Open Source Software in Education

Much has been written, published, posted and presented on the advantages of Open Source software.  The fact that the OSS development model achieves stable applications faster than conventional software development methods has been recognized by enterprises like HP and IBM, with heavy investments in open source divisions. Governments around the world are beginning to realize budget savings by shifting away from proprietary solutions. By uncoupling vendor lockin, companies can choose free software and then pay only for the services they require.

Beyond these issues, free and open source software offers particular advantages in an educational framework that, sadly, teachers, academics, students and school administrators are ignoring. I’d like to point out some of the unique qualities of OSS that should be factored into a school’s curriculum or academic research programs.

First, it’s worthwhile taking notice of a few outstanding successes with OSS in academic or school surroundings.  I’d start the list with the fine efforts put into the Linux Terminal Server Project for schools, K12LTSP.  The recent incarnation of TS technology for schools, based on Fedora, is called K12Linux.  Next on my list comes Scientific Linux, a clone of Red Hat, (like CentOS) developed and maintained by the two advanced research institutions: Fermi Labs and CERN.  Brazil, where open source has taken hold more than many other countries, is pushing Linux also into schools.  Recently, the British Educational Communications and Technolgy Agency, BECTA, has opened the doors to adoption of OSS in British schools.

So what is the special message that OSS sends to students? Learning, and the access to knowledge should be freely available to all. This principle guides public education, public libraries, and on-line resources like wikipedia. Sharing of knowledge allows our culture to leap forward, generation after generation. Hiding knowledge and trade secrets lead to stagnation. When a school purchases commercial software, the pupils quickly realize that to complete their lessons something must be bought. If, on the other hand, a school pupil is told to use free computer software, and that he can use the same software freely at home, then – perhaps subliminally – he comprehends that at least this portion of his lessons are accessible freely. Freely NOT in the monetary sense, but in the “free speech” sense.  The cost of commercial software, however small, is perceived as a hurdle to learning whereas free, open source software presents to pupils an open path forward.

Academic research, based on the scientific method, must uphold the principle of repeatability. After a scientist publishes his conclusions, future researchers should be able to retest under identical conditions and achieve the same results. But, if the first researcher used equipment that is no longer available, and the inner workings of which are not documented, how can the retest be done properly?  Today, all scientific research uses computer software. A researcher who chooses to rely on closed source software denies future workers the ability to retest his results. There is no way to understand the “inner workings” of a piece of proprietary software. Indeed it is illegal to try to do so.  Once the version has been updated, there is no way to insure that the retest conditions are identical. In fact, proprietary software vendors are notorious for changing features of their software without notice.  Furthermore, there is no way to verify that the software actually does what it claims! (Think in terms of complicated statistical packages.  How would a statistician verify that a particular algorithm is working correctly in a closed source application?) Using open source software, on the other hand, each researcher can examine the original code, or hire someone to do so. Thus is becomes perfectly feasible to both insure the correctness of a computational procedure, and to allow another future investigator to re-examine the results, repeating exactly the original experiment.  To my mind, academic research should never revert to proprietary software.

In the specific discipline of computer science, college or high school students using proprietary software are working blind.  But by switching to an open source system, students can easily obtain the full source code of any application, right down to the operating system kernel.  To paraphrase Bob Young, Red Hat’s first CEO: imagine trying to learn car mechanics while using an automobile with the hood welded shut!  Unhindered access to source code is a pre-requisite to learning how computer systems operate.

A final, sometimes overlooked point regards file formats. When a PhD student writes his thesis using proprietary software, he will almost always be saving the document in a proprietary format. The owner of the licence to that file format can (and does!) change it any time without notice. While “backward compatibility” is usually maintained, there’s no guarantee of that, and some day the student, who has since become a graduate, may find that he and his colleagues must upgrade their software in order to open his thesis, or worse that he can no longer open it at all! By insisting on open source, the file format will also be open, meaning that any software programmer can design an application to read this file format, so he is not chained to any one software vendor, and he can be confident that his research papers will always to accessible to anyone.

To be continued

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