Why use FOSS in schools?

Posted by Greten on 02 Sep 2013 under Thoughts

With the advancement of information technology (IT) in the past decades, the education sector is one of those who were able to obtain harvest from the fruits of IT sector's labor. The 1990s saw the proliferation of multimedia CDs and the early 2000 witnessed the rise of educational websites. While it is still feasible (and advisable) to teach using the old blackboard-and-lecture method, the use of computers no doubt enhances the learning experience of students.

The free and open source community made their contributions to the education sector. Many teacher are not aware of the concept of free and open source software (FOSS), but is actually using one of the FOSS programs like GraphCalc and Stellarium.

penguin, wildebeast, and fox, associated with Linux, GNU, and Mozilla, are drawn on a chalk boardOf course, there are proprietary software and freeware that are useful and very much used. In "fact", proprietary software are probably more used in schools than FOSS. This so called "fact" is actually based on my experience as a student and during my work in the education sector and not on any scientific statistics. School administrators would reason that companies are looking for graduates that knows how to use Microsoft Office and other vendor-specific software.

There's a reason for this... well a vicious cycle if you ask me. The decision-makers in companies grew-up using proprietary software programs, thinking these programs are the only way to do specific tasks such as word processing or doing spreadsheets. In turn, they enforce the same old traditional software programs (with newer versions of course) to the next generation of employees.

I will not say that FOSS are better than proprietary software or vice versa. The quality of the two camps are mixed bags: some FOSS are better than proprietary software equivalent and some proprietary programs are better. What is unfortunate is that schools and companies flock the proprietary software not necessarily because of quality, but because they do not know that they have a choice.

Advantages of FOSS

In the same logic, quality is not the only important consideration in deciding which software programs to teach students. Enumerated below are the reasons why I believe FOSS are better in educational setting:

They cost zero

FOSS can be installed across several computers without shelling any amount. You spend money only on hardware and internet connection. Your school budget that would otherwise go to purchasing software can go to other budget concerns like additional chairs, laboratory equipment, or books for the library.

They are free

Most people would understand the word "free" as costing zero as I already covered in the previous subsection. However, the people behind the FOSS programs are more proud of the other definition of free. They say "like free speech and not free coffee". Unlike proprietary software programs, which have explicit provision against reverse engineering, FOSS even comes with the source code. This allows you to modify the software programs to suite your or your school's needs. You can even ask the students to modify the programs in certain ways as their school project.

Skills are learned and transferable

Let's not teach students how to use Microsoft Word, Excel, or Powerpoint. Let's teach them how to use word processor, spreadsheets and presentation programs. I grew up using Word, Excel, and Powerpoint and I find it very easy to shift in using Writer, Calc, and Impress. Now, I can use both sets of programs with equal ease. Actually, shifting from MS Office 2003 to LibreOffice or OpenOffice (any versions) is way easier than shifting from MS Office 2003 to MS Office 2007 or 2010.

Less restrictive EULA

When you install a proprietary software in a computer, one of the first thing that you will encounter is the several paragraphs long End User License Agreement or EULA. Aside from the provision against reverse engineering the software, it also include several legalese such as indemnify the managers, directors, shareholders, and (rarely) the employees of the software company. Most people just install the software without reading all of it because it's too long, and some of them suffer the consequences which I will describe in the next subsection.

Whereas, the license of FOSS are usually short (but can also be long, or an amalgation of several licenses), they are rarely directed towards the end user. Their main purpose is to restrict the ability of third-party developers to use the codes of FOSS and then impose restrictive license as what can be found in proprietary software.

The only ugly condition that I can find in FOSS licenses is that you cannot sue the developers in the event that you lost something valuable as you use the software e.g., you are typing several pages long of thesis or business report and your LibreOffice Writer suddenly shuts-down without you saving your work. However, this is a very rare scenario and you should be saving your work frequently in the first place. Also, the developers of FOSS are unpaid volunteers. It's just not fair for them to dedicate their time working to give us free software just to later spend money on defense attorney or payment for damages.

Defense from BSA raids

The Business Software Alliance (BSA) is an organization of big software developers aiming to curb software piracy (which is good) and impose their overly restrictive EULAs (which is bad). Some of its prominent members include Microsoft, Apple and Adobe. What they do is raid companies with the help of law enforcement, and demand payment from you depending on the number of software installations (developed by their members) that are either pirated or do not follow the EULAs. Refusal to pay means they will confiscate your computers as your case goes to court.

If you are using FOSS in all of your school computers, then BSA raids are unlikely. BSA will find it impossible to obtain sufficient evidence against you that would allow them to obtain warrant from court. If you are using proprietary software only on small number of computers in your network, it would be easier to monitor whether they are following the EULAs or not. To know more how BSA raid works, please visit this post: Protect your school from BSA raids.

Resistance from virus and other malwares

There is this misconception that FOSS operating systems such as GNU/Linux and its forks Ubuntu and Red Hat are immune to viruses, or than the malwares that can infect these systems simply do not exist. That's not true. The only reason why they seem to be immune to virus is that most hackers who created these malwares are targetting Windows due to its much larger market share.

However, assuming that hackers target Windows and GNU/Linux equally, GNU/Linux is still going to be more resistant. Malwares usually operate by deceiving the system that it is an administrator account and then proceeding to modify your configurations before doing the nasty things it was made to do.

In GNU/Linux, whenever you install a new program or move files in or out of system folders, you are required to do it using the "sudo" command, which requires administration password. This is not 100% impenetrable, but it provides additional layer of defense. You can also download and install ClamAV, a FOSS antivirus software. There are also free versions of Avast and AVG for GNU/Linux; they are not FOSS but they can protect your computer.

Recommended FOSS programs as replacements for frequently used proprietary software

If you are reading this, you probably know some of the popular and frequently used FOSS. The table below shows the Microsoft and other well-known de facto industry standard software programs and their equivalent FOSS programs. Some of these FOSS are actually better than the proprietary version, and others, although of somehow lower quality, can still do most of the jobs that we need from the proprietary software for free.

Proprietary software FOSS alternative
Windows GNU/Linux, Red Hat, Ubuntu, and other Linux fork
Microsoft Office LibreOffice or OpenOffice
MS Word LibreOffice/OpenOffice Writer
MS Excel LibreOffice/OpenOffice Calc
MS PowerPoint LibreOffice/OpenOffice Impress
MS Equation Editor LibreOffice/OpenOffice Math
MS Access LibreOffice/OpenOffice Base
MS Visio LibreOffice/OpenOffice Draw
MS Outlook Mozilla Thunderbird
MS Internet Explorer Mozilla Firefox
Adobe Photoshop GIMP
Adobe Illustrator Inkscape
Windows Media Player VLC Media Player



Last updated on 06 Sep 2013.

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Instructional design and educational technology for effective learning