Open Source and Education

I use the term Open Source when many of you might not know what it is referring to. So here are my thoughts on the matter.

What does open source mean? Software is a language for communicating between a human and computer. Computers and humans cannot use any of the languages we are used to like English, Spanish, or Japanese. Therefore we use programming code or source code to speak to computers and run programs. In a traditional business model, if I have code for very popular software, it behooves me to keep it locked up and proprietary so only I or my shareholders can profit from it. However, open sourced software is that which can be downloaded and run for no financial cost to the user. What further separates this from what is known as “freeware” is that the source code itself is also made public for others to use, improve, or modify for their own purposes.

Open Source is not a new movement, but a return to the original state of things. When software was first created, it was done in garages, basements, and dining rooms. Friends and colleagues would work together and share code to fit various tasks. In fact it was this paradigm that led to the Internet’s creation, along with many other parts of the modern information age. It would not have been possible without this philosophy of Openness.

Why should we switch to Open Sourced Software? The first and most obvious reason to switch is financial. Open Source software is by definition free. This means that it can be downloaded as often as necessary for educational organizations and students without ever paying one penny to a company. Many of the programs were created for a person or groups’ own personal use and were open sourced because of a belief that software much like biological life will evolve and become better suited to its environment if it is free to do so. 

Secondly, no two classrooms are the same and our software needs are varied as well. However, for much of the information age we have allowed a small group of developers to define what millions of user’s needs are. When typical software has “bugs” we must wait until the company decides to create an update. If our needs are different from those of the store bought product, well that is simply too bad. With Open Source, the software was created by a community of users. This means that artists have worked together to create graphic design programs. Educators have collaborated to make an entire Operating System much like Windows which have many programs which suit the learner. Internet users have worked to create a better, safer Internet browser.

Finally, this is the future of software development and usage. Open Source software means that no one with access to a computer and Internet connection will ever be at a socioeconomic disadvantage as far as software is concerned. Every major program necessary for education and work has an analogous Open Source Program. 

Of course with such a major switch, many questions arise. With an emphasis on software instead of marketing and profit, many excellent Open Source solutions go unnoticed or slandered. The following brief FAQ might clear up some of the outstanding questions that are lingering.

FAQ 1) If everyone can see the code, does that not mean that my information is not as safe or is open to malicious attack?

Response: No, in fact Open Source software has been proven time and time again to be safer and just as secure. The community of programmers and users at large has a common interest of privacy and safety and they ensure that any bugs and security loop holes are quickly fixed. In fact, while a typical company might take months or years to fix a problem, the Open Source community often takes days or weeks. With so many people looking at the code, as opposed to a few at a company, solutions are created more quickly.

FAQ 2) I have heard that ________ is too difficult to learn.

Response: Of course, but there is a learning curve with any new product.  Yet, Open Source products have numerous users of all ages and abilities. Many have found these programs to be even easier to use than traditional programs because they were created intuitively to suit users needs. The installation is incredibly easy and can be done in minutes. It would take as long as it takes for the IT department to install any other Windows/Apple program on many computers.

Additionally, Open Source adds a real world connection that closed source software cannot. Many students or educators who become strongly passionate or supportive of the software may wish to directly contribute themselves. Users can freely support the software they enjoy by programming, creating support documentation, answering questions in the user forums, beta testing, etc. Many of these require as little as noticing something that can be improved and emailing someone.

Teaching students Open Source software is wise for multiple reasons. The students can go home and immediately use it and become more proficient at it. Secondly, using an Open Source software is many times similar to using the proprietary alternative so there is no disadvantage, in fact there are often more options in the Open Sourced program because of such a large group of contributors to the software.

FAQ 3) With no financial incentive, these products will not be around forever.

Response: In these economic times, the same could easily be said for any software. However, the difference is that Open Sourced software is not controlled by one company which could crumble. It is in the hands of a community which it is much more difficult to derail. 

However it is unrealistic to think that these communities do not require any funding to stay afloat. While foundations and trusts have been created to keep the software going, much like other entities in the public domain (NPR, public education) it depends on its users support. With the thousands saved in software costs, surely we can send a strong message of public support for the commons by giving some of those recouped costs to the developers who made it possible.

FAQ 4) This sounds awesome but there is no Open Source equivalent for ________ program…

Response: This is very untrue. The most popular programs have open source counterparts but many obscure ones do as well.

Here are some helpful links:

Free Software Foundation - Helped ensure the Free and Open Source philosophy from early on. 

Open Source - An advocate for Open Source with an excellent definition of its meaning.

Sourceforge - A large repository of Open Source software

Alternative To and - Search for alternatives to the proprietary software