Software Freedom

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GNU/Linux, Mozilla, Open Office, and other pieces of Free and Open Source software (FOSS) are quickly, and often silently, making their way into the world's schools and its students' lives. The governments, citizens, and students of Norway, Denmark, Germany and funding and working with the Skolelinux project bringing GNU/Linux based computer operating systems into middle and high schools. The edUbuntu project is pursuing similar goals in South Africa and elsewhere. Local governments and ministries of education in Spain have produced a long list of FOSS platforms that includes LinEx, Guadalinex, Catix, LliureX, and others. Meanwhile, the One Laptop Per Child initiative has gained international attention and recognition for its insistence on a free and open source software platform in its drive to bring cheap computers to children of the world.

For reasons of cost, flexibility, adaptability, performance, coordinated deployment and decentralized support, Free Software in schools makes economic sense. However, for many of those in the forefront of the movement to increase the involvement and impact of FOSS in education, the primary motivations are not pragmatic or economic but philosophical.

At its core, Free Software is not primarily about price but about freedom. In particular, it is about the freedoms to use software for any purpose, modify software to fix problems and to share software in both modified and unmodified forms. In this way, free software embraces a model of openness, collaboration and coordinated learning that resembles the product and processes of education when it is most successful.

The developers and advocates of the each of the FOSS in education projects mentioned above do not believe that a web browser is just a web browser. Instead, they believe that it is a product of and a representative of a particular process defined in terms of a number of legal and philosophical constraints. They believe that part of free software's potential for education lies in the fact that free software introduces students to a set of freedoms that hold the potential to improve the learning process in profound ways.

The success of FOSS in education, in these terms, is only possible if students are able to connect the products—the software on their computers—to the process and ideas that created them. What follows is a curriculum that attempts to make this connection and to introduce students to the concepts and the practice of Free and Open Source software.


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Free Software/Open Source

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The Free and Open Source Software movements are parallel movements with a complex relationship and history whose explanation is outside the scope of this curriculum. When discussing software, licenses, and development communities, the terms are usually synonymous. When discussing the motivation, philosophy, and politics behind the production of this software, the terms vary wildly.

As to the nature of the distinction, an inadequate but useful distinction can be drawn: Free Software is a social movement; Open Source is a development methodology. From my own position, "Free Software" seems like the better match. As a result, I err on the side of overusing the term Free Software.

This curriculum is an experiment prompted by the OLPC project (i.e., the "One Hundred Dollar Laptop Project" spearheaded by Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab). The principles of free and open source software are of utmost importance to the OLPC project. This curriculum offers a proposal for one way that these principles of software freedom and more general commitment to openness can be communicated to the users of the laptop.

While this curriculum has been designed to be used with the OLPC laptop, it could easily be applied outside of that project and without access to the laptop. While the curriculum becomes most meaningful in contexts where students are using free and open source software daily, it can also be deployed, with few modifications, in a diversity of settings.

The curriculum assumes and requires access to a computer but does not assume prior experience in programming or computer sciences. It is designed primary for students in 8th-10th grade.

This curriculum is most well suited to the environments where students are already familiar with free/open source software products—even if they are not familiar with the fact their software products are free software. It aims to connect the philosophy and productive practice behind free software to the larger questions raised around the ownership of ideas and expression—and by extension, intellectual property more generally. It seeks to become meaningful by grounding these concepts in the software that students already use on a daily basis.


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This is a challenging, interdisciplinary, activist curriculum. It introduces difficult concepts of computation, information, ownership, communication, the impact of technological decisions, and freedom movements. Its fundamental goal is to connect the processes and philosophies that have helped create students' software to the software itself and to do it in such a way that students understand the role and impact that they can play in defining their own information environment.


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This curriculum introduces a number of complex issues. Each one could, potentially, be given it's own curriculum. The aim of this curriculum is not to impart mastery of any one area but to give students an a set of tools—both technological and analogical—which they can use in their own explorations. Issues in this curriculum are tackled in the following sections which attempt to alternate between more technical and more theoretical topics:

  • Software Freedom/Information: A section that explores the nature of information goods and the idea of ownership of these goods;
  • Software Freedom/Computation: An introduction to computation and computer programming;
  • Software Freedom/Collaboration: An exploration of collaboration and its impact and costs;
  • Software Freedom/Context: A more targeted exploration of computation and programming that focuses on the computer in relation to the student and, in specific, the software on the students desktop;
  • Software Freedom/Communication: A look at technologies of communication and the way that technological rules define the terms on which we communicate with each other;
  • Software Freedom/FOSS: A free and open source software and attempts to tie the concepts introduced before together into a synthetic whole.


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See also

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