Monday, 20 October 2014

Freemium: Students Can Be The Winners On The Day

by Sam McNeill, St Andrew's College

In my role as Director of ICT at St Andrew's College I get to see lots of great products in the ICT sector, both the latest hardware (such as new tablets aimed at education) and software (cloud based productivity suites are the in thingcurrently for schools). I also get to step back from the coal face from time to time and observe some of the bigger trends happening in ICT & Education and there are two obvious ones:
  1. BYOD – Bring Your Own Device. More and more schools are exploring how they can allow (or in some cases require) students to bring a laptop/tablet/smartphone to school and use it as a tool for their education. There are literally tens of thousands of blogs about this, so I'm not going to write about that today.
  2. Freemium – Defined as "a business model, especially on the Internet, whereby basic services are provided free of charge while more advanced features must be paid for" This is a growing trend in education and, as the blog title suggests, students will be the ultimate winners from this.
The concept of Freemium is probably best known as starting within the Apple App Store and it has spread rapidly from there. Developers, keen for you to try out their apps, give away a limited feature set, be that the first few levels of a game for example, and if you love it, you pay the full price for the app.

How Is This Impacting Schools?

Major players in ICT have long recognised that exposing students to their products early on increases the chances of them continuing to use their products when they leave school. Earlier this year I attended a conference where Francis Valintine from The Mindlab by Unitec named five companies that are likely to dominate education in the near future. These were (in no particular order):
  • Apple
  • Facebook
  • Microsoft
  • Amazon
  • Google

Many New Zealand schools are already availing themselves of the Ministry of Education negotiated contract with Microsoft allowing for very affordable access to Offiec365 and associated products. Other schools have gone for the free option of Google Apps For Education (GAFE). Both products are excellent, and allow schools to deliver Enterprise quality email, cloud collaboration services, online storage and backup options and a huge range of additional features from third party developers that plug in to these core products. It has massively reduced the workload for school ICT technicians for example: not having to run a local mail server and spam filter for students and staff.

Ben Kepes, writing for, described the Google/Apple/Microsoft rush for education as a "war" – they are certainly battling for the hearts and minds of students, hoping that their loyalty to a product will continue on into tertiary study and, ultimately, the workplace. Indeed, I've even come across ICT technicians from different schools exclaiming incredulously "What? You've gone with [product x]?? I can't believe it when [product y] gives you 10x that storage space for free!!"

And so it goes on …

Should We Be Concerned?

The answer to that question is not a clear cut yes or no – it's more like a "maybe." With more and more companies offering free or heavily discounted products to schools, we should in theory be seeing increased choice around what tools are used for the best educational outcomes. Paradoxically, however, the opposite is happening as each major vendor creates an ecosystem where their products play nicest together. As these ecosystems grow ever more encompassing there becomes less compelling reasons for schools to explore great products outside of those provided within the ecosystem.

To highlight just how much focus these vendors are pushing a widening product set, many traditional software only companies are now releasing hardware products to complete their ecosystem:
  • Microsoft: long history of operating systems and office suites, now offering hardware like the Surface Pro 3 tablet
  • Google: started out as a search engine and then developed a mobile operating system called Android and then ChromeOS for running on laptops. They have released their own ChromeBook called Pixel
  • Apple: already a hardware and software company, they needed a cloud based productivity suite to complete their ecosystem and introduced iCloud
Ultimately, schools have to make a choice which ecosystem they enter and straddling two at once becomes challenging. Towards the end of Term 3 I organised some of staff to present to senior leaders from a range of schools throughout New Zealand on how we are using OneNote in Maths and English. Afterwards, a number of the guests from other schools asked how they too could implement OneNote in their schools, only to realise they were a GAFE school and didn't have the Microsoft licensing to affordably do this.

Therein lies the problem.

It's not that Office365 is better than Google Apps for Education – both are tremendous products and as schools, we should all be incredibly grateful we have access to these. It's more that in being spoilt for choice for free or heavily subsidised product offerings, it's not always easy to run across multiple ecosystems.


I wrote in a recent blog post that great integration of technology in a classroom should see it fade into the background:

Whilst the phrase "ubiquitousness of technology" is over used, this lesson did demonstrate that when used effectively, the technology is not at the forefront of the lesson. It was not gimmicky or flashy, instead it provided functional improvement to what was already a great lesson.

Schools are in an incredible position that they've never really experienced before where major players in ICT are literally giving away their products to them or using a freemium model for base services. On top of that, there is the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) community offerings such as the very popular learning management system (LMS) called Moodle.

At a time of such rich pickings, our focus should not be solely on [product x] or [product y], but squarely on the teaching and learning practices that authentically integrate whatever the chosen technology is into the lesson.

When this occurs, students will indeed be winners on the day.


  1. Fantastic post, Sam. Have you read the book "Dogfight"? I'm sure you'd find it very interesting.
    Funnily enough, I am guilty of getting involved in exactly the type of heated discussion you describe with some of your staff at the Edchatnz conference. I am a huge GAFE fan but possibly because I've never had the opportunity to explore OneDrive. I must admit the fact that it is free is potentially its greatest strength and biggest potential downfall as I like the fact that when paying the consumer is slightly more protected. I was devastated when Google Reader was discontinued and felt quite miffed but actually I am now a Feedly convert so what seemed like the end of the world at the time, guess what? It wasn't!
    Freemium does seem like you are slightly more protected from things like the Google Reader Apocalypse. Having said that, products like WeVideo are not that cheap at $25US a month for the Freemium version but the free version is no better than imovie which we already have so there is still the question of value for money. I'd want to be sure I was going to use it every month at that price.
    Anyway, I digress.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
    Bridget Compton-Moen

  2. Hi Bridget,

    Thanks for the feedback.

    Yes, there is no easy answer in this space and it is hard to deny the value of "free" - even if that leaves you at the whims of the vendor to change your mind. A cynical person might say that Google created the best RSS feed reader and released it for free with the aim of killing off all the paid competitors (which it achieved successfully).

    With RSS dominated by Google Reader, they then discontinued that, promoting instead the use of Google+ ... a product that many RSS fans (like me) didn't want to use.

    It's not to say that paid products necessarily give you greater protection from this happening - but typically they will have a roadmap of product development and support that you can rely on, rather than one day being told a product is going to be discontinued in the near future.