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You are here: Home Bulletins Bulletins from 2009 Fall 2009 Software for education, not babysitting

Software for education, not babysitting

by root Contributions Published on Dec 18, 2009 03:30 PM
by John Sullivan, Operations Manager

Education is one of the most important fronts for the advocacy of free software. Free software is better philosophically for education, because it acknowledges the freedom of students to do what they are supposed to be doing -- learning and applying what they've learned. Whereas proprietary software sets technical and legal restrictions which limit how far kids can go in their learning, even calling them criminals if they try too learn too much or get too creative, free software encourages them to go as far as they want to go. Educational environments are also critical because school is an important time of life for acclimating people to software; it's one of the main places where people are indoctrinated with proprietary software and the idea that to use a computer is to use Microsoft Windows.

Despite the perfect fit between free software and education, it's proved one of the hardest areas for our message to be heard. While free software can be found in university computer science departments, it is rarely found in non-specialist areas of education. Proprietary software companies offer both students and schools discounts, or even give it away at no charge. Many universities and even some high schools are distributing laptops or other mobile computers to their students now -- loaded with proprietary software. This means that we won't succeed in promoting free software with weaker "open source" arguments like price or convenience. We need to stress the free software values of freedom, autonomy, and pedagogy.

We'll have to make arguments like Walter Bender of Sugar Labs made in his inspirational talk at this year's Software Freedom Day event in Boston. He stressed that education is action, and that kids learn best by doing. Only free software enables this in the end -- proprietary software can let kids drive different vehicles, but it won't ever let them look under the hood. He described the culture of free software as a culture of sharing and critique, and proprietary software as a culture of babysitting.

Walter also announced the first success of a project that the FSF had been discussing with Sugar Labs -- a fully free version of "Sugar on a Stick." This is a bootable USB stick running the FSF-endorsed Trisquel GNU/Linux distribution, which loads the Sugar learning environment. Sugar has been used in the One Laptop Per Child project, but using this USB stick, it can run on other laptops and desktops as well. Because it doesn't require installing any software on the computer, it's a great way for people to demonstrate and introduce free software in schools. I encourage you to give it a try -- the way it provides guided creative activities while also exposing the workings of the activities for people who want to tinker is an amazing model.

In addition to collaborations like this with other organizations, the FSF has been building its own efforts in the area of education. During the last year, we launched our new internship program, which has already connected the FSF with several students at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. While we've had interns helping out in the past, we've now formalized the process and started to build ongoing relationships with universities. These interns not only do great work at the FSF, but also return to their schools better equipped to teach other people about free software.

One of our interns, Max Shinn, started the GNU Generation program, a project to involve pre-university and high school students in free software. GNU Generation has attracted a great deal of interest and participation, and its members have already made valuable contributions from the local to the global, including starting free software groups at their own schools and translating the Windows 7 Sins campaign site. Another intern, Sarah Adelaida McIntire, helped build the LibrePlanet wiki at with over 2,000 edits containing information about free software groups around the world. Niko Kern and Bernie Innocenti have provided very valuable assistance to the FSF systems administrators, supporting and improving the infrastructure the FSF community and the GNU Project depend on.

It is incredibly encouraging to see such efforts for promoting free software with young people and students gaining momentum and having success. The FSF will be putting even more energy into them in the coming year, as a critical step toward our goal of a creative, free society. You can help by applying to our internship program to spend a few months working closely with our staff and community on exciting free software projects, or by telling students you know about the opportunity. You can promote free software in your school or in your community's schools, and share any letters or texts you may write as part of that effort on LibrePlanet, for others to reuse. You can renew your membership, or convince a friend to join, to expand the resources we have to take on this work. Finally, you can let us know at campaigns@fsf.org about the threats and impediments to free software in your university or school, so we can take action. Together we can make computers tools for learning, not babysitting.

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