Free Software in Education

Frederick Noronha (Linux Journal) writes how free software can make a difference in education:

Free software has a big role to play in general education at all levels in India, and here are ten good reasons why:

1. Not by bread (money) alone: Because free software evangelists are not motivated by money alone, chances are they work in areas that have high social need and not only those areas that cater to the affluent. It’s no coincidence that education is high on free software evangelists’ agendas, within India and abroad.

2. Some of the best brains are here. The strong sense of community makes it very easy to share software, ideas and solutions.

3. Anyone can get involved. Entry barriers to contribute to free software are low. Educators can and are shaping this movement and how responsive it is to the world of education.

4. Indian concerns, Indian developers: if we don’t solve our own problems, will a giant corporation in the US do it for us? FLOSS makes it easy for anyone with motivation and a bright idea to contribute to an exciting global network. The free software world also shows us that people contribute their skills and work reasons other than money. They do so out of altruism and a desire to share knowledge. They do it for fun or because they like the challenge. They do it to develop new skills and even in anticipation of indirect rewards, such as improved job opportunities.

5. Affordability: Free software is not about price, it’s about freedom. Yet, in cash-strapped countries such as India, the affordability of this tool makes it particularly suitable for deployment in education.

6. Support the worldwide community: To scare off people from using free software, one argument says few firms are behind this global campaign. Yet, once a region builds up its skills–and we’re fast getting there in India–they spread quickly. Dozens or hundreds of mailing-lists and newsgroups exist that offer support from a worldwide community of users and programmers.

7. Indian-language solutions: If there are a handful of volunteers, it is possible to make rapid strides in “Indianising” software. This concept also applies to narrowly used languages that proprietary software might not see as viable interests. We can’t restrict computing and technology to a handful of English-language speakers in this part of the globe. Networks such as the Indic-computing-users mailing list are doing interesting work on this front.

8. Adapt, rebuild, reuse: You don’t have to re-invent the wheel. Anyone interested can adapt existing software for specific needs. In tiny Goa, located on the Indian west coast, the local chapter of ILUG (India Linux Users Groups) rebuilt a distribution to make it easier and more uniform for untrained people to install Linux in schools.

9. The interest is here: In India itself, a number of groups already are working to adapt free software to education. One on these groups is called LIFE; you can join the list by sending e-mail here.

10. If this won’t work, nothing will: In the software world, the FLOSS movement has shown its ability to produce results. This is one area of life where the alternative is proving to be really good. Maybe better than the real thing, that is, the dominant model of software production.

The irony in India is that much of the education system is still hardwired to Microsoft. Instead of saying word processor or spreadsheet in tenders that are put out for purchase of software, they explicitly state Microsoft Word and Excel. The Indian central and state governments needs to be at least vendor neutral if not directly favouring free and open-source software.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.