10 Reasons why Free Software and GNU/Linux should be used in schools

I’ve got a pet peeve. I love reading “Why GNU/Linux should be used in schools” articles. My pet peeve is the fact that the main focus of most of these articles is cost. The way it is portrayed by the media turns it into a cheap “alternative” that you use if you can’t afford Windows or hate Microsoft. This isn’t what makes GNU/Linux truly great for schools. Using that as my motivational drive, I decided to compile a list of the top 10 reasons that make GNU/Linux and other Free Software essential for schools.

1. No vendor lock-ins – Once you go to a proprietary company, it’s hard to leave. Many people, especially computer-illiterate people, believe that companies all try to make their products the best so that consumers will like them. While this is definitely true for most markets, the software market is completely different. The longer you use a piece of proprietary software and build up your infrastructure around it, the harder it is to leave.

2. Freedom to redistribute – The freedom to redistribute allows schools to bridge the gap between home and school. Since the GPL allows free redistribution, any student or staff member can install it on his/her own computer and have access to the same applications that they have at school. Many freeware programs do not allow you to redistribute them, or limit the environments in which they may be installed.

3. Security – In almost all cases, Free Software based solutions are more secure than proprietary software based ones. Free software leaves software in Beta until it is really ready to be used, whereas some proprietary software companies sell you Beta 1. When you use a rock solid system like Debian Stable, it is rare to find a security hole. When security holes are found, they are patched much sooner because everyone has access to the source code. People don’t have to wait for weeks on end to see if the company decided to fix the bugs they found.

4. No pressure to upgrade – “Done!” exclaimed Joe, the school’s network administrator. He grabbed his Norton Ghost CD, slammed it in the garbage, and strutted down the hallway back to his office. It was a wonderful thing, to see all of these computers running Megasoft Doors XT. It had taken years to get XT onto all of these computers. As he approached his office, he noticed a shadowy figure standing in the doorway. “Are you Mr. Joe Peterson?” asked the equivocal man. “Why yes, I most certainly am. How may I help you?” Joe asked, as he stepped into the door. The man followed him into the office, and closed the door behind himself. After about an hour, both men emerged from the office. Joe had a new responsibility now: install Megasoft Doors Perspective on every computer in the school. In most schools, situations are closer to Joe’s extreme than the average person would expect. Big Brother Salespeople are lurking around every corner.

5. Computers last longer – I have a machine from ’96 running the most recent version of Debian smoothly. Older computers can run stripped-down distros, like DSL or Arch, that will work great on nearly any computer. I wonder how a certain other operating system from a monopolistic company would work if it had only 32 mb of RAM to work with? (Probably the same way it would work on a brand new Alienware machine: not at all! :D) Even through many schools wouldn’t want to use computers this old, it provides another excellent opportunity: distributing them to poverty-stricken children. This isn’t possible with today’s proprietary operating systems because of licensing problems. Even if it were possible, it would still be far from practical to give students a computer that doesn’t even have the RAM to open a web browser.

6. Ability to modify – The truly amazing part about Free Software is that you can adapt it to fit your needs. All software has limitations. Proprietary software power users know the limitations of their software. Free software power users know how to fix the limitations of their software. This flexibility is especially important in the educational environment, where programs must be molded to suit students, staff members, and administrators.

7. Students get exposure to free software – Nobody knows what the future will hold. It could be an online desktop. It could be cell phones completely replacing laptops. Nobody knows. The more exposure students have, the better. It also helps students develop more tolerance. People today think of GNU/Linux as the ‘generic brand’ product. Every GNU/Linux user has, at some time, had someone “inform” them in this jeering, derisive voice, “You get what you pay for.” Well, I hate to break it to you, but nothing in life is free. People don’t understand this. Therefore, when they hear about GNU/Linux, they don’t take it seriously. For the same reason people buy outrageously priced Abercrombie clothing, Coach purses, and BMW cars, they continue to buy “designer” software.

8. Choice – When students get older, they shouldn’t ever be forced to use any specific piece of computer software. Every piece of software has its advantages and disadvantages (though some more than others), so everyone deserves an educated choice. When you don’t have a choice, things don’t tend to go very well. That’s why monopolies are illegal. Lets take my cousin for example. She called me a little while ago wondering how to use Photoshop, which she had just purchased. I told her I never used it, because I used GIMP instead. When she asked about GIMP, I explained it to her. You can imagine the disappointment she must have felt, especially since she bought it to do a few simple image edits that even a novice Imagemagick user could do via the terminal. So why did she immediately go to Photoshop? It is because she had a class at school about how to edit images with it. Knowledge is power.

9. Open file formats – If everybody and everything in the world would work together and seamlessly exchange information, we would be in Utopia. Unfortunately, that will never happen. Some jerk (or group of jerks, formally called a “Corporation”) will end up ruining it for everybody. Imagine a new company just started up, called Ship-N-Store. Ship-N-Store offers a completely free service. What they do is hold all of your most important stuff for you. You simply package up all of your most prized possessions and ship them off to this company. Then, to get your information back, you simply write a letter to this company, and they will hopefully send your stuff back. You are probably asking yourself why anyone would use such a stupid service, even if it is free of cost? People would do it for the same reason that they would use a closed file format: to put themselves at the mercy of a large group of people who want nothing but money. Using a closed off file format offers no advantages whatsoever, beyond compatibility with certain proprietary products. In the future, there is no guarantee that any piece of free or proprietary software will be able to open the files that you save.

10. Ethical – Free Software encourages sharing with those around you. One person can use their time to create something that affects thousands of people in a positive way. Richard Stallman learned this back in ’85, and it motivated him enough to start the GNU project. Free Software is the heart of projects like OLPC and The Helios Project (formally Komputers4Kids). It is based on the same philosophy that made Wikipedia the seventh most popular site in the world. (Wikipedia used to be, in part, a GNU project.) The only way great things can be accomplished is if everybody works together. Linus Torvalds figured this out in ’91. Linus’ Law, coined by Eric Raymond, states that “With enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” This couldn’t be more true. Would you rather have one professional detective look for your lost wallet, or have everyone in your city keep an eye out for it?

There are so many benefits other than cost to using GNU/Linux in schools. In this article, I have only scratched the surface. I strongly encourage you to join the fight against proprietary software in schools. Together, we can make IT work!

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Published in: on June 23, 2008 at 9:18 pm  Comments (22)  
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22 Comments

  1. You got very nice reasons there.

  2. Very good article, I agree with it all ;)

  3. Excellent post, keep up the good work.

  4. I definitely agree.

    To expand a bit though: With Open Source software, the source can be viewed. If a student wants to learn how a particular piece of software works, they can learn as much as they want about the internals of the software.

    Also a student who develops the appropriate skills, can actually become a contributer to OSS projects and OSS organizations. This in turn isn’t just educational, but students can actually build experience and references for their resume – and their contributions can be verified.

    This is most applicable for programming students; but could involve technical writing, graphic art and design, and other marketable skills (including marketing for that matter).

    And students can get started on this path with the investment of just a basic computer and internet access (which can be provided by schools, libraries, and civic organizations for those who can’t afford them).

  5. Great read!

    I will translate into my language on my blog, because I am a highschool student and from the next year there is a “computer-in-front-of-every-child” program and they will run edubuntu. The country is Macedonia.

    Keep up the great work!

    Miladin

  6. Very nice and useful article

  7. [Blog] Ten reasons to use OSS in schools…

    Found this blog outlining ten reasons for schools to use OSS. Some of the points seem more than a little overstated like the upgrade pressure section and the open file formats section but overall it ……

  8. These are all good reasons to use free software but they take no account of the costs of training teaching and support staff in these free software products, and the higher costs of the recruiting, the retaining and the ongoing professional development of IT staff who are trained and experienced in Linux rather than just MSC. In a whole (UK) education system that is designed around MS products, accessing appropriate support for teachers and training for teaching through Linux products is very problemmatic. It will take a shift in paradigm for UK schools to risk jumping off the MS gravy train.

    • As a person with limited computer skills I believe you have a very valid point.I am setting up my first Linux computer, If you only want social networking etc great no problem BUT when you want to add video cards tablets, communications or some programs the learning curve is horrific.Schools are going to need a lot of highly trained IT staff for sure

  9. I like your article very much. You make at least 10 good points well. Even if a school system is locked into MS products it should also teach using Linux just to give a fair and complete education.

    BTW there is a typo in Item 5. You state:
    “…a computer that don’t even have the RAM…” It should be, “…a computer that doesn’t even have the RAM….”

    Thank you for writing a well thought out essay on the importance of choice over monopoly in the Software World.

    Cheers,

    Hugh G. “Sam” Ball

  10. Oops! Fixed it, thanks.

  11. Agree …!

  12. Really nice and informative. Lookin’ forward to read more from you. Keep it up!

  13. Nice article and good promotion of open source.Keep it on

  14. Yes! :-)

    How long will people continue to pay for the “privilege” of having their freedoms to use, learn, improve, share, help & teach, restricted by the Sales Contract?

    Accept that prosecution under the full weight of the Judicial & Penal system may follw such “criminal acts” as these? Accept the creeping-growth of an “I’d LIKE to help you.. but I’M NOT ALLOWED TO… (shrug)” culture?

    OK, I’ve said my piece; anyone seen this short story by Richard Stallman?

    It’s the “Free Schools / Free Libraries / Voting Rights For All” issue of our times:

    http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/right-to-read.html

  15. Seriously, great writing! What a shame that you’ve been mislead by Richard Stallman’s propaganda.

    That leads to invalid reasoning. Your typical mistake uses that following form: You say

    a.) Free software implies the existence of benefit A.
    b.) School (should) want benefit A.

    Then, you conclude:

    c.) Therefore, schools should use free software.

    This is a fallacy called “Affirming the consequent”, see Wikipedia for an explanation. To make it valid, you would have to prove that the existence of benefit A implies the use of so-called free software. However, any counter-example would refute such a claim.

    So, let’s look at your reasons in detail:

    1.) Invalid, see above. There is proprietary software without vendor lock-in. A convenient example is WinZip.

    2.) Invalid, see above. There’s proprietary software that people can redistribute. Often, so-called freeware can be redistributed. See WinZip.

    3.) Security is a matter of effort put into the software, not a matter of the license. Just because people can look at the source, doesn’t mean they really do it. As a matter of fact, the Debian project had to deal with security problems just recently. Another example is the Apache project: A security review revealed security problems that were there for years!

    4.) Of course, there’s also a pressure to upgrade with free software: Ever tried to install some new application on a older version of a distribution? That often means you have to upgrade quite a lot of other pieces of software as well. Additionally, your story is just a FUD strategy about sales people. Is it ethical to misrepresent certain groups of people?

    5.) Your only valid reason. Indeed, you may use a really old computer if you only use a few shells on top of X. Whether a modern piece of software — say, a recent version of Open Office — runs on your old computer, too, is a completely different matter. Additionally, the reason is also invalid: There might be proprietary software that runs well even on older computers.

    6.) Invalid, see above. There’s proprietary software that you can modify, too. The best example is software made by TheKompany which is proprietary but gives you full access to the source code.

    7.) To expose students to Linux-based operating system is by no means a valid reason: Unless you have proven, first, that this is indeed necessary you cannot use it as a reason for its necessity. This is an fallacy often called ‘begging the question’. True, the future is unknown. But you cannot expose students to everything they may encounter in the future. Otherwise, why not expose them to Abercrombie clothing, Coach purses, and BMW cars? Following your own reasoning, students might be exposed to these things in the future as well.

    8.) Interestingly, what you are arguing for is the restriction of choice: Namely, that proprietary software should not be used or exposed to students. So why is choice a valid reason for the one side, but not the other? Your reason makes no sense. In fact, there’s a valid reason for restricting choice in schools: Time is scarce and expensive. Why should society pay teachers to deal with all the options? Free software doesn’t change the basic problem: For example, why teach two desktop environments if one is sufficient? In fact, why stop with only two desktop environments? What about the many distributed version control systems that exists right now? Most of them are free software but a teacher has better things to do than teaching all of them — or even dealing with all of them. In fact, also students have better things to do — learning things that really matter. Maths, for instance. Additionally, teaching, say, Adobe Photoshop in school does not prevent you to use the GIMP at home.

    9.) Invalid, see above. There is proprietary software that uses open formats. WinZip is once more a convenient example. Another one is Opera.

    10.) This fails as a reason, as well, for you just assume that free software is “ethical”. But aside from your assumption, you provide no reason why anybody should accept your assumption. So, what makes free software “ethical”? Sharing stuff? Again, invalid, see above. You can share some proprietary software as well. Does this make some proprietary software “ethical” as well? And why should sharing the code be the only relevant issue? What about sharing the costs of development? Proprietary licenses are an effective means to share such costs. Does this make them “ethical” as well? If so, your reason does not hold for so-called free software, only — making it irrelevant for the discussion.

    Of course, using open source software in schools can be beneficial for students, teachers and society. However, the existence of benefits only justify the conclusion “Some software should be open source”.

    Which software that should be is a matter of concrete and valid reasons, not of some strange and illogical “philosophy”.

    Hopefully, I could make it clear that your arguments has some problems. I’m not a native English speaker, so I apologize in advance for any misunderstandings and errors.

  16. Your logic is faulty as well. I love reading people like you who study up on logical fallacy, et al, and then let their critical thinking be run by those definitions.

    That there is proprietary software that does not have vendor lock and can be freely distributed in no way invalidates the argument. Show me a proprietary OS that has those properties, there is none. One counter example, or even several, does not disprove the general truth of the assertion.

    Either your logic skills are not as good as you think or you are being disingenuous. Perhaps your dislike for RMS and the anti-corporate philosophy of free software has distorted your logic circuits.:)

  17. I wish I could find a school or education department to work for that will even entertain these ideas. I believe in OSS in education. Why should any single company reap long term financial benefits from brain washing students into believing that there are only 2 worthwhile platforms?

    Something else I see happening that I think prevents OSS proliferating in schools in the kickback system that exists, where a seller provides goodies to the IT managers so that they buy their products for the schools. There are no personal kickbacks to be got out of using OSS (unless you count the reason we joined the education professon in the first place – personal satisfaction).

    Get the palm greasing out of the education system and then we will start making merit based decisions.

    Roger

  18. “Wikipedia used to be, in part, a GNU project.”

    Can you please explain?

  19. @wikipedian:
    A long time ago, GNU made GNUpedia. When GNUpedia wasn’t doing very well, GNU merged it with Nupedia. They then threw their weight behind Nupedia. Nupedia was an encyclopedia created by Jimmy Wales. When Nupedia didn’t work out as well as expected, he did a complete reform and started Wikipedia.

    So, while it wasn’t exactly a GNU project, it did stem from one.

  20. Thank you for your website :)
    I made on photoshop backgrounds for myspace or youtube and ect..
    my backgrounds:http://tinyurl.com/6exhae
    have a good day and thank you again!


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