Why Free Software makes sense in education


http://www.expresscomputeronline.com/20031006/indiacomputes02.shtml

The name is confusing, which may explain why Free Software
isn’t as well known as Open Source. FREDERICK NORONHA makes an attempt to clear
the air

Riza is nearly five. For her, the computer is a toy.
Instead of adding one more difficult ‘subject’ to her tiring school-day, she
occasionally plays educational games on the PC.

When her friends come over, they end up
learning without even being conscious of it. One girl her age, who’s never handled
computers before, drags on the mouse. As she moves it across the mouse-pad the
image of a furry bear gets jerkily unveiled on the monitor. Another kid dances
to the music of ‘Bump And Jump’—a piece of software written by a team of Swedish
students.

The best part is that nobody paid for the
CD these kids are using. It’s not pirated either. You can run it off any computer
by just booting up from your CD-ROM drive. It comes in a ‘distro’ (distribution)
called FreEDUC. See http://www.ofset.org/projects/edusoft/edusoft.html for more details.

Free Software is creating whole new opportunities,
and the educational system is one of its major beneficiaries globally. You have
Free Software tools to help students at all levels—from those studying in the
kindergarten to those studying complex streams of engineering. But are we in
India sitting up and taking notice?

Why ‘Free’?

Let’s start at the beginning: Its name,
which might be a bit confusing. The ‘Free’ refers to ‘Freedom’ and not a zero-cost
price. Free Software and its more-recent offshoot, Open Source, give users a
number of ‘freedoms.’ Unlike in the world of proprietary (pay-per-computer)
software, the user has the right to run a Free Software program for any purpose,
study how it works, redistribute copies, and also improve the program and release
improvements to the public.

In real terms, this means that it is extremely
difficult for anyone to charge you huge amounts for that software you so badly
need to make your PC productive—something very relevant for a resource-poor,
talent-rich country like India.

Also, because knowledge is so freely shared,
Free Software allows for very low-entry barriers. Anyone can see the source
code of a program (without which you wouldn’t have a clue how it works) or contact
coders who have played a key role in writing the program itself.

Niranjan Rajani, a South Asian researcher
based in Finland, recently put together a study titled ‘Free as in Education:
Significance of the Free/Libre and Open Source Software for Developing Countries
(FLOSS)’ In the study Rajani highlights the benefits of FLOSS. (See http://www.maailma.kaapeli.fi/FLOSS_for_dev.html)

Explains Rajani, “Take the example
of education. In terms of computer education, FLOSS has no match. Nothing else
provides as much value to learners as FLOSS does. You’re free to tinker with
the code. Not only that, you can get in touch with the people who wrote the
code and ask why this or that was done in a particular piece of code.”
In addition, “FLOSS has a complementary and reciprocal relationship with
education. One needs an educated section of the population to realise the full
potential of FLOSS, but at the same time FLOSS helps, enhances, and complements
education by providing tools to promote learning.”

It’s not just computer education

Free Software has a bigger role to play,
and here are ten good reasons why.

  • Not by bread alone. Because Free Software
    evangelists are not motivated solely by money, chances are that they will
    work in areas that have the highest social need, and not just those that pay
    attention to the fancies of the rich. It’s no coincidence that education is
    high on their agenda, both in India and abroad.
  • Anyone can get involved. Entry barriers
    in contributing to Free Software are very low. Educators can, and are, shaping
    this movement and how responsive it is to the needs of education.
  • Indian concerns, Indian developers. FLOSS
    makes it easy for anyone with a bright idea—and the motivation—to contribute
    to an exciting global network. In addition, the software world shows us that
    people contribute their skills and work not for money but to help others and
    share knowledge. They do it “just for fun” or because they find
    it a challenging task. They do it to develop new skills, or even in anticipation
    of indirect rewards (like improving their job opportunities).
  • Affordability. Though the ‘Free’ of Free
    Software is not about price, in cash-strapped countries like India the affordability
    of this tool makes it particularly suitable for deployment in education.
  • Worldwide support community. To scare
    users from using Free Software, one rumour floating around is that a handful
    of companies are behind this global campaign. Yet once a region builds up
    its skills—and we’re getting there in India—these skills spread fast. Dozens
    or hundreds of mailing-lists and newsgroups now exist that offer support from
    a worldwide community of users and programmers.
  • Indian-language solutions. If there are
    a few volunteers, it is possible to make rapid strides in Indianising software
    even in regional languages which proprietarial software companies might not
    see as viable. We can’t restrict computing and technology to the English-language
    speakers in this part of the globe. Networks like the Indic-computing-users
    mailing list are doing interesting work on this front.(See http://indic-computing.sourceforge.net/)
  • Adapt, rebuild, reuse. You don’t have
    to re-invent the wheel. Anyone interested can adapt existing software to his
    needs. In tiny Goa, the local chapter of India Linux Users Groups rebuilt
    a distro that can be easily installed in schools by even unskilled people.

As West Bengal’s Sankarshan Mukhopadhyay—a
proponent of FLOSS who’s behind the FLOSSToday network that announces Free Software
developments in India—revealed recently, “My friends have successfully
implemented LTSP (a terminal-server that allows for the use of earlier generation
hardware) with graphics thanks to the wonderful Goa Schools CD.”

Adds Arun, who is a developer and proponent
of the GNU project from South India, “We have tested gcompris in Malayalam,
a language spoken by over 30 million people but still awaiting computing solutions
in many spheres. Some games like typing tutor need to be modified for Indian
languages.” gcompris (French for ‘I understand’) is an international educational
software.

  • The interest is there. In India itself
    a number of groups are working to adapt Free Software to education. There’s
    even one called LIFE. This list may be contacted at life@mm.hbcse.tifr.res.in
  • If this won’t work, nothing will. In the
    software world, the FLOSS movement has shown its ability to produce results.
    Maybe even better results than the dominant model of software production.

Pointers to getting started

Using Free Software often means that you
need an additional operating system (OS) to run it. (Some software on CDs like
GNUWin or The Open CD run on the Windows platform. But this is rare.) You can
install a new OS alongside an existing OS like Windows, provided you have the
space for it.

You should also be able to access much
of your earlier work in GNU/Linux, unless it is created under proprietarial
file formats. GNU/Linux-based computing can achieve almost everything that a
computer run on proprietarial software can—and more.

Free Software CDs can be download from
the Net (a laborious process given the slow lines most of us use in India),
or copied quite legally from friends. They can even be purchased from outlets
in Bangalore or Mumbai, Belgaum or Pondicherry, at a price of Rs 25-50 per CD.
Many Indian cities have GNU/Linux user-groups called LUGs or GLUGs. Find a list
on http://www.linux-india.org or check gnu.org.in. Paid services are also available,
but if you are expecting friendly neighbourhood support, a little bit of politeness
could bring you the kind of support that money simply can’t buy.

Bookmarks
  • For a listing of case-studies of GNU/Linux’s use in education,
    visit http://casestudy.seul.org
  • Schoolforge works to promote free and open resources for education.
    Join Schoolforge-discuss at http://schoolforge.net/sfdiscuss.php. One
    condition is that members must participate in discussions. As the volunteers
    say, “We are all busy, but we are doing our best to collaborate
    whenever possible.” They also encourage the setting up of Schoolforge
    units and meeting places.
  • Recently, a project has been started to produce a free school administration
    software package. It is at the planning stage, and needs volunteers
    to help define the requirements of the system and assist with the construction
    of it. See http://schooltool.sourceforge.net
  • Some useful mailing lists include the demo-schools network in South
    India (demo-schools-discuss@nongnu.org), the international Schoolforge
    (schoolforge-discuss@schoolforge.net), and the Linux-Delhi schools network
    (school@linux-delhi.org).
  • Also see linuxforkids.com and http://www.ofset.org
Tools available

Below are some of the tools available with the gcompris, drgenius and
other GNU/Linux packages.

  • junior-math: Basic arithmetic. Q&A.
  • junior-toys: Simple toys to adorn your desktop.
  • junior-typing: Typing tutor.
  • tuxtype: Educational Typing Tutor Game starring Tux.
  • gperiodic: Periodic Table.
  • ding # Language learning. (default: German-English.)
  • 12e: English to Spanish translation dictionary. Multiple versions
    of pool (billiards) games.
  • ksokoban: Excellent game to teach logic.
  • mathwar: A flash card game designed to teach maths.
  • garlic: [Chemistry] A free molecular visualisation programme.
  • ghemical: A GNOME molecular modelling environment.

(Also Debian junior games for the network, simulation games, text-based
games, junior Internet tools, junior programming, junior puzzles, junior
system tools and ucblogo—a dialect of lisp using turtle graphics
famous for teaching kids.)

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