There Must be a Catch: The Truth About Free Software

The Truth About Free Software
May 30, 2014


It’s not about the money.  Certainly one objective of a free tool is to make it available to everyone and eliminate price obstacles. But the main reason is that a free tool allows more people to spend time on the instructional design without being held back by restrictive licensing issues.

Why? Several reasons. First there is the reality that a licensed authoring tool associated with a cost will usually be limited to a few desktops. Typically a specific group of people who will use it a lot. That makes sense. But the problem that goes along with that, is that now the person with the software must be good at EVERY aspect of course development. That means he or she must have the ability to, at the very least, understand the content and the potential learning outcomes, and be able guide the subject matter expert. They must also have the ability to illustrate with graphics, animations, video, etc.  This person must be good at imagining how to assess a learning outcome, and know what remedial learning has to happen if someone fails an assessment or makes a wrong choice. They’ll probably need to be proficient with Photoshop, a sound editor, and either Flash or HTML. Otherwise they’ll be limited to only building what the authoring tool has made into templates.

There are such people, and indeed versatile instructional designers are highly valued and sought after these days.  But in many, if not most organizations those people are few and probably overstretched.

A free online tool eliminates the multi-talent scarcity in two ways. First, because it is online it is available to anyone who needs to be involved, no matter where they are. Second, because it is a free the development team can include anyone who has the best skill for any particular task, regardless of how limited their involvement might be.

web_app_collaborationSo the subject matter expert can outline the learning objectives, and a separate instructional designer can help to organize the flow of the course and determine the types of assessments, while a good storyteller can make the content more engaging and a talented illustrator can make a picture speak a thousand words, etc. They don’t all need to be the same person.  Now let’s add to the fact that now other stakeholders, such as the manager who is paying for it, can see the course as it develops and feel a sense of control. The Subject matter expert can tweak and modify text as the course takes shape, and everyone has a sense of having been involved all along instead of at the beginning and the end.

In our experience this form of development results in very short QA periods at the end, and minimal changes to a course as it is developed.

Because the free online authoring tool lends itself to a team environment, quite often the Imagineering around the course is enhanced and something truly creative and engaging emerges. That is tougher to do once an individual has invested a lot of time and energy into building something that nobody else sees until it is nearly ready. The most successful training is done by streamlining the workflow.

Another reason that a free online tool is better than a desktop license? Updates are easier. No need to keep issuing revisions every time the major browsers change the way they deal with JavaScript, (which occurs regularly). New ideas and improvements are easy to roll out, and with the large user base that a free tool attracts there is no limit to the requests and ideas. The constant need to keep up with the browsers keeps the online tool at the forefront, and also ensures constant backwards compatibility.

A downside to giving away the authoring tool for free is that it is sometimes not considered seriously as an alternative, because after all, can anything free be as good as something you pay for? At Udutu we continually strive to provide a tool that alleviates the need to spend money on a traditional software solution and, in fact, often trumps any licensed solution by virtue of being free, continually updated and highly collaborative. The real value proposition in online learning comes when you want to measure and record results. The better you can make the course, the more likelihood it will be effective. We are dedicated to the idea that by enabling the development of engaging, interactive courses we can build a community who will find our other options, such as our LMS and Guru memberships to be worth paying for.

Tell me about your experiences using free software. It’s people like you that make affordable innovation possible.


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