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By Karen Howie (Head of Digital Learning Applications and Media in Information Services)
“Why don’t you try this free tool?”

“Why don’t you try this free tool?”

My granny used to say, ‘you get nothing for free’.  A bit cynical perhaps but from her I learned a few things from her over the years.  She lived through the war, was really careful with her money, and would walk miles to get a few pence off something she was buying.  She was full of life experience and I used to spend hours with her talking about her life and her experiences.  She sadly passed away in 2013.  I’ve reflected many times over the years on some of the things she said and I think she was right: ‘free’ may not always be as free as you think. 

I’ve recently noticed a lot of tech companies have a new marketing strategy.  It’s effectively ‘let people use it for free, and they will give you money later’.  And it works. It seems to be a great marketing strategy.  Sometimes it’s service-adoption-by-stealth which may be slightly more ethical than the you–are-using-it-already-for-free-but-suddenly-things-have-changed-and-we-need-to-charge-you option which I’ve also seen in the last year. 

The thing is … as my granny said…’you get nothing for free’. There are literally thousands of tools and services out there to choose from.  And some have really nice features.  And many of them are now available to people to use for ‘free’. 

Even if they were ‘free’, which I’d argue they aren’t (I mean, how can a company survive if it doesn’t make any money?) there are still some things to consider.  There are many questions to be asked before you even consider using them! 


Do you need to share data with them?  Data about you? Data about students?   

The answer to this is likely to be ‘yes’.  If so, where is that data being stored? How safe is it?  What data is it? Who has access to it at their end (data processor) and what is being done with the data?  You can find some of this out by reviewing at the suppliers terms of service and privacy policy.  But they are not always that easy to find, and even when they are available, they are often vague and you probably really need to check over it carefully. So carefully that it really needs a lawyer to do so, and probably the Data Protection Office via a DPIA (Data Protection Impact Assessment), and also our Information Security Team (they have their own list of questions!).  Oh, by the way, if you are using it with students, you also need to check with our colleagues in Student Systems – they are the student data owners, you need to get permission from them too. My colleague Myles wrote this helpful blog post which summarises how complicated it is to take on a new service.  And there is this amazing EdTech game which helps explain the complexity too.   And if it stores it’s data outside of the EU (for now….) then you have a whole other set of paperwork to complete and risk to sign off. 

On top of all this, think very hard about what the supplier is doing with the data.  The data may be valuable to them in some way and may be the reason they can offer you the service for free…. 

Are there any caveats for using the free service?  

Is there a maximum number of ‘free’ users from an institution?  Or are there other limits/maximums? Is there a date in the future set when it is no longer free?  

This is important – you may be unaware of the number of others at the university who are also using the ‘free’ product, things may change mid-academic-year.  Finding the budget for a new service you haven’t budgeted for before the start of the academic year could be tricky and might upset your budget-holder.  

Does you using the service mean your colleagues also have to use it?   

For example, do your Teaching Office have to log in to continue to support you and your students? If so, how do you support it?  Who teaches other staff how to use it for the tasks you need to use it for? Does it effectively duplicate another service that’s available at the university?   

Think about why you are using it. Is there a genuine and important need that’s not being met? Is it simply about preference of one service over another?  If you are encouraging others to use it, how can it be supported? Who does the training?  Who does all the paperwork which we discussed as part of  the first question?  It needs to be done.  I’d suggest speaking to your local Learning Technologist or IT Manager to get some advice.   

And finally, can you get the data you need out of it? Can you delete the data when you are done using the service or the data retention period is over? 

It’s likely that you are using the service to do something which then needs to be reported  on, pulled into EUCLID etc.  How easy is it to extract data? How easy is it to delete data?  Again, from a GDPR perspective you need to be thinking about how data would be  deleted in the system when no longer needed. 



So, to sum up – eye ‘free’ suspiciously.  Suppliers who don’t make money don’t stay in business. If you aren’t being charged, it’s likely there is another way the supplier will make money, either from the university paying them in the future or because the data you are sharing with them holds some value to them…..  There are also other dangers of using free software with no contract in place – you have no recourse if the service changes or goes down for a prolonged period/gets hacked….  

Always check with your local Learning Tech, IT Manager or with Information Services before you hand your data/student data over. 



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