A Plea for Free Software in Schools

open-source initiatives

I live in Penticton British Columbia. Like a lot of places in North America, Penticton and other towns in this area are faced with cash-strapped school districts whom are forced to cut the budget any way they can. Often this means closing schools, jamming kids in already overcrowded classrooms, and worst of all, laying off teachers and support staff. This is no way for our kids to learn.

There is another solution, and it is as simple as changing the software running in our school's computer labs. I am not going to contend that this is a solution to all our problems, but if it can save but one teacher's job, is it not worth it?

You may have heard of Linux, or perhaps you may not have. Linux is an operating system (OS), more to the point, it is a very good operating system. It is stable, secure, feature rich, and easy to learn. It is also free. Most schools use either Microsoft Windows, or one of the Macintosh OS's. This is because when schools started creating computer classes and programs, these were for the most part the only choices available. The problem is that these products are expensive, and require sacrifices in our school budgets to deploy. While Macintosh OS's are very good products, they are proprietary, and require special hardware to run. Windows however, is not a good product. It is unstable and it is not very secure. Windows has spawned a multi-million dollar anti-virus software industry just to address fundamental design flaws in Windows software.

The point here is not to bash Windows (although they make it so easy!), but rather to educate people on alternatives. Linux has come of age in the last few years, and is now at the point where it is the perfect replacement. Linux is able to run on standard low-cost hardware that your school likely already has. This is not to say that Linux is a "cheap" alternative to save budget dollars. Linux is a great educational tool that will provide your children with skills of lasting value. To really understand this, you must understand the difference between 'proprietary' and 'open-source' software models (read on. . .).

You do not need to look far to find a success story of a school running Linux. School District #73 (Kamloops) has had much success with their pilot program, you can read more about their experiences with Linux.

Best of all, there are many great organizations, people, and resources to help you make informed decisions. Here are a few to get you started:

* http://k12ltsp.org/classroom.html: A quick tour of a Linux classroom
* http://www.k12ltsp.org/ : A resource website that explains the benefits of using Linux in the classroom.
* http://www.redhat.com/opensourcenow/intro.html : RedHat Linux's contribution to the cause.

My name is Darren. I am a member of the South Okanagan Linux Users Group (SOLUG). I am willing to help in any capacity to work towards getting Linux in our local schools. I will also help any non-profit organization towards the same ends. If you have questions or comments, please drop me a line at bulliver@badcomputer.org
open vs. closed source

Computers are dumb machines. That is, they require meaningful instructions from humans in order to make them useful. These instructions come in the form of software, and all software is created from source code. This code is written in a programming language, such as C, C++, Pascal, or Fortran (among others). This code is then compiled into a binary, which is simply a completed working program in a form which the computer can understand.

In a closed source model (proprietary) this code is developed by a team of software programmers who compile the code and distribute it in binary form, without the end-user having a chance to see it. This is of little concern to the average user, who most likely cannot understand the source code anyway, but it has huge ramifications for society in general.

Closed software hides its inner workings from the general public, and locks personal data in proprietary formats. It is scary how many government agencies use proprietary software. Using Microsoft as our example, this means that some governments are getting a two or three year 'lease' on data they need to keep for hundreds of years (eg: birth and death records). How is this so? There is nothing to stop Microsoft from changing the format in which data created using their software is saved (and they do!). Microsoft changes their Word format (.doc) every so often requiring people to update their software (read: buy new software) to use their own files in perpetuity.

Teaching our children to blindly purchase and use proprietary software is misguided at best: teaching them on Microsoft products does little more than teach them to use said Microsoft products. Does this have lasting value? Perhaps until Microsoft changes their code once again and markets it under the guise of 'improved' software.

Educators are encouraged to instill values such as free speech to our children, and this is where open-source software fits in. Non-proprietary code is the equivalent of free speech when it comes to software. It is distributed (often at no cost) with the source code included, available for public audit. This allows anyone to inspect the software, and in fact it is usually encouraged so that the software may be improved upon. Open-source software is developed by the equivalent of the scientific method, allowing open testing to ensure its quality and growth.

Students must have the ability to discover how their 'tools' (software) work, given the curiosity and enthusiasm they most likely exhibit. They must not be taught to use closed-model tools, and be limited by what tasks and choices the proprietary GUI allows them. It should not be hard to convice teachers and educators the value of the open-source approach. It comes down to the ageless "teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime" parable.

What does this have to do with Linux? Linux is open-sourced. It is non-proprietary. And it is free, in every sense of the word. You can inspect the very code of the working kernel itself, and learn what makes it tick. This is an invaluable learning tool for those children who may be interested in a career in the IT industry. It will also teach students lasting values which they may carry with them in any pursuit.

Linux allows you to install the software, and upgrade it for free. Bug-fixes and security flaws are reported and often fixed within hours. By contrast, Windows costs money to buy and install. Upgrades will also cost you, and you must purchase a license for every computer you want to install it on. It is truly disgusting how much money cash-strapped school systems have to spend on software to a company that already has billions of dollars in assets. With Windows, bug fixes and security flaws are not dealt with until the next scheduled release date, which may be years. Windows 98 was little more than a bug fix for Windows 95, but because nobody can inspect the source, there was no public accountability to document what had actually changed. This allowed Microsoft to market Windows 98 as an 'improved' OS, and charge for it.

If you think you can stick with the current version of Windows you are using, don't be too sure. Microsoft has many side-deals with software and hardware manufacturers to ensure that new products will not be compatible with old versions of Windows, thus forcing an upgrade. This is not paranoid subjecture, I only wish it were. Strong-arming third party companies to do things Microsoft's way is the very reason that Microsoft was forced into court by the US Department of Justice on anti-trust charges. Have you noticed that Internet Explorer 6.0 is not available for Windows 95? And in fact Microsoft has recently announced product 'life cycles' in which the software will no longer be supported. Windows 95 has already reached the end of its life. Windows 98 meets the executioner in two years.

Even more frightening is the new Windows XP 'features' in which the product 'phones-home' to relay your personal information and computer habits to Microsoft HQ for its own unknown purposes. This takes place behind your back, and without your consent. Although this practice is legal (do you ever read your license agreement?) it is quite obviously morally repugnant. There is a good treatment of this issue in this article. Anyone who uses XP or is considering using XP should read it.

You may want to stick with Microsoft because it is widely used and supported. It is only this way because Microsoft was intrumental in bringing personal computers to the forefront. It is faulty logic to stick with an inferior product simply to maintain the status-quo. You would be appalled at the thought of a 'one-party' political system, in which you may vote for whomever you want, but for the fact that they represent the exact same interests and ideals. How would you feel about one phone company, one food retailer, and one automobile manufacturer, each with the same ability to set prices for their products according to their whims? Monopoly is antithesis to the standards and freedom that we as humans deserve and expect. So why do we allow it when it comes to our computers?

We are on the cusp of an information age, the effects of which have not been seen since the Industrial Revolution itself. If we continue down the road we're on we are destined to have this information age corrupted and stained until it is as stagnant and bleak as the Dark Ages. I for one, will not settle for being a peasant working to make the fuedal lord wealthy, and niether should our kids.


このページは、ossanが2011年2月13日 17:13に書いたブログ記事です。


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