Free Web Tools vs. Purchasing Proprietary Software? A tool to help you decide.
Submitted by David J. Rosen on February 23, 2016 - 2:38pm
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Jacqui Murray, an indefatigable K-12 tech blogger, had an interesting Ask a Tech Teacher blog article on February 22, 2016, “8 Reasons for and 8 Against Revisiting Software in the Classroom”
I have adapted this below for an adult basic skills context. I hope you will look at, critique, and suggest additions to it. With a little refinement, it could become an especially useful tool for adult basic skills practitioners who want to examine advantages and disadvantages of free vs. proprietary software. Of course, there is also the question of whether software should be cloud-based, and accessible from any Internet-accessible device, or located on a computer or Local Area Network at an adult education program, school or a public library. This is addressed in part by some of these advantages and disadvantages, and by some of the criteria I have included below that Jacqui suggests for evaluating software.
Advantages of Proprietary (commercial) software
In addition to these advantages Jacqui Murray has given for proprietary (commercial) software, which I have made some adjustments to,
- No ads
- You get the entire program when you purchase software. With some online tools, however, you might get one or two levels of a few of the included games, or some of the lessons, with the expectation that you will purchase more levels, more games or more lessons
- Often, there is no annual fee. Once you purchase software, you own it for as long as you want to use that version. The only reason you pay more is to upgrade to a newer offering.
- Ability to work offline
- Sometimes greater security
- Sometimes more reliability
- You know the full cost. Sometimes free samples of software lead to add-ons that end up being more expensive than similar proprietary software.
from an adult educator’s perspective I also see some additional possible advantages for proprietary software:
- Often, but not always, proprietary software is better designed and with more features that teachers need such as a built-in learning progress management system
- Sometimes proprietary software is more likely to be optimized for smartphones and electronic tablets
- This is a variation on Jacqui’s “getting the entire program”. Often with proprietary software you get the whole curriculum. If you need a high school equivalency preparation program, for example, the online products are often complete.
- With curricula changing so quickly to align with new CCRSAE standards, and standardized assessments, the commercial publishers have also had to change their products to better align with these new standards. While sometimes they are not truly re-designed, but just re-packaged, some are totally re-designed and well-aligned with the new standards. Others probably will be soon
- In some cases, school systems, libraries, or state education authorities that sponsor adult basic education for the state buy a license to a proprietary product that allows programs or individual learners to use good online proprietary software for free. (Of course, it may be that in some cases it’s not very good software, and worse, its use is mandated.)
Advantages of Free Web-based Software
In addition to advantages Jacqui has given for free web-based software, which I have made minor adjustments to below:
- Can be accessed across all platforms, avoiding problems like Macs vs. PCs
- Can be accessed from any computer because they’re online. They don’t rely on programming that’s native to a particular computer
- No worry about having enough space to install or run software — or save data. The size of your hard drive is irrelevant
- Nothing to install. You set up an account, set up your preferences, and get started
- No maintenance. It’s installed on a server that someone else maintains and updates
- They reliably work. They don’t have to be updated with new drivers that make the program compatible with whatever changes were made to your computer. In short: You don’t have to be a geek to keep it running. You just have to remember your password
- Data backups are seamlessly performed in the cloud. You never worry about losing your work or backing up your data
- Some digital devices can’t run software. Neither iPads or Chromebooks allow downloads or installs to their systems so software just isn’t an option. Web tools are more universal
from an adult educator’s perspective, I also see these possible advantages to using free web-based software:
- As most teachers and administrators put it, “free is good” generally meaning, “That’s what we can afford.”
- There is no perfect proprietary curriculum for all one’s students. Even excellent curricula are made better by the capacity for teachers to add in their own resources and lessons that better suit their particular students. This means that sometimes an integrated mix of proprietary and free curricula and instruction is the ideal instructional solution.
Jacqui offers a table in her blog article comparing proprietary software and what she calls Online Tools, i.e. free online software. She evaluates these with some useful criteria, to which I have added some explanation:
- Access -- the computer or LAN where it was installed vs. on the Internet
- Compatibility across various computer platforms and portable digital devices
- Control -- your control vs. someone else’s
- Daily Use -- at any particular time being able to use it may depend on either or both: whether your computer(s) work(s) and/or whether your Internet connection works
- Limitation -- what kinds of devices it can run on
- Maintenance -- who is responsible for fixing it when it breaks
- Security -- your computer security and/or the website’s security
- Set-up -- whether or not and what kind of installation is required
- Updates -- who is responsible for these
- Where it lives -- on your computer or on the Internet
- Working with a partner -- using it, how easy or difficult it is to learn or work collaboratively
- What features – advantages and disadvantages of either proprietary or free, online or on-computer software would you add to this?
- What questions do you have about Jacqui’s analysis – or mine?
- How would you use this software evaluation tool, now, or once it is refined?
David J. Rosen