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
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
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?
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
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
- 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.
Below are some of the tools available with the gcompris, drgenius and
(Also Debian junior games for the network, simulation games, text-based