Dora Scilipoti, an Italian free software activist and teacher, is leading the Free Software Foundation’s Education Team, which was recently re-launched as a worldwide volunteer-led effort to bring free software to educational institutions. SD Times spoke with Scilipoti about the Education Team and what it will be working on.
SD Times: Why do members of the Education Team believe all educational institutions should accept free software?
Dora Scilipoti: What we say is that educational institutions should use and teach Free Libre software (software that can be used, studied and modified without restriction). This is because the teaching/learning process can’t take place where sharing of knowledge is forbidden.
Suppose there is a student in the class who is particularly brilliant or just interested in software. Suppose he wants to know what is behind the screen, what is this “thing” that makes the program work. Well, we know that that “thing” is the source code, and if the program is proprietary, the student will get answers like “Sorry, it’s a secret,” or “Sorry, we are not allowed to show it to you.” It is like denying students the right to read and study Emily Dickinson’s or Whitman’s works so as to learn how good poetry is written.
In fact, it is important to be precise: The school—or any end user for that matter—does not “buy” a proprietary piece of software, it pays just for permission to use it… That was the license, the document that contains a long list of restrictions in fine print. Just to mention a few: Installation is allowed only on a certain number of computers; no copying; no studying the code (which they don’t provide, anyway); no modifications; no redistribution.
With Free Libre software—and we use the French word to emphasize it is free as in freedom, not as in price—once you bought it or once you got it in any other way, a program with a free license gives the user four freedoms: Use it as you wish; study it and modify it; copy it; redistribute it.
Why start with educational institutions?
Because that’s where the foundation for society is laid. It is a question of social responsibility. In a world where digital technology is literally invading our lives, it is especially important that citizens understand and play an active role over it.
Basically, to introduce proprietary software into the educational system means putting society and its future under the power of proprietary software companies, since they and only they know exactly what their programs do. No one else is allowed to know, and whoever even tries to find out is severely punished. Students are turned into helpless, passive subjects at the mercy of proprietary software developers.
There is a lot of fuss lately on digital inclusion, collaborative learning, cooperative work and the like. With proprietary software, the results are just the opposite of these laudable goals. Digital inclusion becomes digital exclusion; collaboration and cooperative work are forbidden.
How will studying such software help future developers improve their skills?
A future developer usually shows interest in programming at an early age. The use of Free Libre software at the school gives them the opportunity to learn more about how a program works, something which is not allowed with proprietary software. At universities, it is especially important that students can see, study and modify the source code of actual big programs, and only Free Libre programs offer those freedoms.
Educational institutions that adopt proprietary software are hindering technological progress, like going back to the Middle Ages, when students of medicine were not allowed to dissect a human body.
What educational institutions are already using this software?
We know about many elementary and high schools who are using and teaching Free Libre software, but we do not attempt to list them all. Instead, we choose a few that can serve as useful examples. (The GNU website lists such examples at www.gnu.org/education.)
As for universities in the U.S., we know of some that are using some Free software along with proprietary software, particularly in the labs. We are currently working on finding more information in this regard to spot some cases that we can list.
What is the average age of students in an educational institution targeted by the Education Team?
All ages, from kindergarten up to college. The earlier students are taught about software freedom, the better.
We have one case in our website about a vocational school in India where 10-year-olds are taught how to assemble a computer and how to modify software, so that they learn that, even at an early age, they can play an active role and actually influence the development of information technology. They are also taught the rudiments of programming at the age of 13.
What license would this software be issued to schools under?
Under the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL), which is the license most widely used to release Free Libre software. This license grants all users (and also schools) four essential freedoms:
One: You are free to run the program for any purpose.
For a school this means that the school can install the program in as many machines as needed (almost all proprietary programs have restrictions on the number of machines the program can be installed on). Also, the school can use it for any scope. For example, it can use the program to produce works (for example, graphics or multimedia) to be sold, perhaps to raise funds for the school or for any other reason (many proprietary programs do not allow this; they call it “commercial use”).
Two: You are free to study how the program works, and change it as you wish.
It is a requirement of the GNU GPL that a Free Libre program must be delivered with its source code. Access to the source code allows users to study the actual functioning of the program and, if necessary, change the code to customize the program. This freedom is especially important for schools; as I said in my answer to question No. 1…if the school is not allowed to study how the program works, there can’t be a teaching/learning process. (The source code of proprietary programs is secret, and no studying of the program is allowed, only training in how to use it. In other words, schools that implement proprietary software are offering a gratis service to those companies not only by instilling dependency on their products but also by training their future customers.)
Three: You are free to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
The user—the school in our case—is allowed and even encouraged to make as many copies of the program as needed, and to hand them to their students so that they can take it home to do their homework, for example. Students are also allowed to make copies and give them to their friends or members of their family. The mission of the school is not only to teach facts and technical skills, but above all cooperation and good will.
Four: You are free to distribute copies of your modified versions to others.
If the school happened to make use of the first freedom, then it is allowed (but not mandatory) to distribute the modified version. This means that customized versions can be exchanged among schools, for example, or to the community.
What restrictions, if any, would exist under that license?
No restrictions. However, if a user modifies a GPL-covered program, and if and only if he decides to publish the modified version, then he must publish it under the same GPL license. Copyright law is used to enforce this requirement. This requirement is in order to make sure that a program that was born Libre will remain Libre.
Why don’t more schools use this software?
We should make a distinction between single programs and operating systems. As for the first, there is an ever-increasing large number of schools that use specific Free Libre programs that run on their proprietary systems, since most of the time Free Libre programs are cross-platform.
That said, there are many reasons why schools fail to adopt Free Libre programs or systems:
1. A large number of schools simply don’t know; they have never heard about Free Libre software.
2. Those that do know have not understood the school’s key role in the development of society, nor the ethical implications of technology. When proprietary software mega corporations give them freedom-denying software samples for free or at a discount, these schools naively accept it without realizing that they are being locked-in.
3. Many schools would like to migrate their systems to a GNU/Linux distribution, but they depend on financial support from governments that would not approve a migration plan for whatever reason.
4. There are schools that would like to fully migrate their systems, but it is hard for them to find skilled technicians to help them in the process. This is the result of a vicious circle: There aren’t enough universities offering courses on Free Libre systems, so there is a lack of GNU/Linux system administrators, and therefore schools or any other entities that want to migrate will find it difficult. In fact, I have recently read that there is a growing demand for GNU/Linux system administrators, and because they are few and hard to find, their salaries are considerably higher than the average.