The myth of "free"

There’s been a lot of discussion about “free” at the moment – a debate in BECTA’s ICTRN email list, and Wired journalist Chris Anderson’s notion of “freeconomics”, examined in this Guardian article. The ICTRN discussion focussed around the apparent demise of free electronic educational resources on the internet, and the supposed benefits of open source; the Wired notion is all about how you get some things supposedly for free, but there is generally a hidden agenda (mobile phone “free”, monthly contract £15 per month, for example).

Made me think a bit. Fundamentally, and rather obviously, the key point is that nothing is free. The important debate is about who pays, when, what their motivations are – and what sort of market and products and services the chosen system creates. To dissect the current situation in electronic educational materials:

  • we all pay for publishers’ materials indirectly, via the money, targets and incentives that the DCSF distributes to schools (see below on this blog for more on how the market for educational resources in schools in the UK is incomparable to a much closer-to-free market such as that for wheat or potatoes);
  • the DCSF and other government bodies create materials using our taxpayers’ money and to their own political agendas (for example the materials for the strategies);
  • we all pay for the BBC and its free materials via the licence fee;
  • schools and colleges create materials for themselves, and sometimes others, which are also effectively at the taxpayer’s expense (as we pay teachers for their time);
  • there is nothing much “open source” in terms of software designed specifically for the UK schools market that I am aware of – Moodle and other VLEs are much more international (and often higher education oriented) in their focus. This is almost certainly because the creation of educational software is culturally very specific, time-consuming, difficult and expensive. Even if there were lots of such material, it would still have been paid for somehow – in people’s time and in the computing resources that they have devoted to their work.

Since the demise of BBC jam the debate about what sort of electronic materials and services we want for our schools seems to have been absorbed into the wider debate about what sort of education system we want in general, and how technology does (and doesn’t) help us to get there (for example in Futurelab’s Beyond Current Horizons programme). In many ways, this is entirely appropriate and sensible – but we should not lose sight of the myths and agendas which have shaped people’s attitudes to the current market.


  1. Nick davis says:

    You are right, free isn’t free especially the misnomer of teacher created content in school time which can work to be thousands of pounds. Promethean planet ( peer created content that is totally free, but that is tied to the interactive whiteboard. Dunelm elearning, although not free is trying very hard to be as cheap as possible.(


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