Web services are not free to provide. Someone pays. Sometimes those paying are advertisers, but in many cases content and service providers pay costs but rationalize those costs because they are offset by income from other related sources.

monopoly sticker PAY

It’s very interesting as well as instructive to watch the development of pricing schedules and “free” access options for phenomenal web 2.0 services for education and learning. I put VoiceThread as well as PollEverywhere in this category. Over the past several years we’ve seen VoiceThread develop its VoiceThread for Education portal and service, at very reasonable prices for classroom teachers as well as schools. Miguel Guhlin’s December 2008 post, “Voicethread Reneges?” was in response to VoiceThread’s decision to disallow multiple user logins on free accounts. Like some other edu-bloggers at the time, Miguel was upset a previously offered free service / functionality was no longer available and educators had to pay a fee for more sophisticated / flexible functionalities. Over time VoiceThread pricing schedules for educators evolved so they are extremely reasonable, but naturally encourage “upgrades” for educators serious about using VoiceThread in accountable ways with students. I think the way VoiceThread co-founders listened to and responded to the educator community in formulating this pricing schedule and continuing to develop their product specifically for the education market is exemplary. This is exactly what we hope for as educators using digital learning tools in the classroom when it comes to vendor relationships: A situation where vendors truly listen to educator perspective and voices, and then respond appropriately to those perspectives.

Thanks to tweets from Liz Davis and Steve Dembo, I read PollEverywhere co-founder Jeff’s blog post yesterday, “Should we even offer a free product for educators?” Responding to a message from an educator, Jeff writes:

“NOT PURCHASE” in capital letters? “Unfair” and “greedy”? Perhaps this was an emotionally driven response from a moment of frustration, but try purchasing the cheapest set of 32 clickers for $1500 out of your own pocket. By comparison, we’re currently priced at $129/year. In 11 years you break even, and your clickers won’t be getting any smarter during that time, but you’ll still be lugging them around and replacing their batteries. This is like lusting after a Ferrari while calling the $12,000 Kia makers “greedy.” Be proactive, and start educating your district on the benefits of student response. Apply for a grant. Solicit parent or corporate sponsors. Or simply say, “It’s not as good as it used to be, but at least you provide something useful for free.” It’s time for a reality check, since we’re teetering on the brink of whether to provide any free service all. Web companies such as Blinksale, GoToMeeting, CrazyEgg, Jott, and many others have chosen to eliminate their free plans (or switch to free trials).

PollEverywhere is grappling with similar monetization issues as VoiceThread has. Most likely, every vendor offering a web-based service to educators and students today is in this boat. There are several important points to not only understand in this context, but also TAKE ACTION on. We don’t often move from the role of “lurker” to “commenter” in today’s social media landscape, but situations like this demand input. Here’s my 2¢.

INSTEAD OF WHINING, OFFER CONSTRUCTIVE SUGGESTIONS
It is so easy to whine and lament change or mistakes. We probably all know people in our lives who love to criticize others instead of offering constructive suggestions to improve a situation. We need to become part of the solution, rather than remain gripers in the crowd. In this case specifically, please comment and leave some specific feedback on Jeff’s post. What is a price you’d pay for the PollEverywhere software as-a-service? How much functionality is reasonable for that price? Should PollEverywhere, like VoiceThread, offer a “pay once” educator upgrade account as well as a monthly/yearly/by semester upgrade option? Tell Jeff and others at PollEverywhere! It is fantastic when commercial vendors are not only genuinely interested in serving the needs of educators and learners (which I think, based on past interviews, PollEverywhere is) but also willing to utilize social media to solicit input and feedback.

CONVERSATIONS ABOUT WORTHWHILE COMMERCIAL DIGITAL CURRICULUM ARE VITAL
I, like many others, revel in the climate of sharing and open access to a great deal of content and services in which we live today. While web content and services are not free for everyone concerned, the stars have aligned in a way today where remarkable amounts of content, software, professional development, and web-services ARE free. If we don’t want to subject learners to ad-supported web-content, however, it is VITAL to have conversations about digital curriculum sources which are WORTH paying for. Jeff is PRECISELY on target when he exhorts the author of the above-quoted email to “Be proactive, and start educating your district…..” This is a BIG reason Karen Montgomery and I are structuring our “Digital Magic Tricks” workshop experience in a way that will catalyze in-district conversations about digital content issues. These go beyond filtering/blocking discussions, and also extend into this realm of “what’s worth paying for” when it comes to digital curriculum. My digital curriculum wiki is one I’m going to be updating and moving later this spring, and hopefully sharing often at educational conference events and in-district PD sessions. We’ve GOT to talk about these issues locally with other teachers as well as administrators / board members who hold the purse strings. A high quality education has never been free and without cost. We SHOULD utilize and leverage free content and tools when it makes sense and those resources tangibly advance our learning goals. We also must remember and should discuss, however, the cases where digital content and capabilities are WORTH paying for.

This would be a great area of research for university students and others: What web services are individual educators paying for today, and what are schools paying for when it comes to interactive content? If we compare those amounts to the treasure chests our state education departments are handing over to testing companies today, I’m sure we’d see a huge disconnect.

I’m not suggesting that alone, any of us are going to be able to change our radically out-of-balance educational expenditure budgets which focus on summative testing. I AM suggesting, however, that our feedback to companies like VoiceThread and PollEverywhere CAN and DOES make a difference in the functions and pricing which are provided to us as customers and digital learning leaders.

Here are two surveys I put together (using PollEverywhere, of course) to gather info about these issues. Please take a minute and respond:

What’s the most you would you pay INDIVIDUALLY for a PollEverywhere educator account?

Create your own sms poll at Poll Everywhere

What’s the most your K-12 SCHOOL would pay for a CLASSROOM PollEverywhere educator account?

What web services have disappeared which you mourned? I put JumpCut in that category. It closed up shop in June 2009. I don’t want to see PollEverywhere, VoiceThread, or other powerful and unique interactive media platforms go the way of JumpCut. Take a few minutes, read Jeff’s post, and share your own thoughts. This is the current pricing schedule for PollEverywhere:

Classroom Response System Plans for K-12 | Poll Everywhere (as of 13 Feb 2010)

Here’s what I posted:

Jeff: Thanks so much for being transparent with your community and asking these questions. Here are a few thoughts.

I think the suggestion by other commenters to break out the text messaging functionality or limit it is a good one. Could you offer a free educator account which is limited in how many polls it permits per month, or how many free polls can be used with text messaging? Perhaps you could allow 10 per month? That would let educators try the full functionality of PollEverywhere, but not on an unlimited basis?

I hear what Lee (TeachaKidd) is saying about teachers wanting everything to be free, but I also know there are many schools (particularly 1:1 schools) who are paying for a variety of valuable digital curriculum for teachers. We have a list of digital curriculum sources we recommend for our Storychaser’s Mobile Learning Collaborative, and that list DOES include PollEverywhere. Floydada ISD (in Texas) has been 1:1 for 5 years and has a long list of free and commercial curriculum titles they use/pay for. While Lee is right that all teachers WANT everything to be free online, it’s also true that high quality curriculum and interactive tools DO cost money and can be worth paying for.

Have you considered an upgraded educator account for a “pay once” fee, as VoiceThread has done, or on an annual basis? I think it’s important to consider in this context both what is reasonable for an INDIVIDUAL teacher to pay, and how school budgeting cycles are set up. Paying a one-time $10 or $15 fee is pretty reasonable for an individual educator. Paying a monthly fee is not. Maybe a free account could have a larger number of polls per month, if that “one time upgrade fee” is paid?

In your post you mentioned that some PollEveryWhere accounts are costing you, as a company, a lot of money because they are being utilized so heavily. I do love “all you can eat” plans (both at restaurants and with my bandwidth) but couldn’t you address this with some account quotas? I don’t like the fact that AT&T advertises “unlimited” broadband with my 3G data card but actually limits me to 5 GB per month. I’ve never run into that limit, but I know it exists. Perhaps free accounts could be limited to a number of total free text message responses in a given period of time, like per month? This makes your own costs for offering this service more transparent, and could also impose some reasonable limits on free accounts.

What are schools paying now on a per classroom or a per-site basis for web-based software services that are comparable to PollEveryWhere? VoiceThread is a little different since in their case, they are offering STUDENT-level accounts for their education version. You are offering “just” teacher accounts presently. Maybe you should offer a classroom package which offers a teacher account, as well as a number of student accounts (maybe up to 100) which are connected to that account? That can encourage students to use PollEverywhere polls for their own research activities.

I hope these ideas are helpful, and again commend you for engaging the community. I look forward to the results of this dialog.

Now it’s your turn. :-)

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  • Kathleen Burgess (kmb211)

    I feel yearly fees are managable for an indivdual educator. All things in life are not free unfortunately
    but sometimes companies prices are way at of reach for an indivdual, school, or district. There must
    be a way for sites to acquire sponsorships without including blarring ads posted on the site. I have
    seen many great things to use on the web in the elementary setting but I know when they are suggested
    the pricing is always an issue with principal. Just trying to keep up with hardware repairs and replacment
    is an overwhelming task for some schools.

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