Freeing Computers in Schools
Riza is a four-year-old Indian girl who thinks of computers as toys. Instead of adding one more difficult subject to her already tiring school day, she occasionally plays educational games on the PC. When her friends come over, they end up learning without being aware of it. One girl her age, who's never handled computers before, drags the mouse. As she moves it across the mouse pad, the image of a furry bear jerkily is unveiled on the monitor. Another younger child dances to the music that a program called Bump and Jump plays, a piece of software written by a team of Swedish students. The best part is nobody paid for the CD the children are using; it's not pirated either. It can be run from any computer, simply by booting from the CD-ROM drive. The CD comes in a distribution called FreEDUC.
So, what's the point of this example? The point is free software is opening up a whole new world, and education is one of its major global beneficiaries. Free software tool are being used to help students from kindergarten through graduate school, but how much attention is being paid to this topic?
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" that discusses the benefits of FLOSS. Rajani says, "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."
Rajani adds, "FLOSS has a complementary and reciprocal relationship to education. One needs an educated section of the population to fulfill the full potential of FLOSS, and at the same time FLOSS helps, enhances and complements education by providing tools to promote education."
We're not talking about only computer education here. Free software has a big role to play in general education at all levels in India, and here are ten good reasons why:
Not by bread (money) alone: Because free software evangelists are not motivated by money alone, chances are they work in areas that have high social need and not only those areas that cater to the affluent. It's no coincidence that education is high on free software evangelists' agendas, within India and abroad.
Some of the best brains are here. The strong sense of community makes it very easy to share software, ideas and solutions.
Anyone can get involved. Entry barriers to contribute to free software are low. Educators can and are shaping this movement and how responsive it is to the world of education.
Indian concerns, Indian developers: if we don't solve our own problems, will a giant corporation in the US do it for us? FLOSS makes it easy for anyone with motivation and a bright idea to contribute to an exciting global network. The free software world also shows us that people contribute their skills and work reasons other than money. They do so out of altruism and a desire to share knowledge. They do it for fun or because they like the challenge. They do it to develop new skills and even in anticipation of indirect rewards, such as improved job opportunities.
Affordability: Free software is not about price, it's about freedom. Yet, in cash-strapped countries such as India, the affordability of this tool makes it particularly suitable for deployment in education.
Support the worldwide community: To scare off people from using free software, one argument says few firms are behind this global campaign. Yet, once a region builds up its skills--and we're fast getting there in India--they spread quickly. Dozens or hundreds of mailing-lists and newsgroups exist that offer support from a worldwide community of users and programmers.
Indian-language solutions: If there are a handful of volunteers, it is possible to make rapid strides in "Indianising" software. This concept also applies to narrowly used languages that proprietary software might not see as viable interests. We can't restrict computing and technology to a handful of English-language speakers in this part of the globe. Networks such as the Indic-computing-users mailing list are doing interesting work on this front.
Adapt, rebuild, reuse: You don't have to re-invent the wheel. Anyone interested can adapt existing software for specific needs. In tiny Goa, located on the Indian west coast, the local chapter of ILUG (India Linux Users Groups) rebuilt a distribution to make it easier and more uniform for untrained people to install Linux in schools.
Sankarshan Mukhopadhyay, from eastern India, recently wrote to me, "If you happen to meet Arvind Yadav, can you pass on a message? My friends have successfully implemented LTSP [a terminal-server, which allows for the use of earlier generation hardware] with graphics, thanks to his wonderful Goa Schools CD, which he so kindly provided to me."
Another uses, Arun, writes, "We have tested gcompris (a set of educational software) in Malayalam [a language spoken by over 30 million, but still awaiting computing solutions in many spheres]). Some games, like typing tutor, need to be modified for Indian languages." gcompris is a piece of international education software, whose name is based on the French phrase "I understand" (j'ai compris).
The interest is here: In India itself, a number of groups already are working to adapt free software to education. One on these groups is called LIFE; you can join the list by sending e-mail here.
If this won't work, nothing will: In the software world, the FLOSS movement has shown its ability to produce results. This is one area of life where the alternative is proving to be really good. Maybe better than the real thing, that is, the dominant model of software production.
To finish up, here some pointers on getting started with FLOSS in education.
Using free software often means that you need an additional operating system (OS) to run it on. (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, including Windows, provided you have the space for it.
You should be able to access much of your earlier work in GNU/Linux too, unless it was created in proprietary file formats. GNU/Linux-based computing can achieve almost everything that a computer run on proprietary software can, plus things proprietary software cannot.
CDs of free software 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. It even can 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 also are available, but if want friendly neighbourhood support, a little bit of politeness could bring you support that money simply can't buy!