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What's the right price for great educational content? "Pay what you can," says Mathalicious

2012 brings about a new pricing plan for the math lesson startup Mathalicious. Of course, a new year is often a time when companies opt to revise their prices, and as inflation dictates, that often means prices go up. But that's not what Mathalicious has announced today, opting instead to institute a sliding scale for its fees.

"Pay what you can," says Mathalicious, introducing three new pricing tiers to its subscription plan: $5 per month, $10 per month, $15 per month, and the recommended $20 per month. There's actually nothing that distinguishes these tiers from one another other than price. In other words, no matter the tier an educator selects, s/he gets access to the same material: a growing library of math lessons -- lessons that demonstrate math's real-world applications rather than treat the subject as something abstract, useless, or boring; lessons that are exciting and engaging for students and for teachers; lessons that teachers say their students enjoy -- in fact, 96% said their students enjoy Mathalicious lessons, a stark contrast to a recent Raytheon survey (PDF) in which kids said they're rather take out the trash than do their math homework.

Mathalicious co-founder Karim Ani said that the company decided to offer the "pay what you can" options due to incredibly positive feedback from its users about the quality of the lessons alongside the one complain -- a common one you'll hear among educators: they just couldn't afford to maintain their subscriptions when they were paying out-of-pocket. But as Ani notes in a blog post explaining the new pricing plan, simply making Mathalicious free putting some parts of a lesson behind a paywall didn't feel like the right answer: "Mathalicious has bills to pay — people to hire, features to add — and simply giving it away doesn’t make sense. At the same time, if a teacher thinks our lessons can help them teach more effectively, then money should not get in the way of that."

Finding the Right Price

So what then should the startup charge? What's the right price for great math lessons?

"As unsatisfying as this may be to the math teacher in me," Ani writes, "perhaps there’s no right answer."  He continues,

Perhaps the quest for the “right” price is bound to fail because there is no right price. $20/month is fine for someone who values Mathalicious at $21/month; great for someone who values it at $30/month; but a real bummer for someone who values it at $19/month. This highlights the fundamental lack of creativity inherent in an economic system predicated on, It costs what it costs and that’s what it costs.
How inefficient. Indeed, how dumb.

And how pointless, too. Because the purpose of Mathalicious isn’t to maximize users in order to maximize ad revenue, but to maximize users in order to…maximize users. And so instead of picking a single, inflexible price — instead of erecting a barrier beyond which you either pass or don’t — we’d like to try something different: pay what you can.

"Pay What You Want" Experiments

There have been a number of interesting experiments in recent years surrounding the "pay what you want" model. Perhaps it's best associated with Radiohead, who released their 2007 online and allowed fans to determine how much they wanted to pay for it. However (no offense!) Mathalicious is no Radiohead, and it's unlikely an education startup will generate the publicity and attention that the band did when it opted for an alternative business model.

But a study in Science suggests that one needn't be famous to make this work. The key, researchers contend, is to tie the "pay what you want" model to social responsibility. If you give people the option to "do good" with their payment -- with a donation to charity, for example -- they're actually likely to pay more. This is something that the folks at Humble Bundle have discovered, with their video game download packages that allow consumers to set their own prices and earmark some of the money to go towards EFF or Child's Play. With its latest offering, it sold over 400,000 bundles for a total of over $2.3 million.

Okay sure, selling video games might be easier than selling math lessons. But the Mathalicious pricing model definitely includes that key element of "social good." And it's quite possible that Mathalicious won't simply sell more subscriptions this way, it'll actually make more money. (In fact, the startup might consider making some higher tiers too, for those that are able to afford a heftier price tag).

But this really isn't just about making money. It's about changing how math is taught. And much like the Children's App Manifesto, it's also a call, I think, to change how the business of education is done.

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Audrey Watters


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