Imagine that you have a great new food product to sell, and you suddenly catch wind of a neighborhood where all the restaurants and grocery stores have been shut down. How quickly could you get on a street corner there with a big tray of free samples?
As schools are shut down all across the country, ed tech companies, from old faithfuls to fresh young startups, are rushing to help fill the gap and/or take advantage of the situation.
Broadband providers like Spectrum and Comcast are offering free internet hookups to households with students. Most are offering sixty days free, but those who take advantage should note that in many cases “regular pricing will take effect at the end of the 60-day period if a customer doesn’t cancel or change the service.”
Websites like kidsactivitiesblog.com are running lists of the many websites that are offering free samples to help out with this difficult time. The resource is popular enough that over the last twenty-four hours, it has not always been possible to load the page due to heavy traffic. Other versions of this kind of list are out there.
Meanwhile, just out of sight of the general public, professors and teachers report receiving a wave of e-mails following a basic pattern. You’re going to move to online teaching, and in these difficult times, we’d like to help. They may offer free trials, or special discounts for their services.
And on the journalism side, I’ve received a variety of pitches from companies who would like to give me the chance to talk to one of their experts about how their product can be especially useful in this widespread shift to online learning. It would make a great article, they assure me.
All of these initiatives are clustered around a fine line, a thin boundary between beneficial private support and profiteering, between good Samaritans and vulture capitalists.
School closures have created complex and complicated situations. Some districts have expressly forbidden any attempts at running classes online, in part because they know that for some students, internet connectivity is not happening. If social media is any measure, some percentage of parents are panicking about having their children at home as if nobody has ever been through summer vacation before. And do we really want to have students—particularly the youngest ones—spend that much more time in front of a screen?
Some of these organizations and businesses are truly here to help; some of them smell a profitable opportunity to elbow their way into the education space, their own ed tech Katrina.
So before the coronavirus panic spurs you to sign your child up for 263 different online education services, do your due diligence. Check the following.
How free for how long? As with the free internet hookup, check to see if you aren’t going to be automatically subscribed at the regular price once the free period is over. That’s not philanthropy; it’s marketing. Also remember that sometimes the price is not dollars, but data. Do not trade away your privacy for six weeks of a mediocre subscription service.
Be aware that there are resources out there that are completely free. Some are “informal,” like this crowdsourced spreadsheet “150+ Enrichment Activities for Children While Parents Are Working Remotely,” which lets you search by indoor/outdoor, screens/no screens, and group/solo. Others have always been there, but under-noticed, like SAG-AFTRA’s charming Storyline website, with its library of children’s books read by a wide assortment of actors. And Google Arts and Culture will help you tour all these museums without ever asking you to set up an account or share your credit card number.
Is this a company with a product to sell? That does not make them evil, nor does it automatically make their motives suspect. But all the usual rules of being a customer apply. Check claims, particularly claims like “this covers exactly the sort of materials that your child’s teachers want her to learn.”
Is this product any good? Watch out for opportunistic junk. Like the hackers who created the malware-spreading coronavirus map or the folks hoarding sanitizer, there will be people popping up to make a quick buck on junk. Watch also for companies that have rushed to market with products that aren’t ready for prime time.
Perhaps most importantly, take a deep breath and ask yourself, “Would I think this was a good idea if I weren’t freaking out over having my child at home for weeks because of a global pandemic?” Maybe things will be back to normal soon, or more likely, this is a marathon and not a sprint. Take your time and get it right.