Soft option

Print edition : November 05, 2010

GOVERNMENT SCHOOL TEACHERS being given training to use free software at ICT in Bangalore. A file picture.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Educational institutions are urged to foster digital inclusion by discarding proprietary software in favour of free software.

INFORMATION Communication Technology, or ICT, one of the most powerful technologies ever developed by humankind, has penetrated every sphere of human activity. Yet, it may be said that it is still in its early stages of growth, requiring the effort of IT professionals to build it and make it available to everyone. ICT has changed the way we do things and even the way we think. It has made communication so easy that anything from a simple message to pictures, documents, voice and video can be sent to any recipient anywhere in the world in a matter of a second or even a fraction of it. It has revolutionised printing by taking over the job of typesetting and making it easy to create even complex documents with pictures and tables. Anything from small signboards to large hoardings is no longer hand-painted but created using computers and printers. Most office work is computerised and mini computers are present even in devices that one may never relate with computing, such as washing machines.

It is, therefore, natural that computers enter the domain of education, too. Here one may identify two different roles for computers and the Internet. One is, of course, in teaching the technology, about computer hardware and software, including networking and the Internet. Now both computers and the Internet have a hardware part and a software part. These are different in a very fundamental manner and, therefore, should be treated differently. Hardware is a physical entity and is real, as opposed to software, which is virtual and is similar to knowledge. Virtual goods like knowledge or software can be shared with any number of persons. Today, a significant part of the software used on computers, especially personal computers, is restricted software that is licensed on payment depending on the number of computers on which it is to be used.

Such software, including operating systems such as Microsoft Windows or Mac OS, and applications such as Adobe Photoshop or CorelDraw, is made available only in the binary or machine-readable form; the source code, or the human readable form, is kept secret by the company that created the software. This prevents others from reading and understanding it or modifying it. This has been the mainstream paradigm in building and using software ever since PCs became popular. Conventional logic would lead us to believe that this kind of competition among companies to create good software will result in the quality of software improving over time. But, in actual fact, some of the best examples of good software have actually been pushed out by inferior ones that were made popular through the use of business tactics that are questionable, if not unethical.

FREE SOFTWARE MOVEMENT

The last 27 years have witnessed the rise of a different kind of software built in a different manner. This is the Free Software movement, started in September 1983 by Richard Stallman, who was working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), United States, at that time. He started the GNU project to develop software that would free users from the restrictive licences imposed by software companies. He also prepared the GNU General Public Licence, or GPL, a copy-left licence currently in its third version, under which such software can be distributed so that the freedoms are always preserved. He was soon joined by many people, and today there are possibly tens of thousands of people contributing to various pieces of software that are distributed under free licences. The freedom to share it freely makes it available at virtually no cost, while the freedom to study and modify the software ensures that the human readable source code is available for anyone who wants it. And bugs are quickly discovered and fixed.

Obviously, free software has several advantages over non-free software when it comes to education, or for that matter for any purpose.

A call to use free software in educational institutions in view of the freedom, stability and economy of using the same was made at a three-day national conference on Free Software and Education organised by the National Institute of Technology, Calicut (NIT-C), from September 10, in Kozhikode, Kerala. Stallman, in his keynote address, emphasised the importance of using free software in education. The conference called on all educational institutions, policymakers, students and teachers to start fostering digital inclusion by discarding all proprietary software in favour of free software. It declared that free software is undeniably ideal for use in all educational institutions at all levels. Proprietary software keeps people divided and helpless, while free software empowers them.

RICHARD STALLMAN, THE founder of the free software movement.-K. MURALI KUMAR

Participants at the conference demonstrated pieces of software that could be used in science and engineering education and in the media, and also how a computer with the GNU/Linux operating system could be used by even differently abled people.

The speakers included Professor K.R. Srivathsan, Pro Vice-Chancellor of the Indira Gandhi National Open University; Professor Kannan Moudgalya and Prabhu Ramachandran from the Indian Institute of Technology Mumbai; G. Nagarjuna from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research; and Professor Sanjay Shitole from SNDT Women's University, Mumbai, which recently started using free software in all its laboratories. In addition, Marco Ciurcina (former Member of Parliament and a member of the faculty at Polytecnico Torino in Italy), Stefano Barale (also a faculty member at Polytecnico Torino), and Renzo Davoli (Associate Professor. Department of Computer Science, University of Bologna) spoke through video presentations.

Krishnakant Mane, a programmer who leads the GNU Khata team to build a free application for accounting purposes, demonstrated how a visually challenged person like him can use a computer and also write programs. He spoke about accessibility issues and how free software is now helping a number of differently abled people to use computers and lead better lives.

The advantages of free software to teach computer programming are perhaps obvious. While teaching literature, we include works of great writers in the curriculum, depending on the language. While learning cinema, students use works of masters such as Eisenstein or Goddard as textbooks. This is true of every creative field of human activity. But, students of computer programming never get to see programs written by great programmers in the non-free software world. This is because the source code is kept secret. In fact, it is difficult even to know who wrote a piece of software that is proprietary because the names of the programmers are rarely announced.

On the other hand, in the free software world, the people who contributed to any piece of software are listed in the software itself or on their website. And great programmers get to be well known. Thus, everyone knows that the versatile text editor, emacs, was written primarily by Richard Stallman. Prabhu Ramachandran started the application called MayaVi (for data visualisation) when he was a student at IIT Madras. No company can take the credit away from him.

Similarly, a student can explore a piece of free software or a free operating system such as GNU/Linux to any extent and even make modifications. This can lead to the creation of a new feature that is not available in any other operating system. Thus free software makes it possible for students to learn much more and to start their careers with much more knowledge than if they used only proprietary software.

There are other advantages also in using free software in education. If a non-free application is used in an educational institution, it becomes difficult for a student to use it at home because he/she will have to either find the (possibly huge) money to buy the piece of software or break the law by using it illegally. Obviously, both are undesirable. On the other hand, if a free application is used, then students who have computers at home can legally install the same application and work on it from home too.

The declaration adopted at the conference pointed out that while the teaching of ICT had been incorporated at the school level and ICT itself was being used in the classroom and outside for teaching and learning more effectively, access to ICT was not universal. It felt digital exclusion was an effect of the current economic system, but had many concurrent causes. These included the lack or poor quality of education in the field of IT in both developed and developing countries; strong pressure and funding from big American charities for proprietary software solutions; the lack of general purpose and sensible education in IT; the lack of bandwidth or even Internet connectivity in many areas of the world; the cost of hardware which, even if declining, was still a barrier to many people; the obscurity and the high cost of proprietary software preventing pupils from learning how things, particularly software, worked; and the absence of translation of software and educational resources in languages other than English. (Complete text of the declaration is available at https://wiki.hipatia.net/index.php/DeclarationEduconf2010.)

On why software freedom is a necessity and not a choice, the declaration said: Proprietary software does not allow community participation in shaping the ICT to be used for education, and is not suitable for education since such solutions treat students as consumers.

The free software community (sometimes called free and open source software community, or FOSS) produced the GNU/Linux and a comprehensive stack of collaborative workspaces that enabled students to learn ICT. Most of the free software workspaces are made accessible to speakers of all languages of the world. The software freedom allowed people to use the software for any purpose; study how it works; modify it; and distribute the modified software. Any software that grants these four freedoms is called free software. These freedoms are essential for students to learn how things work and to share their experience, knowledge and collaborate without legal fences.

The declaration said the software used in education should be freely available and accessible to all. Moreover, the software had to be available in the language used by the community in that part of the world, however small it may be. This is normally not possible with proprietary software because some communities are too small to satisfy the commercial interests of the company. Moreover, the main interest of multinational corporations is to standardise software solutions as well as human beings.

V. Sasi Kumar is a free software activist and a member of FSF-India director board.

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