully evaluated and evaluated for how well it supports student learning.

Marketing Strategy

Freemium software is a great marketing strategy and economic engineand it has become popular for multiple applications. Spotify software is a popular example for everyday music listen.

Some examples of educational software that have freemium versions are Mathematics prodigies and ClassDojo. According to these respective software vendors, 20 million students annually use the free version of Prodigy. More … than 50 million teachers and families use ClassDojo and over a million use the “plus” (premium) version.

Equity in the classroom

Freemium software exacerbates Numeric fraction for students who may be economically disadvantaged compared to their peers.

In turn, it contributes to what is called the Matthew effect—where those who have more gain better and more beneficial experiences compared to those who have less and are left behind.

In cases where schools choose to use software that has a freemium version, boards should license the software to ensure that all learners have equitable access to the tool.

Hidden costs

What is important to understand is that freemium software is not actually free software, all things Considered. With the data being collectedthe provider obtains valuable user data.

The software vendor gets a direct marketing channel to the parent and child through the app. The developer can now target the user with advertising for advanced features which are accessible if they pay a fee.

The American non-profit organization Fairplay called on schools to say no to using Prodigy, noting that the platform’s “push to sell premium subscriptions is relentless and aimed at children. In just 19 minutes of “study” we saw 16 membership announcements and only four math problems. In February 2021, the organization’s campaign for a commercial-free childhood and its advocacy partners sent a letter of complaint to the US Federal Trade Commission about Prodigy.

A tuition fee?

Parents who are able and willing to pay for premium access may do so without much thought, or assume that the school has selected the tool and there is a cost, comparing it to an exit fee on the ground.

In addition to providing different forms of tool access for students and families, the interactions enabled by the premium features of freemium software could affect classroom relationships inequitable ways.

For example, the premium features of Prodigy Math allow parents to compare their child’s progress with their peers: If children have access to this information about their classmates, it could affect their interaction with other children. In ClassDojo, if parents pay for the plus versionthey are able to go to “read the statutes”– notifications indicating when their messages to teachers have been read. Teachers have the option to disable this feature.

This has the potential to strain the parent-teacher relationship or create privileged or priority communication access to teachers by paid parents if the teacher feels compelled to respond or be accessible.

Universally accessible tools

As the expenses continues to rise on educational technology, it is important that the software used for teaching and learning is evaluated by educational technology specialists and supported across school boards. If freemium software is used, it must be selected based on evidence and licensed to users.

Communication platforms should work well and meet the needs of teachers and instructors while enhancing communication between school and family at no cost to the parent or guardian.

Increasingly, data security and student privacy are concerns. Software deployed for teaching and learning in classrooms should be carefully selected using standard practices.

Supports for digital tools

Media adapted to digital tools are needed to see the benefits of the tools. It is important to realize that simply making technology accessible to students does not guarantee better learning outcomes: for example, research from the United States shows that extent to which educators support training and immersion with devices in schools account for measurable student learning gains.

At a time when school boards and schools are being called upon to implement decisions that address student inequities and reduce the opportunities and access gaps students and families face, the free tier of freemium software is a step in the wrong direction.


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