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Is free software too good to be true?

From: Division of Information Technology

Screen caption of the Cobblestone database search screen.

The short answer is often “yes.” There’s no such thing as a free lunch—that goes for software too. “Free” software often makes money off its users, by collecting data to improve the paid version, selling user data, using ads, or all of the above. For this reason, Virginia Tech has a process in place to evaluate software and determine what data is collected and how it is used and stored. Data security is vital since FERPA requires the university to protect our students’ personally identifiable information. Also, ad-supported software can be both annoying and disruptive to educational goals.

Every day, software companies or salespeople reach out to Virginia Tech faculty and staff to promote their solutions designed to help organize, teach, or save time. While some of this software may appear promising, it is important that it first be vetted by IT Procurement and Licensing Solutions (ITPALS) and Virginia Tech Legal Counsel to ensure that students and data remain protected.

When considering new software:

  • Check the CobbleStone database to see if it has already been licensed for use at Virginia Tech. (Try a keyword search if the contractor name search yields no result.)
  • If the desired software is not listed, use the keyword search feature in CobbleStone to review already-licensed software options that provide similar features.

While ITPALS does its best to respond quickly, the security, FERPA, and legal review processes for new software can take significant time. When requesting the integration of external tools into Canvas (aka, plug-ins) please make requests at least a semester in advance.

Remember, university policy prohibits employees other than ITPALS from signing the software user agreement—even for free software. For more information, review the ITPALS FAQs or email

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