Blackboard announced this week that it was launching CourseSites, a way for professors to use its platform for free even if their universities haven't signed a campus-wide contract with the LMS.
CourseSites is a cloud-based version of Blackboard's product, giving instructors 5 free course websites. CourseSites includes many of the features of Blackboard Learn, the company's flagship project (although obviously, CourseSites doesn't integrate with a campus information system). With CourseSites, instructors can post course materials, communicate with students, and manage grades.
According to Inside Higher Ed, the idea is to give faculty members at non-Blackboard colleges, as well as those that have not upgraded to the latest versions �more options for experimentation' with the platform's newest capabilities. Blackboard says it won't add ads to CourseSites, so clearly this is an effort to offer a free platform to professors in the hopes they'll pressure their administrations to adopt Blackboard campus-wide.
Of course, there's a wide gulf between a teacher embracing a free tool and a university shelling out the big bucks to license an LMS. And, as with any tool that you might consider adopting, there are several important considerations you should make and weigh against the cost of free.
How often and long will you (and your students) be able to access the data? What does the future look like for the service's availability? What's the future like for the company? What happens to records if a professor's account expires? Can students access information after a course ends?
Can you easily import and export your data? What format does a download of data take? In other words, is it in a format that be imported into another site or service? (Or is it available for export, but only in a file format that's readable by the very software from which you're exporting it?) Is all your data available for download? (In the case of course management, do you get all syllabi, rosters, forum discussions, grades, etc?)
If you run into problems, are there places you can turn for help? Does the service offer (free) help to its (free) customers? Is there a forum or Q&A site? Is there a community of users to which you can turn?
I don't mean to suggest here that somehow free is dangerous and paid services are the way to go. No doubt, these same questions should be asked of any product or service you device to adopt. But the lure of free, particularly by a well-established company that offers a very robust (and spendy) product should give you pause.