A few things to consider. First, while there is tons of Free (not freeware but Open Source) software out there, not all of it is well developed and friendly to use. That fact tends to scare off the less tech savvy users. However, there are quite a few programs that really are top notch and could easily be boxed and sold if that was the developers’ intent. Fortunately, there is a sizable developer community that feels the idea of proprietary software is undemocratic. It’s important to note that the discussion isn’t about money. People can and do sell Open Source software but the nature of the software makes it hard to do that as it will probably be free somewhere else. (It’s kind of like water. You can go to the store and buy it, but you can also walk into just about any restaurant and get a free glass. The business pays for the water (just as a developer pays with his/her time) but to deny someone water is almost criminal.
Rather, the discussion is about freedom. If you buy a hammer, do you have to sign an agreement saying you will only use it in certain ways, won’t loan it to anyone, won’t sell it, won’t modify it to suit your needs? Of course not. That would be ridiculous. However, with most proprietary software that is exactly what you do. Have you ever read a Microsoft EULA? Some people believe more strongly in freedom than about money and they are the ones developing much of the Open Source software out there.
From the perspective of the casual user they don’t often care about freedom. They are happy to click “I agree” and use the software they just purchased. Most, however, do it out of habit or ignorance. They are simply unaware of their choices or even if aware they believe that they still “need” it because that is what everyone else uses (that is called successful marketing). As educators, it’s our job to educate students so that they don’t grow up to be lemmings but make informed choices.
Consider the ubiquitous MS Office… Anyone who is informed about the options and still chooses to buy MS Office should have some very good reasons for doing so (or simply enjoy enriching MS). Maybe pure laziness could be one of them as not everyone enjoys learning new software. However, we should be teaching students to be skilled in processes – not merely developing rote habits with specific pieces of software. Any student who can write a paper or whatever in MS Office but is lost if they open Open Office or Google Docs hasn’t been taught and that is our failure.
There are several reason Open Source software needs to be part of education. First and foremost is the issue of equity. Students and parents need to be shown that education doesn’t require expensive software. When schools upgrade to the latest version of MS Office, they are sending a message that students and parents need to do the same. If schools were to standardize on Free and Open Source Software then the message would be much different. It doesn’t prevent choice – it encourages it. Free Software is also important from an economic perspective. If a free tool provides the same opportunities as those that cost money, then spending the money is rather foolhardy. Schools need to look for and take opportunities that are available. Finally, it’s important for schools to realize that learning with technology goes WAY beyond typing papers and making presentations. Free Software allows students and teachers to take advantage of so many more tools than they would otherwise and the tools are also available to students at no cost.
So why do schools not use it? It isn’t because they don’t know about it. Any good IT guy or gal is aware of FOSS. But a computer with just MS Office is easier to maintain than one with MS Office and Open Office. And what if they added dozens of other free programs? More work for them, right? So they tend to put up barriers to adoption. Teachers need to be both aware of these options and advocates. If enough teachers and parents complain about lack of choices – especially free choices – then they will have to listen. Technology in schools is there for students and teachers to use to learn. It isn’t there to give IT people a job. Honestly, if tax payers knew how much money was wasted on software I think there would be a huge outcry. Districts in northern CO have spent huge chunks of money in recent years to upgrade computer to have Office 2007 (which offers nothing of value to students over 2003 or Open Office) and will soon do it again as MS releases the next “upgrade”. Does the newest version offer “added value” over the old version? Does the newest version enable learning that wasn’t possible before or even with free tools? Wasted money is wasted and could have been used elsewhere. What other opportunities are lost when funds are spent on software that offers little value or provides the same opportunities as free or Free software?
This website has a good list of educationally relevant tools. There is also a “catalog” of sorts that can be found here. While most applications listed there are quite good, not all are. Be sure to download and test things before planning to use them. Also note what operating system it runs on. Most run on Windows and Linux (what?) and some are Mac compatible as well. I can bring a Linux computer if anyone wanted to play around and experience the dark side 🙂 and there is some really cool Linux only software available. If you are curious, you can set up Linux on any computer using VirtualBox.
For more information on FOSS, read the article entitled It’s Time to Consider Open Source by Jay Pfaffman. There are a number of other articles on this topic as well so feel free to dig around for more info.