Sunday, March 24, 2013

When Free Sites are Really Parasites

I love free online learning tools.  What better way to help an adult ed student then to point out the resources that are freely available so they can get what they need on their own - and the only cost is their time.  It's probably a great relief to a learner after dodging all the online scams and diploma mills.  Of course, they say there is no such thing as a free lunch and there's often a catch.  In fact, the whole proposition of pro-bono publishing is probably too good to be true. Only, being such a needy field, adult educators are so attracted to the free solution that we can't see that it's a mirage, or worse - a trap, and we're leading our learners right into it. 

One example are those gigantic databases of free test-prep resources that really just serve to lure poor desperate learners to consider clicking on enticements to ditch their test-prep and buy a degree online.  The site that I see teachers using most often is

It seems innocuous enough on the surface, but that changes with a click. The attraction of free online GED(r) prep leads you into Ashworth College's "get your degree without having to take the GED exam" trap. 
With this argument on the screen, why would we assume the practice tests are valid?  Teachers probably gloss right over the ads while scanning the screen for the free-sources they can use to satisfy their learners' needs.  Most teachers don't even notice that the site has a discussion board to help make the site appear larger and more robust than it is. On the GED forum, the nearly 1000 subscribers call out for help, but there is no one at 4Tests to assist them, because the hosts of the site are invested in GED students failing and giving up.  Forum posters are left to talk amongst themselves, circulating misinformation and inappropriate come-ons.  Not a good use of any adult learner's time.  But that's what you can expect from a decoy, which is all that 4Tests is.  It looks too good to be true, because it is.

You get what you pay for.

An even more benevolent looking - almost non-profit posturing - site is  Thank goodness someone out there cares about helping the 40 million who need a GED, right?  Where do I get my embroidered canvas tote-bag with their logo? (that's a joke. don't go on there trying to find one).  If you dove in head first, you probably read dozens of paragraphs thoughtfully describing the requirements for passing the GED test.  Go deeper and you run though practice questions that alternate with lists of procedures for solving those problems. Most adult learners aren't going to read all of this content so they don't stand a chance of learning in this format, but it seems like it's better than nothing, right? Wrong.  Most of these free sites aren't instructive nor predictive nor diagnostic, and we can't even say that they're good for practice because the instructional design ensures despair and the angle of the provider is a liability. 

Oh, what's this? When we signed up we were "automatically enrolled in an additional course at no cost." How thoughtful. What could this course be that gives me my first three college credits for free? 

A Fox in the Henhouse

Low and behold, it's Ashworth College again, happily escorting GED learners through the process to get a high school equivalency credential, which by they way they don't believe anyone needs.  Of course their prep program is going to be an arduous mountain to climb that gives most adult learners enough rope, as they say.  We can't ask a free site to be especially instructive or effective, but this one seems best suited to facilitate giving up out of frustration (at which point, our learners may give Ashworth their credit card number).  It's like the dentist giving out cavity-causing lolly-pops. 

Check out the word-choice in the ad above the GEDforFREE login page.  Yeah, you probably are "still getting your GED" if you're on this site.  Go in there and look at the discussion forum (yup, same tactic here) and you'll see people again crying out for help.  After an exhausting wild goose chase, your chances are much higher of accepting a ride from a creepy stranger dangling candy and taking you to some alternative destination.  With 40 million people out there needing GED services, (para)sites like these make loads of money off of their sophisticated pseudo-benevolent racket. 

It might surprise you to see who has followed suit.  One of the most popular free sites for GED preparation has long been Have you been there lately?  It went from free to costly - a lot more expensive than you'd probably ever recommend to your students.  It's not a diploma mill, so that's something to be thankful for.  But teachers also don't have any role in the process. 

Provide Structured Paths to Progress 

One thing you can do is to take the scam sites off your lists of free resources for ABE/GED prep.  Informal learning is a great approach for many, but it's a mine-field out there.  Teachers, I don't mean to tell you how to do your job.  Sometimes beggers can't be choosers. But there are a lot of ways to share free resources.  To add to your repertoire, I have a spreadsheet with over 1000 free ABE/GED prep sites that are truly worthy supplements divided up by GED skill area.  Email me at jason (at) essentialed (dot) com if you'd like a copy.  Consider starting local ABE/GED discussion boards and blogs that are moderated and responsive and strengthen the safety-net under your learners, instead of poking holes in it, so they fall through to the sharks in the ocean of online options.  

UPDATE: If ever there was a post that needs to be participatory, it's this one. Please share any 'resource' for adult learners that takes advantage of them, wastes their time, and may be common in teachers' repertoires.   


  1. Excellent article Jason!
    I will email you for your list of sites. thanks.

    1. Mr. Taylor.
      Your LinkedIn post lit a fire under me to finish this blog entry. Thanks for that. We'll be in touch shortly, I'm sure.


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