How Free is FREE?

Since Maryland schools shut down on March 16, my email inbox has exploded with offers of FREE resources for me, my teachers, and my students.  While I appreciate the support that so many of them have shown, I am hesitant to throw caution to the wind and sign up for everything just because… well… it’s FREE!

As school librarians, it is our job to both expand our students’ opportunities, but also protect their valuable information.  As we are all navigating these uncharted waters, I wanted to remind everyone to evaluate these resources in the same manner that we would teach students to evaluate an article for research.  

We need to use a critical eye and keep the following questions in mind:

  1. Does my district allow me to use this resource?  This should be the first question that you always ask yourself.  If the answer is, “No,” don’t use it. If the answer is “I don’t know,” check with your library supervisor. Most counties have an approval process in place to protect individuals from facing lawsuits.  Trying something that is not approved could make you legally liable. This is not the time to act first and ask for forgiveness later.

  2. What student information is being collected? Are they collecting personally identifiable information?  According to the Department of Education’s website on Protecting Student Privacy, “Personally identifiable information (PII) includes information that can be used to distinguish or trace an individual’s identity either directly or indirectly through linkages with other information.”  This means that if a vendor collects a student’s full name, birthday, school, town, or email, etc. the student can be identified and their privacy is compromised.

  3. What happens when the free period ends? If an invoice will be delivered the day that the free period ends and you (or parents) need to scramble to cancel accounts, then the free period will not feel free.

  4. What will the information be used for now and in the future? If the information could be sold or used for advertising, then the answer should be no.  What happens to the information if the company dissolves?

  5. Is the product FERPA, CIPA, and COPPA compliant? As educators, we are obligated to follow these Federal laws.  Before any resource is used or adopted, be sure to review the privacy policy and terms of service.  

  6. Is the product 508 compliant? We need to ensure that the product promotes equity via accessibility. Products should be device and/or browser agnostic; most will offer mobile friendly versions. Evaluate the accessibility options for those who have physical limitations or are visually or hearing impaired.  We need to remember that all students have the right to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) and this extends to distance learning.

Finally, think about the investment of time in this resource. While it may be exciting to try out a free resource, is it worth it to spend time teaching teachers, students, and parents to use this resource? What happens when the offer expires? Will your budget be able to support this resource in the Fall? Would your time be better spent getting expanded use from the resources that your school has already invested in? 

All legalities aside, this is an unprecedented time to be able to evaluate products that you may not have entertained in the past.  If you have time, use this as an opportunity to evaluate a brand new resource that may benefit your teachers and support your curriculum.  You can spend time exploring it without sharing, promoting, or purchasing it just yet.

In the end, it is our job to decide whether free is really free.

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Comments on "How Free is FREE?"

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Dedra Van Gelder - Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The pull to share every resource we find out there is too strong to resist for some. I get that many school librarians feel like this is a way they can help, but I caution them to hold back. Use the questions suggested in the blog post above to help you find the best of the best and curate those into shareable bites. Folks are overwhelmed right now, and this is our chance to really step up and be a part of the solution. I read another blog post (also available as a podcast) yesterday that I think partners with Brittany's post well. Check it out

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