The difference between ‘free’ and free in education

Year ending and all that. I’ve had this post swirling around in my head for almost a year now and have it started three times and I’ve decided that in my attempts to clean out at the end of the year, I would take a shot at writing this properly

There is a long standing expression in the open source software community that there is a difference between ‘free’ as in beer and ‘free’ as in speech. It took me a while to get my mind around this…

Free as in Beer
The first one ‘free as in beer’ refers to a beer that is given to you that you can have and drink without paying for it. There are some funny things that go along with ‘free as in beer’. Sometimes when someone gives you a free beer they really really just want to offer you a beer, and they’ll even let you choose which beer you want out of the ones they have available. In my house right now, any of you could have a Maudite, a Fin du Monde, a great Oatmeal Stout made by St-Ambroise or Ephemere which is an apple mush based beer. (I also think there is a Coors light in the fridge, which you are more than welcome to…) I will not expect you to give me one later, or to return it or anything else… I really would just give you a beer.

Now… this is often not true of free beer. People give people free beer in order to be able to talk to them (See impressment or any bar in your town). Some people give you a free beer in order to encourage you to drink more beer later, which you will have to pay for. Some people will give you a free beer to impress you, to encourage you, to reward you (this in lieu of, say, real money). Think of any pop-culture reference you can think of where people are giving other people free beer and you’ll probably come across someone trying to get something from someone else. So, free beer comes with a catch. Usually.

The other thing about ‘catch’ beer is that you lose the option of choice. If a company is offering free beer to encourage you to drink more of their beer, you’ll get ‘their’ free beer. So a Coors light from the Coors company. Blech. It is free… but is it really beer? There are other attachments to free beer, like who you can drink it with, or any other likely restriction that you can think of. It is not the beer of convenience the free beer… the giver gets to choose, and they will often choose that you are going to do things in such a way as to serve their initial intention in giving it to you.

A stranger gives you a free beer… you think… Why has this person given me a free beer?

Now, software works exactly the same way. There are some services that you can use that are actually just free, and we’ll get to those in a second, but first lets talk about the ‘catch beer’. There are some pieces of software that offer you free email, free social networking places or free versions of their software. In return, these folks are expecting you to read their advertisement, buy their products or, potentially, just recognize their brand. You will also not necessarily be allowed to do things the way you want. You may have to read a message in a certain way, or click through twenty pages to see twenty pictures… each picture giving you another chance to see the advertising. Like gmail, your usage of the software may be slowly gathering up information about the things you are interested in or talking about.

As we make choices to bring things like gmail, ning or facebook into our classrooms these are the quiet companions we are bringing along with us. By opening up an educational Ning account (now free of ads) we are both putting our content in a proprietary format that could go away if the company goes under or gets purchased, and we are accustoming our students to an environment so that the next time they choose a piece of software they are more likely to choose ning… and a Ning with ads. Is it a big deal? Maybe or maybe not. It certainly means that the kind of mashups you can make are affected by the company policies. Maybe they like flickr… maybe something else… but their corporate choices have a direct effect on our own choices in our educational environments. Again… is this a bad thing? Well… it depends on the choices that they make.

So, if we are thinking of going the ‘free as in beer’ route for education, then we need to do some research. We need to look into why the company is making the choices that they are making, and think and talk about what kind of an effect this is going to have in our classrooms. We need to do a detailed read of the terms of service to ensure that we have a VERY CLEAR idea of the copyright regulations that are going to affect the work our students are doing. If a given company offers us free beer software that doesn’t allow us to export the content, then we need to build that into our workflow and ensure that the content our students are producing will be available in some other context if the free beer service crashes for some reason, goes into receivership or changes its rules and regulations.

Examination of the quiet side of free as in beer software might reveal a tradeoff that’s perfectly rational. It may also reveal that you’d be turning over the copyright of the work of your students to a company that could be bought out by any other company.

Free as in Speech
Open Source Software advocates have long said that their software is ‘free as in speech.’ This does NOT necessarily mean that the software is ‘free as in beer’. Free as in Speech refers to your ability to do as you please with the software. You may install it on your own server, you may, in most cases, change it, adapt it, combine it with other kinds of software. (with some restrictions) When I think of free speech I always think of the folks in Hyde Park in London who climb a small ladder and preach about what they think others around them should be doing with their lives. Some of them don’t function in our society the same way as others, others just feel very passionate about their particular creed, religion or political view. It is one of the great virtues of our society that those folks are ‘allowed’ to get up and say whatever they d#$% well please. It does not, however, say very much about the ‘value’ of what they are saying. You can take bits and pieces of what they say and say them yourself. You can ignore the whole thing. You can yell back. These are choices that you can make.

The problem with the plethora of free speeches is that it makes it difficult, sometimes, to figure out which speech on a given topic is of value. None of us (at least no one I know) knows enough to be able to make intelligent choices about what to believe about everything, and the choices are endless. This is where we turn to our trusted networks, the people we know and trust and work through the ideas with them, borrow the work that they’ve done in something they understand very well, and allow it to guide us in our decision about what to believe. I might, if I were trying to make a decision about the war in Afghanistan (big issue in Canada) have a conversation with my cousin who is a soldier there, my other cousin who is a politician in the Government and some of my friends at the university who study foreign policy. I would combine that information into an informed opinion and use that opinion to guide my voting. This is the way of free speech in a free society, we find people to trust and then we use our own minds to make a decision.

Free as in Speech software is the same way. Anyone can release Open Source Software software. Some of it is very good and some of it is not so strong. Open Source Software is created by groups of people who work together to create something that serves their needs. They know that one person in their basement can’t possibly support the development of a piece of software so they give up the ‘ownership’ of the software for the help that they’ll get from people around the world. They release their software as ‘free as in speech’ and then a community supports it (or, in the case of failed projects, it doesn’t support it). A solid community is essential for any good OSS project. If you look at wordpress or drupal (my favourites) there are some serious considerations before going down that road. You need to talk to some people in your network and match other people’s experience against your own and make sure that that particular software isn’t just going to disappear sometime soon.

You need to do alot of work to get the technology set up and ensure that the choice that you are making is not going to fall apart on you in a couple of months. You need to have access to server (or someone else’s). You’ll need to install it (or get someone else to install it) and do the updates when they come along. On the other hand, everytime you use your software you’ll only have yourself to look to for ‘why’ the software is being used in a certain way. You don’t have to do that research into the corporate side of the company.


Anyone who reads this blog knows that I’m hugely biased towards Open Source Software. What I’m trying to explain here is that it is, in the end, no more work to use open source software then it is to use ‘free as in beer’ software. The difference is that with Open source software you are learning skills (technological, networking) that have wide ranging applications to other things you may want to learn. It also means that if you wish to add some functionality to the software (as we are doing a UPEI) you can develop those things and contribute them, be part of the community that is working together to make the software better. Of course, it’ll take a while to get started, you’ll need to explore the community, develop trusted people to give you advice.

In the Free as In Beer scenario you need to spend your time analyzing and weighing the effects of the lack of control that you have over your learning community. Imagine holding your physical classes in a room that was owned by a major Cola company. One day they said “oh no, no big ads in the classroom” but they leave a cola machine in the hallway, or they leave the name of the company over the door. Well… you might suggest that that would be an acceptable trade off considering how amazing the classroom is…. You will also never know if that classroom will someday be taken away. Of course, you can start RIGHT AWAY.

Just a question of where you want to invest your time.

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

6 thoughts on “The difference between ‘free’ and free in education”

  1. As you point out, it’s a tradeoff. Many (most?) of the people in a position to make a real difference with some of these tools (aka teachers) aren’t in a position to set up and maintain their own servers. They’re also probably not going to be able to get someone else to set it up for them, if they’re working in a school district with an understaffed and overworked tech department. So free beer may be their only option.

    I think your point about caution is a good one. We frequently get very excited about the things an online tool can do, without spending as much time on the restrictions, conditions, and other drawbacks. At the very least, we need to encourage people to be aware of what can happen.

    Several years ago, I encouraged a school full of teachers to use a free online gradebook (I know, looking back, it was a BAD idea). But it gave them an easy way to keep track of their grades, and had a lot of cool features for keeping students and their parents informed of their current status. We spent much of the fall promoting it, only to find that the next spring it became a pay-service. You can keep using it, for a small monthly fee. Of course the school couldn’t afford this, and we quickly abandoned it, much to the annoyance of the staff and parents.

    With similar uncertaintly coming from Eduspaces, I’m glad that I’ve taken the free speech approach now. But it does mean I’m slower to embrace and deploy new technologies.

    Thanks for bringing up the conversation.

  2. Your post is a timely one Dave. I have been exploring WebNode. This is an excellent tool that allows you to create full featured web sites with RSS feeds, free hosting, domain name redirection and embeds galore.

    Their home page states in bold black print that there is no catch. I read the terms and conditions and under Intellectual Property it is stated that ‘You acknowledge that by posting materials on the webnode site You grant to Us and Our licensors and assigns an irrevocable, perpetual, royalty free, worldwide licence to use the materials both within the webnode site and in any other manner.’

    I feel that agreement is indeed a ‘catch’. It is a great tool. Not open source. The dilemma I face is whether or not to go ahead and run with this tool.

    Cheers, John

  3. Hello, Dave. Alex Ragone directed me to your excellent blog. I was struck by your comment about considerations one must make before adopting WordPress or Drupal. We are testing Drupal as a new school front-end web site platform. What are the top issues you would recommend we consider? For example, should I be worried if I want the site to have email notification, and the maintainers of the Subscriptions module say that they’re aware that the current production version is really buggy, and they are working to release a new version (release date TBD)? Thanks much.


  4. Excellent post Dave. Richard Stallman elucidated similar thoughts and someone even wrote a book titled ‘Free as in speech and beer.’

    It should be noted that, in Open Source, the ‘free as in beer’ and ‘free as in speech’ intersect, JBoss, SugarCRM, MySQL are some of the more prominent examples.

    Some other projects figure out how to monitize their work, like Mozilla foundation which received $52.9M in 2005 and $66.8M in 2006, mostly from the Google search bar. Their expenses were $19.77M in 2006. []

    Compare that to Microsofts Net Profit Margin of 29.3% and Pre-Tax Margin of 42% last year, which was better than their 5yr average.

    Oh and my favorite browser, the closed source Opera browser, generates a significant portion of their revenue the same way Mozilla does, with the search bar.

    And you also now know why so many ‘free’ software want to install a toolbar in your browser.

    I’ve been meaning to write about Open Source and some of the misperceptions about it and your post just might be the motivation, once I find a few spare minutes.

    I suspect that ‘free as in beer’ also originated from the old software company practice of getting a keg on Friday’s for everyone to drink as a reward.

    Oh and La Fin du Monde is one of my favorite beers. When I first saw the name I knew I had to try it. A few beers later I renamed it ‘La fin du moi’

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