Recess Blog

Choosing Free Web Teacher Resources

By Jeremy Riel
March 24, 2016

I get it, nobody wants to pay for the apps we use every day. However, there is always a tradeoff when using free technologies. Free doesn’t always mean the same to everyone, especially with digital technology. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but knowing about the meanings of free can help you protect your students and practice proper web etiquette when using shared resources.

When you are looking for digital resources, such as images, videos, curriculum, lesson plans, or articles and books, it is always a good practice to try to find the license under which the resources are available. There are generally two types of digital resources that are often regarded as free in terms of financial cost: creative works/media and software. I’ll discuss what “free” means in each of these types of resources below, and what educators should consider when working with them.

Type 1: Creative works, media, and the creative commons

You’ll find that many people (especially educators) are very generous on the web, offering their resources for free of charge and encouraging them to be shared. However, most of the time, free does not mean you own the resource. In most cases, you will always need to reference where you found a resource. This is especially true if you are making your own curriculum and distributing it on the web. The exception to this rule is in the case of public domain licenses, which are open to everyone to use and are “owned” by the public.

You may have heard that you can use anything on the web, as long as it’s for an academic use. However, there’s a fine line between “academic use” (also known as fair use) and copyright infringement. Instead of having copyright issues arise, it’s always best to stay on the safe side and provide attribution whenever you use someone else’s work. It’s the same idea as when writing term papers or academic articles - citing others’ work is good practice and just the right thing to do. Also, students and those who use your work additionally benefit from knowing your source materials.

It’s also likely that you’ll encounter works that are “open licensed,” typically with a Creative Commons license. All this license says is that legally you are required to cite or “attribute” the author in any project that you use the resource. There are sometimes other terms also attached to Creative Commons licenses, such as non-commercial (NC) or share-alike (SA). CC licenses are often shortened to acronyms like CC-BY, or CC-BY-NC. Look for the license on resources you find to know exactly how you can use it.

It’s also wise to license your own work when you share it on the web. If you want to retain all rights on your work, a simple copyright notice would suffice. However, if you would like to share your work and encourage others to use it openly, consider attaching a Creative Commons attribution (CC-BY) license to your projects. This legally requires others to attribute you as the author for your work while keeping the work free to share and use.

Making a simple declaration like this will encourage others to use and share your work around the world. A large number of digital resources can be released with a Creative Commons license, including text and articles, images and photos (I personally license my photos CC-BY on Flickr), videos, audio, and slideshows.

Type 2: Free software

Despite being “free” of cost, there are still strings attached to many digital resources. However, openly licensed resources are the most flexible in allowing you to do what you want in your classroom and adapt resources to meet your needs. Free software, on the other hand, often comes with additional constraints, especially if the company has not licensed the software as “open source.” In these cases, the company maintains and runs free-of-cost software, often with restrictions on how you can use it and with terms on how user data are collected and used.

There are two types of free-of-cost software: those that are open source and those that are closed-source. Most educators will encounter the second kind of software, closed-source.

I’ll start with the first type, which is the most flexible (and more rare). Some software is provided with an open license (typically GNU or Apache), similar to the creative commons licenses. Software with open licenses typically require you to attribute the software whenever you use it in work. Some other restrictions apply, but they typically don’t affect educators who are just seeking cool technologies to bring new activities to their classes.

Some nonprofit and granting agencies (like IES and NSF) often develop or fund software for various purposes that are open licensed. In addition, some software projects such as Linux, WordPress, MediaWiki (the software that powers Wikipedia), and Moodle (a learning management system for online classes) are all open sourced and have large communities that work together to improve the software.The principle of open-licensed software is similar to open-licensed resources mentioned in the section above - people have some cool things they’ve made and they want to share. The only real difference is that software open licenses cover additional legal issues that are unique to software.

However, the dominant form of free software in education is the type that is closed-licensed. These are any software that does not cost anything and is maintained by a company. Many web-based and cloud apps fall in this category, including Facebook, edmodo, Twitter, Google, YouTube, and even most free online games…...pretty much everything we use every day. Companies may offer apps for free, but they always typically come with a “terms of service” that dictate how you can use the software. In addition, companies also typically collect data on how people use their software, as well as the contributions made in the software. Status updates, posts, documents, and other things created in apps are frequently owned by the software company, or at least accessible by the software provider. One of the biggest tradeoffs of “free” software is the ownership of data and what companies can do with the data that are collected in software. It is becoming increasingly important to consider how data are used by software providers, especially in the case of students’ needs for secure and private spaces for learning.

Data security is also an issue to consider when thinking about free services. Some software providers go to extra lengths to keep the data of their customers secure. However, it is important to remember to balance the use of free software with the security needs of your students. Always use secure passwords and avoid putting students’ discussions, data, and personally identifiable information out on the open web. If the software or app that you’re considering has a history of not securing their users’ data, it may not be the right one for your class. It pays to do some research on apps, even though the price tag is nice.

Sometimes, app and software providers will provide better options for a small subscription fee, including no ads, tech support, more space and features, and the ability to export your data. These are features that might be worth paying for over the “free” version of an app.

Thinking pedagogically about “free” stuff

There’s always a tradeoff when working with free software and resources.

Always consider who will be collecting, owning, and possibly using your students’ data. Companies often sell data and the things they find out from data for advertising purposes. If you adapt software or resources to meet your classroom needs, always make sure you attribute the authors in the ways determined by the license.

Weighing all of these considerations, you may find there’s more to the cost of digital resources than you anticipated. If that’s the case, don’t throw away resources right away. Instead, just take a moment to think a bit about what the software or resource brings to learning. If you can replace the resource with another option, that may be the best bet. However, if you get some unique features from the resource, it is likely worth it. The non-financial costs can surprise people, so just be aware of what you’re signing up for.

If you can’t find a license for a resource, you can usually assume it is “all rights reserved.” If you are unsure, you can email authors or customer support to find out. They may be even willing to extend a license to you as an educator if it is going to be used in a classroom.

What are your thoughts?

Let me know what you’re thinking! What are your thoughts on this issue of “free,” student data, and attribution? - tweet me at @jeremyriel! I’m also always on the lookout for cool apps, so if you’d like to drop me a line about what you use related to this post, let me know.

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