With the explosion of Web 2.0 technologies, one of the things I hear over and over is: “And it’s free!” As educators and technology leaders, we need to be very aware of what is free and what isn’t. Since the beginning, there has been a culture of sharing on the Internet. This sharing includes the good and bad. But there has also been the need to pay the bills. Websites aren’t free. Google doesn’t exist as a community service. Profit is what keeps websites and software companies running. So when a website says that it’s free, one must keep in mind where the money is coming from. Some web 2.0 start-ups are hoping to gain a solid base of users and then get purchased by a larger company. There are lots of examples of this. Other websites give away their product for free for a period of time and then realize that they have to start charging. Smart Internet users know that there’s always that possibility. Other websites offer their services for free but then eventually shut down. How many sites have the last entry on the page: “sorry we couldn’t afford to keep this service/website running”?

Don’t get me wrong. I like free. But I also understand economic reality. When educators begin to rely on “free Internet services,” they need to keep in mind the eventual costs. These might include the cost to pay for the “free” service sooner or later. Or they have the cost of discontinuing the service–this is the cost of lost time and energy investing in integrating the “free” technology into various school programs.  There are also costs of moving from one “free” technology solution to another. That’s lots of time and energy wasted–that’s a huge cost. Technology leaders also need to consider the costs of advertisements. I’ve seen school buses plastered with ads for the local emergency clinic. These ads are typically aimed at adults. Schools need to be very careful when they decide to force advertisements on their students. I’ve seen school sponsored sites that have ads for a variety of products–some completely inappropriate for schools. I don’t want my kids looking at ads when they are using school sites.

Another cost that most don’t consider but I think is important is the cost of spreading out technology over too many websites/web services. Everyone wants to give their base product away for free but you have to use their site. That means that in order to take advantage of cool and free Web 2.0 technologies, students and teachers may have to log into and use three to four different sites. That’s 3-4 additional logins in addition to the ones associated with school logins. That’s why Google is scrambling to combine as many things into one login as possible. And we all know Google’s revenue stream is from advertisements.

Is there such a thing as a free lunch? Not in the internet world. There is always a cost somewhere. Educational technology leaders need to keep these costs in mind when they make decisions.

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