I was talking to a school superintendent last week about how her district selects iPad apps for use in the classrooms. She said that the first thing they do is separate the free from the paid apps…and then they go on to select from among the free. Similarly, in talking to parents in the past few months, they also tend to select primarily from among the free educational apps that are available. Lots of focus on free…in many cases because there’s little or no confidence that educational apps are truly effective, therefore, why spend the money on paid apps?
My colleague, Lisa Dubernard, wrote a post for Promethean Planet talking about the problem with free tools for educators. I was excited to see her post. So I wanted to share my thoughts on “the problem with free” when it comes specifically to educational apps.
Here’s what’s been on my mind:
1. High quality educational apps are expensive to build. The expense of the graphics, which is the most obvious part to the user, is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to quality apps. The greater expense is in the design of the instruction, the infrastructure and algorithms that control the user experience, and the custom database that manages all of the data. Designing the app to adjust to the user’s performance, adding error analysis, doing the user testing that allows improvement to the app…these all cost money. And they are critical to high quality apps.
2. If a developer offers an app for free, they must generate revenue in some other way. That’s why you see so much advertising in free apps; that’s why so many free apps want to track your activity so that they can sell that information to other companies; that’s why free apps have a tiny offering and then try to up-sell you to the full app for a price. Many customers find these features annoying. But that’s the price you pay, if you will, for free apps.
3. When you think about the fact that building a very good educational app can cost upwards of $50,000-$75,000, it sort of gives you some perspective on paying $0.99, or $1.99, or $2.99 to purchase an app, doesn’t it? When you think of how many copies of an app the developer has to sell just to break even at those price points? When you think about how much competition there is in the app store? Frankly, those prices (nevermind free) are just too low for companies to carry on doing really good work. So if you are unwilling to pay for high quality products, don’t be surprised and disappointed when those high quality products go away because the companies can’t sustain themselves.
4. For some reason in education we have gotten into the habit of expecting free. Why is that? We don’t expect free in other domains…we expect to pay people for their work. We even expect to pay more for higher quality. But not in education, for some reason. So why are we unwilling to pay premium rates for premium apps?
5. I’ll just say it: I’m shocked when I hear parents who can easily afford it saying that they are simply unwilling to pay for educational apps for their kids. They think nothing of buying a daily Starbucks or taking the family to a movie for $12 per ticket or going to an amusement park for a $200 day for a family of four. But they refuse to buy educational apps that are a few dollars apiece. I think that’s bizarre.
I’m not an app developer. But I do care a lot about our kids having the opportunity to use products that have great instructional design, build skills and impact student learning outcomes. And I get that all of us like bargains. We have two problems we need to solve. First, customers need to know which apps have high instructional quality, which I’m working on doing. (Shameless self-promotional plug: My new ed app review service, Balefire Labs, will launch in June 2013.) Second, we, as a society, then need to be willing to put our dollars into supporting those companies creating those high quality apps.
You think the educational app selection stinks now? Just wait until there are upwards of a million ed apps….in the last year alone the number of ed apps in iTunes and Google Play increased by 150%. If we don’t start spending money in accordance with what we value….apps that actually help kids learn…then it will get far, far worse.