The Problems with Free Educational Apps

no free lunchI 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.

About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
This entry was posted in App Reviews & Recs, Balefire Labs, Instructional Design, Technology, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to The Problems with Free Educational Apps

  1. Malena says:

    This is so interesting!

    I must admit we are feeling the pressure from what can only be described as a “non-cost culture” in the app-world. Which means we will (at least in the beginning) have one part of our app for free and then in-app purchases for other parts. We are just worried it won’t be downloaded at all in the beginning otherwise, and we refuse to have ads in an app for kids. (Or any kind of customer tracking for that matter.)

    I have also been thinking of your 5th point, because when I ask people with kids they say that they either only download apps that are free, or apps that cost 0.99…. It is as if app-prices are judged on a completely different scale than say coffee… (I bought a caffe latte in the tube on my way to work the other day, it was $5,5!!!)

    • karen mahon says:

      Malena, thanks for jumping in! You raise a good point with in-app purchases. It’s another feature that teachers and parents don’t like…in fact, in US schools there really is no mechanism for teachers to even pay for in-app purchases, so that tends to be a problem.

      The coffee thing is a great comparison, isn’t it? 🙂

  2. Paul Olean says:

    Perhaps the reason that parents, teachers and ed admins are unwilling to pay for Edapps is because they have no way of knowing the value of what they are getting. Hopefully Balefire Labs will solve that problem and cause the purchasers to covet quality.

  3. kati10705 says:

    Often when buying apps, you are unsure whether they are going to do what you need them to do. I think it is very useful to have a free version of a paid app, all be it a limited version, so you can try something out before buying it.

    • karen mahon says:

      Thanks, Kati. I agree with you that’s it’s nice to have a sampling before committing to the whole thing. I would just like to see more parents be willing to then buy the full version. This model gets complicated, however, for teachers. As I mentioned to Malena, teachers don’t have a way to pay for in-app purchases to get full versions.

    • As the producer of the high quality educational app LetterSchool, I agree that a sampling is very useful to parents, teachers, therapists and ICT Facilitators. The problem for the producer is that free apps are very easy to torpedo: competitors can give the app bad reviews with (fake) accounts without even having to spend any money. We do offer a free lite version of our app LetterSchool, but it’s a shame that the ratings for this version are significantly lower than for the full version which costs $2.99.

      • karen mahon says:

        Oh, Sylvie, I’m so glad you brought up this issue of reviews in the app store. So many people use the star ratings and the user reviews that are in the app store, but as you point out, anyone can provide a review there. And it cuts both ways: competitors can torpedo an app by providing false, negative reviews; but app developers can also have their friends and family provide false, positive reviews as well. It’s a problem. And that doesn’t even broach the topic of the reviews having no standard approach. Thanks for chiming in.

  4. Thank you very much Karen for your clear analysis of the situation. We find it remarkable that schools would spend a lot of money each year on educational programs, but hesitate to pay a few dollars for a high quality educational app which doesn’t look “smudgy” like a book after some time.

  5. Karen, Thank you so much for this article. After attending Appsworld 2013 in San Francisco and listening to Nielsen there are also different buying habits on different platforms. Apple iOS users are actually willing to spend the money in buying a quality educational app but most are still buying games and not educational apps. Google Play has the lowest percentage of purchased apps. Most are downloading free apps. B&N Nook and Amazon Kindle are different because consumers are willing to buy an eBook and therefore an app purchase is an easier transition. For Windows and Blackberry, time will tell. Most free apps are also unfortunately built by new developers, sometimes trying to launch their app development careers and have something on their resume. The key is to look at the App Developer page and sometimes you’ll see an education app along with something unrelated to education. This is when there should be a red flag and this app was just a one-off.

    As a multi-platform indie app company trying to continue to build “no or low stakes” learning assessment apps which challenge and disrupt learning with no ads and no/minimal In-App Purchases your article hit all the right points. Free is unfortunately not sustainable as a business model.

    Thank you!

    • karen mahon says:

      Andy, thanks for all of the additional information! Very helpful. My understanding about GooglePlay is also that the bulk of the edapps available there are free, in addition to having a low percentage of purchases. I think, too, that the quality of Android apps, on the whole, is still not as good as on iTunes. But I’m assuming that will be changing as the penetration rates of Android devices increases. Please keep us posted on what you learn as we go along!

    • As an academic and retired university lecturer my teaching philosophy is based on nurturing a love for learning in students. I believe I can make a difference and have now resorted to investing in app development to continue down this path. My previous career in systems analysis and programming has been instrumental in my using technology to enhance learning.

      My app Whizz-on-add is a fun yet educational game. It is based on a relatively easy to master mathematics principle (digital root). The principal is useful knowledge for children, parents and teachers – it can be used to verify that solutions to basic mathematical problems are correct (see

      While the lite version is limited to level one game, each and every round of play is unique and therefore players can engage in countless rounds of play and develop their numeracy sense. The children who played the beta-testing versions expressed personal sense of achievement and satisfaction in being able to improve their arithmetic, mental and numeracy skills in just a matter of days.

      While the pro version does cost a small fee, the lite version on its own can and will produce the desired learning. The pro or paid version offers more challenging levels to further test skills learnt in level 1.

      Whizz-on-add is currently available for Iphone and Ipad. Android versions will be released in the next few days. I look forward to parents and educators trying the lite version and to hearing of your experience – is the app worth the end result?

  6. Richard Campbell says:

    I agree that you should pay for quality apps. The international school I visited last week, had just adopted iPads for their second and third grade classes. One app they invested in was Mathletics. After seeing the app in action I have to say that it has to be the best Math app on the market. The app itself is free, but you have to have an account to login in.

    There are a lot of educational apps that aren’t expensive but still give you a great educational experience. Toontastic and Puppet Pals are two apps teaches and children love and you won’t break the bank when you buy the all access pass.

    I understand that you get what you pay for, however, as a parent I hope in the future their will be more apps like Toontastic that will offer a good experience but won’t cost a small fortune.

  7. Thanks for great article!
    I want recommend one great educational App, called “Essay Starter”. It’s great tool for students, bloggers, writers…

  8. Great article and love the Starbucks / Entertainment park examples,
    But as app developer / student response system, we must start with free to get users and word of mouth (WOMA). The ‘free’ is not bad (no adds or crappy graphics). It’s just a start to evaluate. And yes, the business model is: When you like it on the long term, the enthusiastic users can pay a few bugs. And…. education users are having much better prices than commercial ‘speakers’.

    Vincent van Witteloostuyn
    Founder VoxVote – The Voice of Your Audience

    • karen mahon says:

      Vincent, I think you’re right that the “freemium” model is the one that has shown the most promise for acquiring new users. I haven’t seen any statistics on the success of conversion to paying customers…do you know of any?

  9. Kuka says:

    I use Screentime Ninja, which automagically blocks the device after a pre-set amount of time and lets the kids earn more time by solving math.
    No more “stop playing angry birds and do something useful!”.

  10. Pingback: Third Application – One and only "Bobba"

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