What is the cost of free EdTech?

Recently my team members and I began considering the concept of educational video from a critical perspective. To better understand our chosen technology, we selected the video learning platform Khan Academy, and we undertook the process of enrolling in and progressing through an online lesson about Carol Dweck’s (2006) Growth Mindset. On the surface level, the learning experience through Khan Academy provided colourful illustrations, narrative mini-lessons, and video explanations. The course progressed from one idea to the next, asking the learner open-ended questions between each section. As I read the lessons and watched the videos, I aimed to sharpen my analytical skills and consider what issues lurk beneath the surface of platforms like this. Selwyn (2010) implores academics and educators to “look beyond issues of learning” and consider the “social realities of technology use” (p. 66). In adopting this approach, I focused my critical inquiry towards my personal context of open source and Open Educational Resources (OER).

Free is an enticing word. As an adverb, it offers something “without cost or payment,” and as an adjective, it enables one to act without “the control or in the power of another” (“Free,” n.d.). Free is a particularly attractive concept in EdTech, where many schools are looking to tighten their bottom line. Khan Academy represents a free video learning platform, offering their content under the mission “to provide free, world‑class education for anyone, anywhere” (Khan Academy, n.d.). However, as I considered the broader implications of this mission, I wondered if free video platforms really are without a cost. Both the words free and cost have nuanced meanings (“Gratis versus libre,” n.d.). This line of inquiry led me to ask: What is the cost of free EdTech?

Free educational content is not necessarily open. Wiley (2014) defines five properties of open content: retain, revise, remix, reuse, and redistribute. Free video platforms like Khan Academy may offer their videos freely, but their content is often proprietary (Khan Academy, n.d.). Open versus proprietary is an important distinction, one which the word free does not encompass. As an advocate of open content, I wondered what the societal impact of learning platforms like Khan Academy could be if people came to see free yet proprietary EdTech as the highest ideal. Would teachers be dazzled by free content and not realize that they could have genuinely open content? Could OER platforms lose their traction or funding in the face of proprietary platforms backed by billionaire philanthropists? Are many teachers aware of how to find open content, and how to recognize restrictive licenses?

If video platforms like Khan Academy become the norm, what are we missing out on? Losing one thing in exchange for another constitutes a cost (“Cost,” n.d.), and a loss of openness may be just one of the many hidden costs of free EdTech.

In undertaking this critical inquiry, I recognize that my perspective is not unbiased. As an open source developer and advocate of open pedagogy, I am passionate about the impact that a philosophy of openness can have on education. However, I realize that open source and OER are not a silver bullet. As I continue this inquiry and develop a learning plan, I will need to consider a wide range of research and pay specific attention to the biases that may be implicit in my initial arguments. I’d be interested to hear thoughts and additional perspectives from fellow MALAT students that may help me refine this line of inquiry.



Cost. (n.d.). In Lexico Dictionary by Oxford. https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/cost

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House Incorporated.

Free. (n.d.). In Lexico Dictionary by Oxford. Retrieved from https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/free

Gratis versus libre. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved April 22, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gratis_versus_libre

Khan Academy. (n.d.). Khan Academy | Free online courses, lessons & practice. Retrieved from https://www.khanacademy.org

Selwyn, N. (2010). Looking beyond learning: Notes towards the critical study of educational technology. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26(1), 65–73. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2729.2009.00338.x

Wiley, D. (2014). Defining the “open” in open content and open educational resources. Retrieved from http://opencontent.org/definition/


Photo by rupixen.com on Unsplash

3 thoughts on “What is the cost of free EdTech?

  1. Sandra you’re delving into some critical issues in educational technology; i.e.,
    – The meaning and limitations of the word “free,” and the ensuing implications for educators and learners
    – The cost (i.e. lost opportunity cost) of choosing free (as in no need to pay) video learning, vs. free (as in freely licensed content), particularly since most of the latter is free in both senses; or free as in openly licensed, or…
    – And also, your bias toward open source and OER, which themselves are implicitly granted agency that should be seen to reside in the creator, author or institution providing them
    Your topic connects well with the team’s KA theme, and there will be plenty of good resources to use in your study.

  2. Sandra,
    You had me at “Khan Academy”. Sal Khan’s online education initiative was one of the inspirations for my application to MALAT. I’m very interested in your distinction between “free” proprietary and truly open source education. I would be very interested in learning more about any restrictive licencing that has been put in place by the Khan Academy or other similar “free” online learning platforms. It’s also interesting, and a little frightening, to consider the data collection that’s occurring behind the scenes. What is being collected, and who has access to the data? There’s a lot of potential good from sites like Khan Academy, but it’s important to fully understand the implications of “free”. Usually, at some point, we are paying, whether it’s through advertising or the data mining.

  3. Hi Sandra,

    Great post! I share many of your concerns about what “lurks beneath the surface of platforms like” Khan Academy and many other MOOCs. Your post and your team’s presentation made me ponder the actual “open” part of MOOCs. It prompted be to do more research afterwards about what kind of MOOCs are “open – as in FREE”, and what kind of MOOCs contain OER – that are actually adaptable to different instructors’ and students’ learning needs. The idea of promoting Creative Commons Licensing more often for MOOCs became more prominent in my thinking. Your presentation highlighted the need for more MOOCs that are not based on Western models/thinking/philosophies – and how this can be addressed. I would like to apply such questions to my current research on the “online learning and the digital divide.” I see part of the digital divide as a “content divide” which includes WHO is creating content, speaking to some of the cultural elements that your presentation addressed. I might explore what governments around the world may or may not be doing to support (funding/grants) local creations of MOOCs to meet the cultural, pedagogical, and linguistic needs of communities. AND as you pointed out – I would like to be a part of promoting “awareness” about MOOCs, what is out there, how to create them, and the need for more international contributors/creators – USING Creative Commons Licensing.

    You also raise the important question in your blog post: “Are many teachers aware of how to find open content, and how to recognize restrictive licenses?” In my teaching experience, I don’t think that a lot of K-12 teachers are aware of how to find open (OER) content, how to recognize restrictive licences, AND what Creative Commons Licencing is all about… Hhhhhmmmm.

    And you ask another thought-provoking question in: “Could OER platforms lose their traction or funding in the face of proprietary platforms backed by billionaire philanthropists?” This is indeed an interesting one… With your role in creating open source software, you would likely have more insight than I do into much of this conversation. However, I did read something interesting today from Weller (2020): “Even if MOOC themselves are only open in terms of enrollment and not in terms of licensing, their presence has a knock-on effect… So, while we may bemoan the fact that MOOC themselves are not really open in the sense of openly licensed, they do form part of a larger system, which helps drive openness” (pp. 132-133)

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Enjoyed your post.


    Weller, M. (2020). 25 Years of Ed Tech. Athabasca University Press. Retrieved from https://www.aupress.ca/app/uploads/120290_99Z_Weller_2020- 25_Years_of_Ed_Tech.pdf

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