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FSF teaches free software to public school youth

by Devin Ulibarri Contributions Published on Jun 13, 2019 12:25 PM

Free software is a critical component to a free society, and nowhere is society's influence more apparent than in the public school system. Software that students use in schools greatly impacts the students' lives, and consequently impacts society as a whole. This spring, the FSF, with funding from the Staples Foundation, brought free software to two public middle schools in the Boston area.

I reached out to local schools in the Boston area to offer workshops that introduce children to the fundamentals of commands, scripts, and computation, followed by an introduction to the principles of software freedom. For the workshops, we chose Music Blocks, a visual programming language for music, which is licensed under the AGPL by SugarLabs, a community-driven organization with the mission to construct free software tools for teaching and learning.

Music Blocks is a good tool for introducing children to musical and programming concepts for many reasons: first, music is fun, and it’s fun to make sounds with a computer. Also, music is forgiving: mistakes present relatively little risk to a new learner, since the "mistakes" result in unexpected, often funny sounds.

Since Music Blocks is a programming language, it offers the opportunity for students to create their own scripts/programs beyond Music Blocks, which they can share with their friends. Remixing becomes a vehicle for exchanging both programming and musical ideas. As such, Music Blocks is a way-point on the path to learning more about software and the four freedoms.

When we walked into the classroom, there was a palpable excitement in the room. I started each class with everyone in a circle, to do a musical activity together that would later be scripted in Music Blocks. Students learned a snippet of music by first listening and singing back the snippet. Then, we studied a graphical representation of the music, and even explored modifying the original musical snippet, to engage their creative thinking. The students then input the music into MusicBlocks using laptops we prepared for them with all free software. The lessons were basic, but not simple (see handouts at; they required a fair amount of problem-solving and collaboration to complete, which helped to give the students a frame of reference when we introduced the four freedoms of free software.

After the lesson, we collected some feedback from the students in order to assess the project’s efficacy. One student said, "I learned that music is in code," and another said they learned "how to music-code." A few students talked about software freedom specifically, saying they learned "the four freedoms" and "what freedom means."

For this project, we used computers that fully respected the students' freedom. FSF tech intern Valessio Brito put in many hours flashing 25 T400 laptops with Libreboot and installing Trisquel GNU/Linux. As part of the overarching project to bring free software to these schools, the FSF then donated five of the fully freed T400s to each of the participating schools. The laptops are accompanied with handouts that explain the four freedoms, the importance of free software for education, an introduction to Trisquel, and bootable Trisquel USB sticks. This gives the students access to freedom-respecting computers and software throughout the year.

This project is a small step to ensure that students, teachers, parents, and administrators understand the implications for free software in education. Education needs free software, but free software also needs education. The free software movement needs to find entry points into education so that youth can be introduced and empowered at an early stage. This project is the first in an anticipated series of projects by the FSF to bring free software philosophy and ethics to the educational system.

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