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You Can’t Depend on Free

While I was away at ISTE, Evernote, the online note taking service, announced the unthinkable: they reduced the functionality of their free service. Among other alterations to the free tier, users may now access their notes on only two devices, instead of on as many as they could carry previously.1

Horrors!

I learned about the changes to Evernote by overhearing a conversation in the Blogger’s Cafe at the conference. Several members of the group sitting behind me were not at all happy, complaining that Evernote was only trying to force them into one of the paid tiers. They vowed to move to something better (which probably meant something also free).

Ok, this kind of change is not fun. But it’s also a good example of what I’ve said before: you can’t depend on free.

It’s very possible the people on which I was eavesdropping will move to another notetaking application and be disappointed by it at some time in the future. The developers will also change the functionality. Or begin charging for some features, maybe the whole thing. Or the product will disappear entirely when they fail to make money on the venture.

I suppose I’m the one who really has the right to gripe about Evernote’s announcement since they also raised prices for those of us who actually pay for the service. But I’m not going to complain. And I certainly won’t be looking at alternatives. This is a tool I use every day and depend on to keep my information life straight. Why wouldn’t I pay a reasonable amount for that? 2

In the end, a large part of the blame for the grumbling I heard in the Cafe lies with many of the vendors exhibiting at ISTE themselves. Over many years they have addicted educators to free or absurdly cheap, as in the case of most mobile apps, software, without making it plain that free is not a sustainable business model.

On this matter of educators paying for good software, I agree with Gary Stager: pay now or pay later.3

Software does not grow on trees. It is created by artists, programmers, writers, designers, and engineers who need and deserve to feed their families, just like the humble teacher. The continuous devaluing of software, along with other media, profits no one in the short-term and giant corporations in the long-run. This phenomena not only harms the earning potential of creators, but ensures that educators will be deprived of high quality tools and materials. Sorry, but you get what you pay for.

I know what you’re thinking. We’re just poor teachers. Our budgets are slashed to the bone. We fundraise for crayons. Software is ephemeral. We should not have to pay for it like when we happily purchase “real” things; flash cards, interactive white boards, or that hall pass timer that reminds kids to poop faster.

I must have missed that poop faster app. Is it free?

Replacing Reader

Assuming no change of heart on the part of Google (not likely), one month from today Reader will disappear, taking with it the capabilities of many RSS aggregators on all platforms. As I ranted about soon after the announcement in March, this particular hole in the cloud will wipe out a key component in the information management process of many people, some of whom I think don’t even know they’re using Reader and will be very surprised on July 1.

Google reader icon scalable by lopagof

Of course, RSS as a technology will not vanish with the shut down of Reader and sites will not stop publishing feeds of their content, so it’s just a matter of time, and a lot of work, until robust replacement services become available. But that’s not likely to happen in the next month.

So, what are the options in the meantime?  For my personal needs, I’ll be using Feedly.

They have the advantage of already offering good plugins for the major browsers combined with solid apps for iPhone and iPad (plus Android and Kindle). In a blog post following the Google announcement, the developers claimed that transitioning to their service would be simple as long as users linked to their Reader accounts before the shut down.

The big downside, which will keep me searching for something better, is that Feedly is free to the end user. I’ve become very wary of free software and services that have no apparent plan for supporting the company. Eventually, they either disappear (or get bought and disappear) or start throwing ads at me, in which case the advertisers become their customers, not me.

Other negatives are that this is a proprietary service, meaning that other apps probably won’t be able to use the syncing capabilities with a different, maybe improved interface, and it does not yet support linking to some of the other services in my information flow.

For the long run, I’ll be watching the potential Reader replacement being built by the company behind the social news service Digg. In May they also bought Instapaper, another service I depend on and which has some interesting possibility for an intersection with an RSS syncing service.

I’ll also be taking a closer look at Feed Wrangler and Feedbin, neither of which are free (the under $20 annual fee is reasonable if the value is there). Both also allow developers to connect applications to their services, including some I already use.

If you need more alternatives to explore, there’s Newsblur, another paid service ($24 a year) with a free version limited to 64 feeds (about 1/3 of what I have), although a rather ugly interface. Or The Old Reader, which bills itself as “the ultimate social RSS reader” but has no mobile apps yet. Or for the very geeky, Fever, RSS syncing software you install on your own server.

I’m sure there are more alternatives in the works, likely with a few interesting innovations. But whatever you decide to do for your RSS aggregation needs, one thing that all Reader users should do right now is export their data from Google while you still can. They make it very easy, starting on this page.

Words Are Far More Important Than Word

BYOD rolls on here in the overly-large school district. Now in our second year, the progress is not as fast as the very-impatient me would like but at least the direction is forward, so I remain optimistic.

While our middle schools and even some elementary schools are doing some great work with integrating student devices, many of the high schools are doing a lot of foot dragging. A recent short discussion with an assistant principal revealed one reason why.

When I asked about BYOD at his school he told me they really hadn’t done much about it. Following up on the why, he gave me some of the usual discipline, “we have no control over what the kids might do” excuses, and I pushed back on all of them.

Then he told me that, aside from all that, students probably wouldn’t come with the right software on their devices making them useless for instruction.

“Right” software?

Yeah, like Word and PowerPoint. “They really can’t get anything done in their classes without those programs.”

I wish I understood the reverence felt towards the Microsoft Office package. Most people know don’t use more than 20% of the capabilities of Word, maybe a little more in PowerPoint, less in Excel, and I can’t name anyone who willingly opens Access.

Anyway, I didn’t have time to explain the error of his approach, one that I expect is pretty common.

However, what this AP and other educators need to realize is that it’s far more important to define what it is we want students to be able to do with their devices rather than to think in terms of brand names.

When it comes to BYOD, kids should be able to use their devices for writing, accessing and reading information, taking and editing images, and moving their work somewhere. The exact software that gets the job done is irrelevant.

I know many teachers are nervous about this lack of consistency and loss of control in their classrooms. Get over it.

Let your students be responsible for the technology and concentrate instead on what you want them to learn from and do with those devices. As should always be the case, the learning is far more important than the device.

Hating Blackboard, Let Me Count The Ways

A friend sent me an interesting post by a software developer for the City University of New York (CUNY) who loves his institution and open software, and what both stand for. And hates Blackboard, which he says is a “parasite” on both CUNY and public education.

Writing free software, he says, is the “best way I know to disrupt the awful relationship between companies like Blackboard and vulnerable populations like CUNY undergraduates”.

Now, I know nothing about CUNY and have lost whatever skills I once had for writing software, free or otherwise. But I completely understand his dislike and distrust of Blackboard. All of us working in this overly-large school district have been stuck with this turkey of a system for more than ten years now. And I totally agree with his “short” list of reasons why.

blackborg

  • The software is expensive [EDIT 9-21-2011: See this post for more details on cost]
  • It’s extremely unpleasant to use
  • It forces, and reinforces, an entirely teacher-centric pedagogical model
  • It attempts to do the work of dozens of applications, and as a result does all of them poorly
  • Blackboard data is stored in proprietary formats, with no easy export features built in, which creates a sort of Hotel California of educational materials
  • The very concept of a “learning management system” may itself be wrongheaded
  • As recently reported, the software may be insecure, a fact that the company may have willingly ignored
  • Blackboard’s business practices are monopolistic, litigious, and boorish
  • In short, Blackboard sucks.

Blackboard was designed as a course distribution system for colleges, and was probably one of the best around at the turn of the millennium. Today it’s still stuck several generations back when it comes to web interactivity, usability, and flexibility.

Of course, at least half of the blame for the decade-long and continuing affair with Blackboard around here belongs to the administrative and IT folks who make the decision to continue renewing the contracts (fool me once, etc., etc.).

We try to use the system for multiple purposes (teacher intranet, parent communication, student collaboration, a portal to other applications, etc.), none of which work well or are easy for most staff to use. There is still no way to even do something as basic as a site-wide search. Even our small online high school doesn’t really use Blackboard to deliver courses. They build a website for each class, zip it up as a package, and use the system as a way of presenting it to the user’s browser.

Anyway, other than complaining in this space and elsewhere (not that anyone around me listens to my Blackboard complaints anymore :-), I don’t have many tools to help our teachers avoid this particular parasite.

But I’m very glad there are talented people who are willing to create open source alternatives to this kind of corporate crap masquerading as an instructional tool.

ISTE Quick Thoughts: While We Were Busy

The game just changed.

At least according to headline on the full-page Microsoft ad in the USA Today that was left at my hotel room door this morning. The company was announcing the release of Office 365, the cloud-based version of their classic suite of productivity tools.

I wonder if this move to the cloud by the dominant company in business computing will have much impact on the schools and colleges represented here at ISTE. In many if not most sessions, presenters were showing how they are already using web applications with their students to do the same kinds of things they might have used Office (or something similar) for five, eight, ten years ago.

Certainly there’s Google Docs but also a large and growing number of other sites that make it easy to collect, manage, share, and present information. Most are free, or cost far less than the $6 – 27 a month per user Microsoft wants, depending on how many pieces of Office 365 you rent.

So, will there be a big demand in schools for a cloud-based version of Word and PowerPoint? Is this something businesses will pay for?

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