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Jonathan Roberts [opinions]

Education, education, education

fsmsh.com/2290 [richard-stallman] [education] [olpc]

I heard a phrase today that reminded me of my childhood: “...learning and sharing together”. I’m not sure if I ever heard this exact phrase, but it was definitely a theme that was central to my early education; it’s now a central theme of my life again, this time through free software. This link between free software and education was first made by Richard Stallman in his essay Why Schools Should Use Exclusively Free Software, and this link is now being reinforced by the work that’s going on with the One Laptop Per Child initiative. I thought today was as good a chance as any to remind ourselves of the role that free software can play in our schools, and the developments that have happened since Richard Stallman wrote that essay.

Allow me initially to summarise what Richard Stallman said in his essay: free software should be used exclusively in schools because:

  • It can save schools money.
  • Schools should promote ways of living that benefit society as a whole; and free software, like recycling, does this.
  • It promotes the idea that learning is not wrong, as proprietary software does when students reach an age when they start to ask “how does this work?”
  • A school’s primary job is to teach children to be good neighbours and citizens; free software does this by allowing people to share, learn, and help each other.

Also to be added to these reasons are the more general reasons about why free software should be used: freedom, and security of, information and the right to cooperate with each other.

The One Laptop Per Child program picks up from the ideas in this essay and puts them into practice: it is designed to be affordable (priced at the same level as the current text book budgets of the target nations), encourages children to work and play together, and uses entirely free/open source software.

There are several key features which embody these principles. One of these is the “show source” button, which when pressed will reveal the source code for the current application (or activity, as they call it): not only does this help spread the ideas of sharing and learning, but it also extends the usefulness of the laptop well into the children’s teenage years. Another is the way networking and cooperation are so closely tied in to all the activities: through the journal the children are given the ability to think about not just when they created a piece of work, but who they created it with. They have the ability to leave comments on shared pieces of work, and they can see all their online friends organised around the activities they’re taking part in. (Some of these ideas are hopefully going to start making their way into our own desktop experience, through work going on with Mugshot and Bigboard).

There are other less high-profile examples of the principles in Stallman’s essay being put into practice. In Paris, many of the school children are being given a USB flash key with free software applications such as OpenOffice.org and Firefox on. They’re hoping this project will help to reduce the “digital divide” by allowing children to work from home, even if they can’t afford expensive office suites; if they can’t afford a computer, their work is accessible in a way that they can work from a friend’s computer or a public access centre. To me the benefits of this seem obvious: sharing is encouraged and children can work whenever and wherever they choose.

Free software still has a long way to go in education, but as projects like OLPC raise awareness. More and more people will start to make use of it, and more children (and their families) will get to enjoy the benefits!

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