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« Getting the most from your tech dollar 6: Head to the cloud | Main | Getting the most from your tech dollar 4: Right tool for the right job »

Getting the most from your tech dollar 5: Free is good

Over the next few days, I'll be addressing some strategies school districts use to get the most from their technology dollars. See the full list hereAny budget stretching strategies you're willing to share?

5. Free is good.

One easy place to save a good deal of money in the technology budget is on software. Stop buying commercial software. Really.

No, Im not advocating becoming a pirate. Johnny Depp can pull it off, but I wouldnt recommend it for educators. (Too few of us look that good in mascara.) Instead, take a serious look at some high quality software that is now available -- at no cost.

And "just how can they do it for such a low, low price," you might be asking. There are basically three types of no cost software:

  • Open source software uses code that the creator has placed in the public domain and that a large body of users then re-writes and adds to. The Linux operating system is probably the most famous open source product available.
  • Minimally-featured versions of commercial products are made available by a producer who then hopes that features or capacity available only in the purchased version will sell the software. Animoto, Dropbox and graphic editing tools like BeFunky work this way.
  • Web-based software applications that derive revenue from advertising are growing in popularity. Yahoo mail uses that economic model. I suppose GoogleApps for Education works this way indirectly since Google revenue is ad-based - the ads just don't appear in GoogleApps of Education.

The following small sample of free computer-based software is useful and reliable for the average Joe or Josephine computer user. All programs run both on Macs and PCs and have good track records of reliability. For more tools, see the School Computing Wikis Best Free or Open Source Software.

  • Audacity allows the user to edit sound files.
  • Inkscape is a drawing program comparable to Illustrator.
  • OpenOffice has many of the same tools as Microsoft Office, and is compatible with Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
  • Scribus is desktop publishing software similar to Publisher.
  • TuxPaint works much like the childrens drawing program KidPix.
  • Moodle is an open source course management system.
  • Apache is the venerable webserver software.

(We'll look at a few of the dozens of online tools you might find useful in the next post about cloud computing.)

Of course, freeware has its critics as well. Librarian Karen G. Schneider observes: "Yes, I know, open source is a saint and you'd let your sister or brother marry it. But I hate the idea that for some if a particular software is open source, hands down, it's the right choice. The right choice is the software that meets the mission." ALA TechSource, 07/26/2006. (It's also my contention that the "open source movement" is more a religion than an economic model. Just so you know.)

My experience has also been that there can be hidden costs to "free" software - additional support and expertise is often needed to make it work. 

You will need to ask yourself if free software really does have both the features and reliability you need to get your tasks accomplished. When choosing a word processor for your school, you need to look at the features that people actually use. Is "Auto-summarize" and the ability to customize hyphenation sufficient reason to justify paying a license for Microsoft Word?

As educators, a commercial presence (a bit of advertising with one's e-mail) can be troubling. But if you or your district is strapped for software funds, freeware can be a reasonable alternative to having nothing or being illegal. Give it a shot. Its not like youll be risking a lot of money.

Oh, one "free" technology I would think very carefully about before accepting is donated equipment. Many businesses and individuals with the best of intentions offer to give computers and other equipment to schools. Too often this is equipment that is old, incompatible or in need of repair and licensure. Unless the stuff needed and has at least two year of life still in it, pass on the offer and avoid the recycling fee.


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Reader Comments (6)

A well-balanced article - thanks, Doug. A nice list of introductory free software, too.

One of the things I'd put in your "be careful" category are information management systems. My experience is mostly with library systems. Yes, there are free library management tools, and almost free management systems, but the hidden costs of limited functionality, questionable reliability and the problems of handing over such a system to a new manager make these freebies fairly unworkable.

I'd be interested to hear of librarians who have made open-source ILMS work in a library of reasonable size.

The Infobrarian

May 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRuss

Open Source software is generally *not* Public Domain software. In fact, the mass majority of it comes with a license. For instance, Linux. Not only is it licensed, it is licensed in a way (copyleft) that has huge economic effects. Other Open Source software uses different licensing that significantly affect the economics of its distribution/support/use. The Open Source movement is an economic model. I'm not sure why you've bought into the FUD that it is "more a religion".

You may want to give Eric Raymond's "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" a read. Or Bruce Peren's article on the economics of Open Source:

May 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

Also, "freeware" is not typically Open Source software. I'm not sure I can find many packages advertised as "freeware" yet are Open Source.

May 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

I think "hidden costs" is CYA-speak for "don't know what I'm doing", and applies equally to open source and closed source solutions. Some people don't know that they may need strong technical people (on staff or on support contract) for open source, since that comes included with the closed source they're used to. On the other hand, many people don't vette closed-source solutions for data portability or user usability or don't understand that sales people will mislead you, and it comes back to bite them.

There's nothing hidden about any of those downsides; there's no shortage of articles and blog posts about them. They only become problems when your staff doesn't know to plan for and mitigate them.

May 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDave

Its always in everyone's mind to use any of the software which is free of cost then to step ahead for the one in which we need to purchase.

Hi Russ,

I think Chris Harris in New York State was working on a library system using Drupal. My sense is that there are simple, inexpensive, off the shelf programs that might make more sense. We tend to discount the value of our own hours spent trying to make systems work.


Hi Peter,

Thanks for the clarification.

The religious aura comes from the passion shown by the devotees of open-source. I don't think I've ever written anything about it (and I am a proponent!) that hasn't drawn criticism or correction from members of the cult. ;-)


Hi Dave,

I believe there are varying levels of tech expertise needed if one needs to be able to write code, de-bug, etc. While larger districts may have specialists in programming, most smaller districts have to rely on out-of-the-box solutions.


May 27, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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