Free or open source for students?
Recent discussions on which software package to be incorporated in the free laptops to be distributed to students this year in Tamil Nadu have highlighted the attempts across the country to promote the use of Free and Open Source Software in education and other fields.
While the government’s tender specifications call for dual-booted laptops offering the Windows starter edition and Linux (Tamil version), activists say it must be only an open source.
An oft-cited example is the IT@School project, started by the Kerala government in 2003. “We had both Windows and Linux initially, but we migrated to the open source completely in 2008,” says K Anvar Sadath, executive director of the project.
While Swecha of Andhra Pradesh is also striving to train students and teachers in free software, Assam, Punjab and Haryana have started using open source software in education.
It is unfortunate that while in the West, the dependence on proprietary software is decreasing, the developing countries are giving in to predatory marketing tactics, says Atul Chitnis, consulting technologist and founder, FOSS.In.
Training of teachers can go on simultaneously, says Mr. Anvar, recalling his experience of training more than 10,000 teachers in a month through videoconferencing facilitated by the open source environment.
Now Kerala has 600 open source learning centres across 14 districts, offering specialised training in animation, graphics and multimedia on open source technologies, apart from regular education.
Gurumurthy Kasinathan of the Bangalore-based IT for Change says: “Many free educational software applications, bundled with Ubuntu GNU/Linux, are powerful in helping teachers and students understand concepts in math, science and social sciences.”
S. Shanu, convener of the Free Software Foundation, Tamil Nadu, says linguistic flexibility is a big advantage of free software. The culture of innovation and community-based support systems can transform the way students think. Some industry professionals and government officials cite authentication, warranty and access as reasons for preferring proprietary software to open source technologies. “If you want to buy a proprietary system, you pick up one, but how many local directories tell you what to do if you need open source software. Heterogeneous environments of companies train us to choose the best tool for the job, considering compatibility with specialised applications and vendor support,” says Suresh Ramanujan, a software consultant.
However, academics feel, it is the flexibility to understand the logic of the software that an open source offers, which is the key. “The question is what kind of learning process are we encouraging among students, and not if we should let them decide on their own, says Pratap Reddy, Chairman, Board of Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru Technical University.
The stack of free software for school education is so huge that it does not need a learning management system or specially designed tools for building it, say experts.