Why Public Education Must Use Public Software

If schools use and teach proprietary software, they promote it. Proprietary software is the Information Age’s version of censorship on knowledge in the form of obscurity through trade secrets (the inner workings of software are kept secret) and manipulation through restrictive licenses (confusing licensing terms for every program). Few people unfortunately realize that the End User License Agreements written in legal jargon which they blindly click “Accept” to often exploit them by embedding contract-enforced assertions of power deeply within the numerous pages of fine print. Microsoft user agreements, for instance, usually require users to consent to some form of monitoring. Microsoft claims these are “efforts” to prevent the copyright infringement of media works. Do you really want to allow a corporation to easily do what the police can’t even do without a warrant? Other user agreements, like that of the proprietary music player Apple iTunes, state that the agreements can be modified by the company at any time without notice, placing virtually no restriction on the software publisher’s power other than contract law. It is unethical to promote invasive software that violates civil liberties and condones the consume-consume mentality of a censored society — rather than a creative, intellectual, or independent mentality.

Passive consumption within the confines of a proprietary system is not enough to develop a generation of students interested in the sciences. Students need to the opportunity to see how their digital tools work. They need to be able to lift the hood of their software and peer inside. Whenever they see a problem, they should be encouraged to perfect it with the possibilities they see in their imagination. For students who see the inefficiency of a school’s computer system, a proprietary approach can be simply aggravating. But holding them back with locks and telling them that they must never peer inside Pandora’s box, must never share their tools, and must never use their tools without paying proper tribute creates a new generation of sheeple.

In computer science classes, using free software means actually being able to see the source code behind major projects, and even being able to improve it. With proprietary software, computer science students are never able to see what the inner workings of software used by the real world look like.

Already, most workplace environments require some form of national and international collaboration. Experiencing free software provides part of the hands-on experience and expanded skill set necessary for future jobs. But more importantly, free software encourages public service as a result of the same core ethics of openness, transparency, and collaboration that our democracy depends on. Free software therefore encourages better citizens.

Nearly every student today uses websites like Youtube and Wikipedia — user-generated examples of thriving free cultures based off the free software movement. Internet culture has already entered mainstream and will continue to do so; students exposed to free software will better understand the culture and the platform that they find to be so much fun. Understanding how something works encourages critical thinking, and learning about a fun subject grabs interest. Both critical thinking and student interest are often lacking in education.

But the turning factor for school administrators will likely not be for the above reasons. Excluding support and the negligible price of a medium to provide the software on, free software costs nothing. By using free software, money can be spent on better hardware and on improving education, not on licensing costs to a software publisher. Since unnecessary costs are significantly reduced, it becomes much easier to produce the better education system many seek. And as a result of free software’s generally better performance efficiency, it often runs fine on hardware that schools would otherwise dispose of — better for the school, taxpayers, and the environment. Thanks to few licensing restrictions, less time and money have to be spent on verifying that every user and computer in the school comply with confusing End User License Agreements written in legal jargon. Since free software can be freely copied, the software can also be sent home with teachers and students so that everyone can use the exact same software. Just like the ideals of public education, all students are able to use the same quality tools, regardless of their economic status, and the public education system does not promote privately-monopolized knowledge that the student must pay tribute for access to.

School administrators may claim that Microsoft software has to be taught because it’s “the industry standard.” They don’t realize that the software in ten, twenty, or thirty years will be so different that only the approach towards software will be relevant. This is about education, not brand loyalty.

Critics may claim that free software is not usable and they may even cite specific software flaws (“bugs”). However, since software is complex, it’s relatively easy to find specific problems in any piece of software and assign blame. Even the most reliable pieces of software have thousands of bugs; some more than others. A list of bugs is therefore meaningless because it provides no relative comparison and only restates what is already known. But if the problem is serious enough, civil governments could pay a fraction of what is currently paid directly or indirectly for software licensing, and hire a person or organization to fix the problem — something that cannot be done when the source code is kept secret. They could even add new features to a piece of software and specifically target them towards a particular curriculum. The developed software would then be available for the entire public to use.

As with any form of change, free software would require some initial deployment costs for any related installation and support services. But change is precisely what is needed in education. It is far better to spend money now as an investment to lower costs in the future than to continue with the high costs of software licensing. Regardless, as long as the process is not permanently deferred, schools can simply install free software on a case-by-case basis when existing software licensing contracts expire.

Free software, like anything else, is only part of a solution on improving education. Although it is an effective first step, it is by no means the complete solution by itself. It saves school districts money that can be later used to improve other areas of education. When correctly implemented, it gives students a valuable hands-on experience with both experimentation and ethics. Free software also has the ability to inspire other movements, such as the free cultural movement, which are educationally beneficial.

The next generation of students will learn that improving knowledge means working with others. Since the philosophy behind the cooperation of free software promotes global collaboration beyond international boundaries, the next generation of American students, instead of lagging behind, will be able work with foreigners to develop and disseminate their combined knowledge.

Content is available under GNU Free Documentation License 1.3.

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  1. Public Schools in America have many many (many) problems – but what type software they use is not one of them. Thinking that changing the current status quo (i.e. using Microsoft products) will do anything but add one more problem to their extremely long list is just plain stupid. Lets try and get little Johnny and Mary THINKING not wasting time memorizing useless standardized test info and dorking around with WoW, Facebook, and iTunes.

  2. Pingback: Links 13/10/2009: GNOME Summit Coming, KDE Would Have Cost $175 Million to Make | Boycott Novell

  3. Please give some examples where NASA and DoD use FOSS in mission critical applications where lives are at risk.

    Just saying it does not make it a fact.

    So please, the WHOLE truth and nothing but the truth.

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