Thursday, July 17, 2008

Why pay for software?

Most tech savvy schools understand that they need software to fully leverage (and thus justify the expense of) classroom laptops. Beyond MS Office, there are now LOTS of free Web 2.0 tools--my favorite being blogs, Google Docs,, and wikis. But what about software that is used during instruction that has an impact on teaching, feedback, material coverage, student achievement, retention...learning? Examples include SAS Curriculum Pathways, Atomic Learning, Plato Straight Curve, ANGEL Learning LMS, Waterford Early Learning, and DyKnow Vision/Monitor. The challenge is that many educators still expect this software to be free. Sure, I like free stuff, too, but often times the "solution" of open source software presents hidden costs, limited support, and difficult integration with existing infrastructure.

My view is that using technology with learning is a not a research project. Rather, it is a production-level, high stakes business that must work with consistency and efficiency. Buying licenses for any of the above commercial software only amounts to a paltry 2-7% of the cost of the laptop. This is clearly a good deal if you look at the financial commitment of the laptop itself. Yet this potentially invaluable instructional software still competes for funding with things like webcams or backpacks. Unfortunately, many schools still choose to allocate that last $40/machine to a branded laptop backpack instead of proven instructional software, and I'm not surprised when many of these students end up having very nice laptops that they use infrequently.

So why pay for software? To ensure reliability, high utilization of laptops, and meaningful learning outcomes. Education is not an experiment. Schools that invest a bit extra in the right tools can significantly increase their chance for success with technology and learning.