• January 27, 2022
 Op-Ed: Charging for The Free

Op-Ed: Charging for The Free

I am amazed with the ability of companies and education organizations to charge for things that should be free. For instance, I once was on a panel discussion at a conference explaining how my district had adopted the free CK12.org Flexbook model for our High School core subject texts.

For those of you unaware of the CK12 Foundation, they essentially have created a set of textbooks called Flexbooks for the STEM courses in high school and some middle school courses that can modified to suit the student and teacher’s needs. Free textbooks. All sharable. No copyright restrictions.

I also spoke of Rice University and their Open STAX textbooks. Again, free to use, free to share, copyright free and updatable at any time.

After the panel, a gentleman came up to me with his hand out, business card extended and started explaining about how his company had organized as many Open Education Resources (OER) that they could find on Google, and that they could “partner with us” to expand our district OER efforts.

OER resources are freely available resources designed to replace classroom tools that are traditionally paid for, such as textbooks or online simulations. (For those of you not in the know, the phrase “partner with us” means “sell something to you.”) Did you get that? He wanted to sell us free stuff.

There are actual companies that sell free stuff! I was amazed.

This idea of “charging for the free” is not uncommon in education and even in business. There are software companies that sell “their version” of free software or goods.

Got a Samsung smartphone? Congratulations! You are paying Samsung for their version of the free Android operating system created by Google.

Walk into Barnes and Noble and see the “classic” books that are for sale in the front that are also in the public domain. $7.99 for a Tale of Two Cities? It costs about 35 cents to print this because they don’t have to pay the author anything. Just download the file from a site like Project Gutenberg.

There are companies that sell pictures and videos that are freely available from NASA or the Library of Congress that are also free to anyone in the public domain. Want to outsmart the TV “meteorologists?” Just visit the NOAA website and get the exact same free weather forecast that they repackage and present nightly.

Those “Vintage French Posters” for sale at Hobby Lobby and Michael’s? All free, all in the public domain. I suppose you aren’t paying for the content you are getting, but rather the fact that someone organized them or somehow repackaged it out for you.

Still, I was reminded of the those old gag gifts that sold cans of “fresh air” of “darkness collected during an eclipse.”

Paying for the free.

As we head into summer many “we are all about the educator” organizations have their giant conferences that charge large amounts of admission for attendees to view a huge set of free sessions given by volunteer educators that get nothing of any true value as restitution for their time and effort.

Most teachers have been to one or two of those conferences.

I have always felt that this is a problem where GIANT educational organizations make millions of dollars from their conferences on the backbone of freely offered presentations.

I understand that those venues cost money, the keynotes and the actual organizing costs, but really, the cornerstone of those gatherings are the FREE presentations put on by volunteers. The cost should at least be modified for those people yet rarely is it done.

Charging for the free again.

I don’t know how to address this issue of “let us charge you for free stuff” or “let us charge you to present at our conference.” Yes, it is perfectly acceptable if a company or organization sees an unfilled niche and thinks that they can fill it. In fact, that is Capitalism 101. And it is the capitalist dream to make as much cash as you can on a service that people need.

It just seems like something is sort of off if that company doesn’t let the people that they are selling it to know that they are essentially paying for the free.


Author: Tim Holt is an educator and writer, with over 33 years experience in education and opines on education-related topics here and on his own award-winning blog: HoltThink. He values your feedback.

Feel free to leave a comment.  Read his previous columns here.

Tim Holt


Tim Holt is an educator and writer, with over 33 years experience in education and opines on education-related topics here and on his own award-winning blog: HoltThink. He values your feedback.

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  • You should find out how many teachers actually use ck12 in your district. The flexbooks are useless. This is one of the worst initiatives the district has implemented. The second one is providing all middle and high school students with macs. Such a waste of money!

    • Hi Teacher,
      Thank you for carefully reading my piece. I think that you will find that many textbook publisher are now following the CK12 model, and many are simply stopping print version of their products.
      Typically, the big concepts in a field of study do not change dramatically over the course of years, but when they do, such as in science, the printed textbook becomes an anachronism. Digital texts free or not, can be updated on the spot.

      In many districts, textbooks have become just another resource, not the curriculum itself as in the past. A teacher that is solely reliant on a textbook to teach a course in today’s environment is living in the past.

      I encourage you to help make the textbooks you use with your students better, paid for or free.

      Thanks again

  • Thanks for making some important points, Tim. I agree with you. One of my favorite pay for free items is the new LearnZillion offering for free Illustrative Mathematics OER curriculum. The thing that is especially egregious about this is that, apparently, Illustrative Mathematics is collaborating with LearnZillion. They were awarded grants to create OER which they did, but then they are cutting deals with for profit vendors who transform the OER content into proprietary content by putting it on a proprietary platform instead of putting it on an open source platform like Moodle.

  • Hi Tim, thanks for this commentary.

    I wanted to clarify in the case of CK12 and OpenStax, both publishers retain full copyright of their works, however they have released those textbooks under a licence regime that allow users certain abilities to use the materials absent additional permissions or copyright clearance, IF the user follows the rules of the licence. In both cases with that version/edition of the work the licence is not revocable. These licences do not supersede fair use.

    In the case of CK-12 they use a more restrictive non-commercial licence, which limits to some extent what companies can do absent an agreement with CK12. However, even without restrictions both non-profit publishers partner with both non-profit and for profit businesses to support their sustainability and funding in order to continue to provide new and updated resources as such materials are not without cost even when free to the end user. Its also worth noting that digital formats even when free, do have costs associated with access and despite all the gains we have made since the creation of the e-Rate program, we still have digital divide issues and costs associated with eliminating those divides so all students have comparable access to those digital resources.


  • You write:”huge set of free sessions given by volunteer educators that get nothing of any true value as restitution for their time and effort.”

    I agree with many of your points, particularly when open resources are co-opted by commercial entities so that they can be turned into a product. It’s also annoying when the same companies promote their product as OER – when there is some OER but it’s a front for a fee-based product or service.

    I don’t think you can say that educators get nothing for the time and effort they put into a conference presentation. For one thing, they put these presentations on their CV and dossier so that some can make a case for tenure or promotion – or to build up their CV for advancement to other positions. Others use these presentations to establish expertise, that could then be used to obtain speaking engagements where there are speaker fees and honorariums. I guess you might say that these “free” conference presentations are the coin of the realm for academics and educators.

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