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!