Tear Down that Paywall: Why the Best Learning Tools for the Next Generation Should Be Free

In the 1860s, Joseph Dixon invented a cost-effective way to mass produce graphite pencils, which previously had been costly and scarce. Over the next 150 years, pencils became a ubiquitous tool for students and teachers, without which lots of learning wouldn’t have happened.

What is today’s more powerful equivalent of Dixon’s pencil? It’s software. Simple, effective Internet tools and apps that empower students and teachers and support their creativity and quest for knowledge.

I don’t mean online courses or digital textbooks or videos, although those are potentially useful. I’m talking about basic utilities – verb conjugators, math-equation solvers, self-testing tools, worksheet creators, digital flashcards, sentence-writing tools, language audio tools, and other tools that haven’t been thought of yet – the list goes on and on.

We need to dramatically accelerate the development and distribution of these tools, because very few of them (Google docs being an exception) are currently in wide use.

And here’s the key – these educational software tools should be FREE. Here’s why:

1) High-quality software tools are a prerequisite to empowering the next generation of great teachers and motivated students. People are the future of education, not technology. But they need access to high-quality tools so they can teach and learn to their full potential.

2) ‘Free’ is the only price many students (and teachers) can afford. Twenty percent of children in the U.S. live below the poverty line (Census Bureau 2012).  And even above the line, many more people are feeling squeezed – they’re not going to spend extra out-of-pocket money on anything they don’t absolutely have to.

3) The future is about making sure all students have access to great educational tools and opportunities, not just some students. The cure for cancer or the next climate-change breakthrough could just as likely to come from a student from a low-income family or community as from an affluent one. For this to happen, every single one of the 70 million students (and four million teachers) in the U.S. needs access to the best learning (and teaching) tools available.

4) ‘Free’ breaks down barriers to distribution and lets individuals choose what works best for them. Fee-based educational software often has to be selected and paid for by a procurement system, involving school districts, purchasing agents and policy decisions. This process is in place for many good reasons. But no kid (or teacher) ever needed to get approval to use a piece of paper, or a #2 pencil, or to do a Google search. Why should they have to wait for approval for basic digital study tools? If more educational software was free, it would be much easier for students and teachers to compare alternatives and decide what’s most effective.

5) ‘Free’ is how the Internet works, and it’s what people expect. It’s no coincidence that the most broadly used Internet applications and services are free to consumers (e.g. Gmail, Google Maps, Yelp, Twitter, Wikipedia, and many others). The oversimplified reason is economics: digital services tend to have very low (or no) variable costs. So once an app is built, serving millions of additional users doesn’t cost much more. If one competitor doesn’t make their service free, another one will.

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So what’s wrong with the world of educational software? Why are free high-quality tools not becoming as widespread as pencils and paper? Why do most companies have to charge hefty fees for their software tools – $14.95 a month,  $49 a student, $1,500 per year per classroom?

At Quizlet, we know there’s another way, because we’ve been providing free study tools on the Internet for seven years, and more than a million students and teachers currently use our website and apps every day. We make simple and powerful tools that help students with things like language learning, vocabulary, and the memorization and recall of key concepts – tools that enhance what’s possible with pencil and paper, just as Google maps improved upon the paper map.

Most companies can’t or won’t do this, for two main reasons:

1) They have to cover high distribution costs. Many educational software companies have dozens of salespeople on their payroll to sell to school district decision-makers, so they need a lot of revenue to pay those salaries. Software salespeople can make more than $100,000 a year, and they have lots of expenses on top of that for sales calls, travel, etc.

2) They have to satisfy demanding institutional investors. Many software companies raise tens of millions of dollars from institutional investors (venture capitalists or private equity firms), who expect a high return on that investment.  Typically these investors are looking to build ‘billion dollar companies.’ That’s hard to do – if not impossible – when you’re giving away your product to most users for free.

At Quizlet, we have neither salespeople nor institutional investors, but we still have significant costs to develop high-quality software. So, are we crazy to offer access to great study tools for free when we could easily put a pay wall in front of them? Are we sacrificing long-term business strength or opportunity to do so? Not at all. In fact, we believe we will have a stronger business because of it.

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There are two revenue models for consumer services on the Internet these days – ads and subscriptions. The ad model is declining for three reasons: 1) the smaller screen sizes of smartphones and tablets, where ads take precious space from the user experience; 2) increasing consumer concern about privacy, especially for kids; and 3) prices are dropping because advertisers can reach whoever they want through networks like Google’s for rock-bottom rates.

In response, many consumer Internet companies have successfully adopted something called the “freemium” model, where much of the functionality is given away and only a small percent of users are charged for “premium” features. Companies using this model include LinkedIn, Spotify, Evernote, Dropbox, and others.

The question is, can this freemium model apply to education technology and enable all students and teachers to benefit from free, high-quality learning tools?

We believe it can. Fewer than one percent of our users subscribe to our paid services ($15 or $25/year for a few extra capabilities, like image uploading and voice recording). But more than 100 million people visited our website and apps in the past year. If only one or two percent of those users pay to subscribe, that means we can be strong enough to finance tremendous innovation and still offer free learning tools to a virtually unlimited number of students globally. 

Furthermore, we believe these free learning tools can be of very high quality, and continually improve over time.  On the Internet, quality wins – whether they’re paying or not, users flock to the best product. And a large, loyal user base is what ultimately makes a strong brand and business possible. With a long-term view, we think it is possible to have both a mission orientation (help every kid learn) and be financially successful. We funded our business initially out of our own pockets and later from cash flow, rather than raising venture capital money, for precisely this reason.

Finally, we believe free study and learning tools can be held accountable for providing educational value and effectiveness.  The real cost of any software is the time investment required to use it. We’re particularly proud that hundreds of thousands of teachers have decided to use Quizlet’s study tools in their classrooms. They spend serious hours on Quizlet preparing their materials – we hear from them all the time how worthwhile it is. And more important, they tell us what isn’t working for them and what we should fix or improve (and we do).

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We think more businesses can and should be making free, high quality online study and learning tools widely accessible to all students and teachers, regardless of their ability to pay. Enabling students and teachers is the key to improving education in the U.S. and around the world.

Quizlet founder Andrew Sutherland and I both benefited from a high quality public school education, great teachers, and parents who were supportive of learning and our quest for knowledge and self-improvement. That’s one big reason why our mission, along with building a strong business, is to help as many kids benefit from the foundation of a strong education as we can.

Dave Margulius is CEO of Quizlet, and lives in San Francisco, CA. You can follow him on Twitter, or reach him via LinkedIn or as dmargulius on that Google mail service.

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2 thoughts on “Tear Down that Paywall: Why the Best Learning Tools for the Next Generation Should Be Free

  1. Andy Weissman (@aweissman)

    I love this essay Dave. Not that I agree with everything in it (that’s wholly irrelevant) but because you have laid out what is in essence a statement of principles. And you have made them transparent and public. You’ve challenged yourself and your Quizletters to now stand by them. Btw if you guys ever decided to take individual investors, I’d be honored to be considered for that. ;-)

    Reply
  2. Shanta Elizenberry

    As an Educator, who SHARES your site! THANK YOU SO MUCH! We really APPRECIATE your SERVICE!

    Reply

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