Thursday, July 02, 2009

Free, now with added capitalisation

I've just trawled through the working and reworking of ideas spawned by Chris Anderson's book Free. It got a big response from the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and Seth Godin and on it went. I lost quite a bit of time in there.

The basic premise is that with the cost of production asymptotically approaching zero, you can more or less round it out to nothing. If it costs nothing to make, then you give it away Free. There are various broadsides levelled at the likes of publishers for daring to complain that people might reasonably be expected to pay for reading news or what have you, but there are counterclaims that Free TV is struggling (has anyone called an ambulance for ITV?) while paid for TV (cable/satellite) continues to do well.

While it is implied that Free can apply anywhere, I'm not so sure. In the case of mobile phones it is inverted, moderately priced phones are free when you pay for the facility to distribute or access content (voice, SMS or data). Similar models apply to broadband, and, increasingly, laptops, and it has even been suggested that such a model may apply to transport in the future, with the car being covered as part of a flat rate paid for the fuel.*

Of course, none of these are actually free - this model is a disguised form of credit with the cost of the hardware being spread over the lifetime of the subscription. But what's important, according to the commentary, is that the notion of Free is enough to change how people think.

However, content, it would seem, is where free really works. The discussions played out above centre on music, video, news and books.

I'm not sure how you might attach the same model to something like Adobe.
Pay $30 a month for our starter package with up to 10 layers per image and that will let you save out 75 raster file images that month. For $100 dollars a month get an additional 60 filters and get unlimited raster saves and layers.
Oh christ, I hope nobody at Adobe sees that.

The fact is, for leading edge apps, the monied option is the only way to go. Gimp is great for what I need, but it's not quite Photoshop. OO3 is a dog when placed next to Office 2007 (heck, for fun compare a rapid solution put together in Ppt 07 to one in OO Impress). Even Audacity, where the quality of output is indistinguishable from paid for alternatives, is still not the tool of choice with pros.

Sure, it costs bugger all to copy the files, but just as with Big Pharma, the cost of development of genuinely new products is so high that it can't be ignored.

At the same time, our industry is in the thrall of FOSS software - the most obvious of which is Moodle. This fairly mediocre application gets a lot of attention because of the Free label, but it's not without a great number of problems that are mainly attributable to the development model**. Cammy's tipping point post provoked some interesting replies, but for me the most telling query was Cammy's wondering about an OS authoring tool - there was one, eXe, and it was even made for Moodle, but it sucked and I think it may have died off now.****

My point, lost somewhere in my rambling, is that free content seems to be the bit that works. Yet I have not seen free elearning content.

Imagine, if you will, yet another piece of Brussels derived equality/compliance legislation washing up on the banks of the Thames outside Parliament. Six months later HR departments up and down the country are all of a panic about how to get their people "trained" on this. The usual model is for the ravening packs of the development companies to go to each individual company and create "custom" solutions. Perhaps the more forward local authorities will share this via Learning Pool (I think that's them) but not all will. A lot of wasted effort and money.

But what if an enterprising equality company was to simply give away the training in a packaged, generic course, or as a set of 'rapidready' ppt slides***.
  • Perhaps this could work fine for organisations that like that sort of thing
  • perhaps this would mean a lot of business for the company to tart it up and brand the content
  • Perhaps simply seeing the name on this would generate business later on
I see so much of the commercial elearning community discussing Free as it applies to us using other people's free tools, but isn't it about time that Free came in here too and started to disrupt things for us?

* God, I don't know where. This is the Internet, have a look for it. It's some smart bloke who made a fortune out of an Internet company and decided to put his money somewhere interesting. Israel may feature in this story and I know the BBC ran a story about it.

** Actually there is a really good discussion going on in the Moodle forums right now about usability and its absence in OS products.

*** an idea of a company which I cannot bear to name, for fear of seeming like a kiss ass, but whose new chief evangelist is more than welcome to claim credit for.

**** Actually, I'm not sure that this would even be possible since there are so many takes on what an authoring tool might look like the development community would probably tear itself apart, or produce a tool so diffuse it would be no things to no men (or women). [Actually the best bet for a clear project would be to work on building in Articulate/Adobe/PointeCast Presenter type facilities directly in to OO Impress - but perhaps there's another post in that idea]

***** There are very few people who will actually notice that there is no five-star comment in the body of the text. This is here simply to apologise to you for having taken up your time and to ask you to spare a moment more by adding a comment about which you think would be more awkward, a broken leg or a broken arm - let's say it's your writing hand - Your contribution on this would be really confusing to anyone who hasn't read this footnote...


@siibo said...

Hi Dan

The bit that I'm not getting with eLearning things is why we're using eLearning things.

We stop using artificial 'learning' texts at school and (mostly) adult education should be about the real world (ie realia).

Why are we using any 'learning' apps at all?

I think this undercuts a lot of the 'free' stuff. eLearning things will rarely be able to 'disguise' costs and make things free. The real world can.

Incidentally, thank you for highlighting the important bit of Chris Anderson's argument. It's the IDEA of free that's important, not necessarily how it looks as line item in a spreadsheet.

Dan said...

Hello BF

Not sure whether here you are talking about the tools or the products - I'll try to address both.

As I see it, training/learning is a specialist form of communication and I think you and I might agree that requiring dedicated teams of learning writers might seem arcane, but as evidence from any number of bits of research shows, by optimising the design of learning material you can maximise the benefits. Newer technologies like 3D environments can provide incredible learning experiences, but I would struggle to see how this sort of thing could ever be part of 'real' work.

As for your comments about apps, if you are directing this at LMSs, I would agree - hiding training materials away behind silicon curtains seems daft - any sensible company should have proper policies on knowledge management and training material should really take its place here, rather than elsewhere.

The point about Moodle and its success is down to the fact that it is publicly funded since its principle users - schools and colleges - are also publicly funded. Trying to appropriate it for business purposes is the hard part. I suspect that few of the people authorising expenditure on this 'Free' investment are all that willing to simply give what they spend their money on back to the community (with the exception of Aardpress as far as I'm aware).