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Issue dated - 6th October 2003

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Why Free Software makes sense in education

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 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 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 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 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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