Free Puppies

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been asked by a number of instructors about one “free” tool or another and how it would work in their classes. Most of the time, I was less enthusiastic than the instructor about the tool. See many of these “free” tools comes with costs hidden at first.

Dog holding sign, "FREE to Good Home"
Online tools, like puppies, may be free at first glance.

It’s a lot like when my kids see a stand on the side of the road offering “Free Puppies”. The puppies look cute and are so soft, my kids are begging to get one. The problem is, I’m looking at hours of walks and training, vet bills, food bills and countless chewed items in the house. Does this mean we shouldn’t ever get a puppy? No, sometimes the costs after are well worth the companionship of owning a pet, but it shouldn’t be a impulse decision.

tl;dr

If a tool is not approved by the Colorado Community College System (CCCS), the adopter, likely the instructor, will have to take on the responsibility of supporting the software along with the liability in case anything goes wrong.

“Free” Tools

So, what are we talking about? Below is a table of the common tools I’m asked about along with the CCCS approved list.

“Free” ToolCCCS Approved Alternative
Schoology, Google ClassroomD2L (ppcc.desire2learn.com)
Zoom, Skype, FaceTimeWebEx (cccs-meetings.webex.com)
GSuite, Google Apps, Dropbox, Google DriveOffice 365 (office.ppcc.edu)

So, what’s the problem with the free tools? On the surface, like the puppies, nothing. However, when you use them there are couple of key things you need to consider, namely support and liability.

Support

Neither CCCS, nor PPCC can support any product not approved. For example, if you want to use Zoom to meet with students and a student is having issue logging on, it will be the your responsibility to then troubleshoot the issue. This can be especially tough if you are trying to run the meeting and troubleshoot at the same time. This can also be extremely frustrating for the student who is sent to CCCS/PPCC support channels only to be told support for this tool is not available.

Liability/Indemnification

Almost every piece of software has a user agreement to it. It’s the big wall of tiny text in legal language that almost no one reads, but rather scroll to the bottom and agree. It’s not a problem if the college and/or the system has agreed to the terms and approved the software. If the system hasn’t approved the software, it’s entirely the user agreeing to the terms and conditions. That means you are personally liable if anything goes wrong. The college and system are not responsible for paying for your defense or any judgement against you from the agreement.

One key condition in almost every free tool is indemnification or “hold harmless”. Companies put this into the user agreement so you can’t sue them in case something happens. After all, they are giving you the software free of charge, therefore you can’t go after them for damages. Sounds simple right? After all, what could go wrong? Well, there’s one group we haven’t talked about yet… the students and their data rights.

Let’s say a student has a bad relationship with an ex. That ex has been stalking them, but couldn’t find them. Suddenly, there’s a data breach from a company that offered “free” tools to you. The student’s data is exposed to the ex and things go poorly. Could the family come after you? If it’s not a CCCS approved tool, yes they could. Is it likely? No, in fact I’ve never heard of it happening at PPCC. However, six months ago, I would have never seen the college moving all of their classes online in the middle of the spring semester either.

Conclusion

Most free tools have alternatives that CCCS has approved. I’ll admit, some of the free tools are better than the CCCS-approved ones. However, when taking into account the support and personal liability, I do not personally use any free tools. You may feel the risk is so small it’s worth it. Honestly, during these challenging times, I’m not going to turn anyone into their Dean or ITSS. However, there is a risk, so be aware before adopting the free puppy.

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