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The GNU Education Project

by Matt Lee Contributions Published on Jan 30, 2012 11:13 AM
This post is by Dora Scilipoti, Italian free software activist, teacher, and volunteer lead of the GNU Education Team.

The gnu.org website has been enriched with a completely renewed section on education, at http://www.gnu.org/education.

It all began in December 2008 at the "Free Software Free Society" International Conference held in Trivandrum, India. During an informal conversation with Richard Stallman and attendees at the event, the topic of the role of free software in education was brought up and I was asked to take up the task of working on the education section of the Web site. As a free software advocate and a teacher, I always felt that the GNU Project needed to address the subject specifically and in depth, for it is in the education field that its ethical principles find the most fertile ground for achieving the goal of building a better society.

I joined gnu.org with a desire to do more than maintain the pages or add schools and free educational programs to the existing lists. I wanted to build a section structured so as to provide detailed descriptions of schools that have chosen to include exclusively free software in their curricula, and of free educational programs and resources employed in schools. I also saw the need to provide room for articles that would shed more light on the subject. The articles within the section would have to be arranged in a clear scheme so as to make it easy for visitors to find information.

"Case Studies" is the place where we currently present cases of schools that are successfully using and teaching free software. We talk about their experience, the problems they encountered and how they solved them, their motivations, the benefits they gained, and their involvement in and contributions to free software. We do not attempt to build an exhaustive database of schools committed to free software — that is already being done on other Web sites. Instead, in this initial stage we focus on schools whose motivations for the use of free software are on the ethical side rather than centered solely on the technical or economic advantages. We found a few cases, one of which is a school in Argentina: an elementary teacher with limited technical skills managed to get her school to migrate all computers to GNU/Linux by showing decision makers at the school that the use of nonfree software was in contrast with the moral values promoted by the institution.

These cases are part of the data we gather during our observation work. They serve as material for thought in our search for a method to be presented as an educational model that will highlight the impact of free software on society and will be effective to bring its values into the education field.

We also intend to talk to schools that may not have completely grasped the importance and the implications of teaching free software and its ethical principles. We want to support and encourage them in all possible ways.

"Educational Resources" contains educational free software as well as other resources such as free (as in freedom) printed or digital educational materials, and institutions that offer degree courses on the various aspects of free software. As with schools, our aim is not to build exhaustive listings, but to highlight instructive examples.

For educational free software, we report on specific programs that show how software freedom benefits the educational process, with an emphasis on the ethical implications of the use of technology. We base our work on the philosophical grounds of the GNU Project.

A good example of a free program that we present is the case of Tux Paint, used by a school in India to teach students as young as eleven how to put into practice the four freedoms, including freedom 1 — the freedom to study and modify the program. This case alone debunks the myth that being a developer is a requirement to exercise software freedom; it provides evidence that software freedom lives not in the realm of abstract theories but can be exercised by all users, including children.

In the "Education Projects" subsection we mention other groups around the world who are working in the education field and share the principles of the GNU Project. Among others, we mention the Free Software Foundation Europe Education Project and IT@School, the Indian project from the government of Kerala that migrated more than 2,600 public schools to free software.

The section also contains a FAQ page, where we answer the most common issues and questions that we receive; the Education Team page, in which we present in detail our goals, our motivations, and our positions; and a Table of Contents for easy reference.

On the main page, under the title "In Depth", there is a growing list of links to articles that we publish which go deeper into the subject.

By no means do we consider our work finished. On the contrary, it is a starting point. What we have done constitutes a solid foundation for further work. We remain in close contact with people from India since the work being done there in the education field is significant — probably the most successful case in the world of free software implementation on a large scale in schools is found in the state of Kerala. There is also important progress in Latin America and in some regions of Spain; we plan to work on those cases soon.

Many people ask us why we think it is important that educational institutions use and teach free software. They wonder: "What does free software have to do with education?" It is important to note that one of the key concepts at the root of the free software movement is that knowledge is a resource to be shared in freedom so that it can be spread for the benefit of all. Similarly, the whole educational process is based on the sharing and dissemination of knowledge; it is not possible to educate where sharing is forbidden. As Richard Stallman explains:

The source code and the methods of free software are part of human knowledge. The mission of every school is to disseminate human knowledge. Proprietary software is not part of human knowledge. It's secret, restricted knowledge, which schools are not allowed to disseminate. (From a speech at the University of Pavia, Italy, in September 2007, when receiving an honorary degree in Engineering.)

So we would reverse the question: why would a school want to dishonor its duty by bringing nonfree software to the classroom?

The education section thus tends to emphasize the political importance of using and teaching free software and its positive impact on society, a point of view which is shared by all members of the Education Team:

Matteo Gamba is an Italian student of Mathematics at the University of Turin. He came in contact with free software at high school during an awareness program carried out by NGO Hipatia. With other fellow students at the school, he founded the group GURI to promote the principles of the GNU Project and fight against the growing practice of treating knowledge as property.

Matteo is an active member of Hipatia and currently working to elaborate an educational method to transmit the social and ethical values of free software to students. He says, "We need to elaborate a new educational paradigm to get across to the students the social and ethical values of free software."

Matias Croce is an Argentine student of Information Technology Engineering at the National Technological University in the Province of Mendoza. He first knew about free software at his Faculty and became involved by joining local free software groups. He later participated in the foundation of a project based at the Faculty to promote free software. The group organizes events in Mendoza, such as the FSD and FLISoL, the largest free software event in Latin America. Matias contributed the final structure of the new section and the layout of its pages.

Leonardo Favario, an Italian student of Information Technology Engineering, and Raghavendra Selvan, a lecturer in Bangalore who teaches Digital Image Processing using GNU Octave, help with editing our videos.

I myself am of Italian descent born in Argentina and currently based in Italy. I hold a BA in Education and a BA in Translation from the Faculty of Languages of the National University of Córdoba, Argentina. I also completed part of a course of study in Fine Arts at the same university.

I had heard about the existence of a free operating system long ago, but had never paid much attention to it due to my lack of interest in pure technical matters. It was only in 2006, after watching the video of a speech by Richard Stallman, that I understood there is actually much more than just technical issues at the root of the free software movement. I became aware of the importance of spreading the word about software freedom and joined AsSoLi and the Italian GNU Translators Team with that purpose in mind. With a background in the Humanities and Arts, my interest is focused almost exclusively on the philosophical and political aspects of free software.

We invite people who share our goals and our views to join us. We need help to spot special cases of schools and free programs, write reports, talk to schools, edit and convert audio visual materials to free formats, do graphic design, and more. Our contact address is education@gnu.org.

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