Free Software in Education
The notion of Free Software is definitely political. I’m not stating the obvious, that any human work that affects a community in any way is political. Neither I suggest that the ideological (as opposed to purely technical) reasons of many Free Software supporters (and its critics) automatically brand it as a political issue. They alone might as well characterize it as philosophical, artistic or simply iconic. Free Software is political because it is strongly tied with a deep political question: that of education, and access to it.
Every modern society claims to strive for the welfare of its members. All political parties implicitly project this as their primary goal; one’s idea of ‘welfare’, ‘member’ and the means to accomplish this goal differs, but a handful of ideas is common in the rhetoric of all bands of the political spectrum. Predominate among them is that primary and secondary education (at the very least) should be freely available to all.
The thought of education as a few hours in the classroom with a teacher lecturing to a group of students is awfully obsolete. Education is a continuous, blended, all-encompassing process. Access to and manipulation of information is a crucial part of the learning process. It is the obligation of every modern society to guarantee and safeguard the access of its members to information; this is a direct result of its obligation to guarantee access to education. A large portion of the information we draw upon to learn from is nowadays digital; in the future the vast majority may very well be so. Software is the means of accessing and manipulating that information, an increasingly large portion of which is generated outside the classroom walls or even the entire state-sanctioned education system. Imposing barriers to its use not only misses the point of education, it strangles it.
One might grudgingly argue that this issue can be addressed by adhering to open standards and open formats; surely that would be enough to ensure universal access to information without having to go all the way to Free Software, right? Wrong! Obviously open standards and open formats are a necessary prerequisite, but they are not enough. Alone, they are analogous to claiming that filling a library with books written in your native language, so that everybody can read them, and then charging a hefty entrance fee, promotes access of children to knowledge. So free of charge tools to access and manipulate information is also necessary. But why Free, as in freedom of thought? Why Free Software and not just free of charge open source? Or even free of charge proprietary software?
You can read two great articles that support this: Richard Stallman’s Why schools should exclusively use free software and Jean Peyratout’s Why give precedence to Free Software at Schools. To summarize them, Free Softwares helps students assimilate and generate knowledge, instead of simply acquire technical skills; it offers education, instead of training. It helps build communities, and promotes (actually depends on) discussion, cooperation, initiative and active participation to the development process. In an increasingly expanding digital world, it embodies the ideals of education.
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