There is movement across the academia all over the world towards switching to use of non-proprietary operating system like LINUX and to Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). Linux is "Free" in two senses. In one sense, the Linux consumer is free to modify the system and do anything he or she wishes with it. In another sense, acquiring Linux does not necessarily require any cash outlay at all.
The notion of FOSS has tremendous significance in the field of education from a number of perspectives. Beyond the obvious factor of cost, it is important to nurture the concept of transparency, curiosity (exploration of the tool and extension/adaptation where possible), and the culture of sharing which is so well embodied by the FOSS community. The really vast range of resources available free is another major incentive for this. Most significantly, most large use of computer networks, whether it be railways, banks, air travel and large companies are all run on Linux.
Relevance of FOSS in Education
FOSS is relevant and important in the education sector for the following reasons:
- 1 Lower Cost: Today, most educational programs require access to a lot of computing software resources, eg., Matlab, circuit simulators, drawing packages, etc. that are mostly propreitary, costing lakhs of Rupees in license fee. FOSS solutions are available in many areas, with the commonly used licensing terms for distribution and modification, and in almost all cases, at zero cost. Under the aegis of the Dept. of Information Technology, Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, GOI sponsored National Resource Centre (nrcfoss.org.in) FOSS, equivalents for a large list of proprietary softwares are being investigated and developed.
- 2 3. Build Long-term Capacity
- 3 4. Open Philosophy
- 4 5. Encourage Innovations
- 5 6. Alternative to Illegal Copying
Lower Cost: Today, most educational programs require access to a lot of computing software resources, eg., Matlab, circuit simulators, drawing packages, etc. that are mostly propreitary, costing lakhs of Rupees in license fee. FOSS solutions are available in many areas, with the commonly used licensing terms for distribution and modification, and in almost all cases, at zero cost. Under the aegis of the Dept. of Information Technology, Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, GOI sponsored National Resource Centre (nrcfoss.org.in) FOSS, equivalents for a large list of proprietary softwares are being investigated and developed.
- Deeper access: All FOSS software comes with the source codes. Access to the source code of the programs allow students to explore internals of complex systems and hence acquire a deeper understanding of what they study. e.g. learning about operating system concepts by checking out the code which implements similar functionalities in Linux.
- Ability to extend/adapt: FOSS in general provides freedom to users to make modifications, without any norms attached. This enables localisation in languages, capabilities, etc on many of the FOSS.
- Huge resources: FOSS has a development community running into millions spread across the world, among different professions. This has resulted in good quality software spanning a large number of domains. From school to professional areas, thousands of software resources are today available in FOSS
1. Lower Costs
One of the main issues that policy-makers have to contend with while introducing the use of ICTs in education is the cost. The cost of providing communication infrastructure, computing and networking hardware, and the necessary software can be daunting not only for developing countries but also for underprivileged sectors in the developed countries. FOSS can lower the barriers to the access of ICTs by reducing the cost of software. The initial acquisition cost of FOSS is negligible ‚Äì download FOSS without any cost. Even CD-ROMs are available for a nominal fee. For proprietary software besides the cost of software, license fees have to be paid for each user or computer. Also upgrades have to be paid for; while in FOSS you just download.
2. Reliability, Performance and Security
Lower cost is not the only reason why the use of FOSS for servers is prevalent. FOSS is considered to have better reliability, performance and security. LINUX and FOSS are relatively free from viruses ‚Äì there is no need to purchase (and constantly upgrade) anti-virus packages.
3. Build Long-term Capacity
There are clear indications that the use of FOSS in government, industry and other institutions is growing and that there will be a need for graduates familiar with FOSS. In India IISc, TIFR, JNU, Madras University are some organizations that promote FOSS and LINUX. Kerala Government has also committed that its official work will be done using FOSS. Many well-known US Universities also promote the use of LINUX and FOSS. Governments of Netherlands and Denmark have declared that they will not use any proprietary software. What is interesting to note is that though Microsoft promotes use of Windows and other proprietary software their own staff use computers run on LINUX based operating systems. In India Kerala Government has committed itself to using only open source. The GOI and National Knowledge Commission has also strongly recommended use of FOSS and production of Open educational resources.
4. Open Philosophy
The open philosophy of FOSS is consistent with academic freedom and the open dissemination of knowledge and information in academia. ‚ÄúThe advance in all of the arts and sciences, indeed the sum total of human knowledge, is the result of open sharing of ideas, theories, studies and research‚Äù. There is a very persuasive world-wide movement towards Open Educational Resources (OER) among the academia to promote sharing of knowledge and information ‚Äì the WIKI movement (including Wikipedia, Wikieducator, Wikinews, Wikiversity, etc. etc.) is part of the open licensing paradigm and is under Creative Commons and OER.
5. Encourage Innovations
FOSS software is liberally licensed to grant the right of users to study, change, and improve its design through the availability of its source code and the right to distribute the changed programme. A great deal of innovation originates from universities and many FOSS were initially developed in an academic environment. An academic environment where FOSS is prevalent will encourage staff and students to tinker and experiment with source codes, and participate in the development of FOSS that may eventually lead to innovative solutions.
6. Alternative to Illegal Copying
We in India and many other Developing Countries, can ill-afford to pay for licensing fees of proprietary software and more often than not resort to using illegal copies. With FOSS, educational institutions can use as many copies of software as required ‚Äì both for academic or administrative use. The use of FOSS also discourages piracy. If propriety software were used for teaching, students would have no choice but to use illegal copies of the software to do homework and assignments at home or on their laptop computers. In contrast there is no restriction against making copies of FOSS for use outside institution.
7. Possibility of Localization/contexualisation
Educational institutions in non-English speaking countries may not be able to beneÔ¨Åt from the use of FOSS as most of the original software is developed in English. However, the open nature of FOSS is such that it can be localized. Such localization need not involve the original developer. With proprietary products, contexualization/localization is constrained by commercial interests. When the size of the market is too small, there is no incentive for localizing proprietary products for that market.
Suggestions for the University of Delhi
We should plan to shift to LINUX and FOSS in a phased manner ‚Äì target at switching maximally to FOSS in three years.
- All new PC‚Äôs and Laptops bought by the University and Colleges should have only LINUX as the Operating system.
- Introduce vendor-neutral Computer Science curriculum ‚Äì the curriculum should NOT be build around specific proprietary software - We should talk about word processing not Microsoft word!, about spreadsheets not Excel!! etc..
- Introduce a paper (or more) on FOSS and LINUX [see http://www.au-kbc.org/nrcf for example) by the Computer Science Department in all their courses both at the undergraduate and PG level.
- Create a Centre to promote the use of FOSS and LINUX ‚Äì At the outset their primary function would be to train University Staff and Students in the installation, use and trouble shooting in the use of FOSS and LINUX. Later besides training they will facilitate innovations in FOSS.
- Gradually ensure the switching to the use of FOSS and LINUX through the University.
- Reduce costs of buying proprietary software and upgrades. Most software are now available for windows as well as LINUX.
- Reduce costs of buying proprietary anti-virus packages and yearly upgrades.
- For any specific software, versions are available that are compatible with LINUX.
- Prevent piracy and use of illegal software.
- Improve software development skills and provide opportunities for innovation among students.
- Remove the necessity to constantly upgrade hardware ‚Äì increase memory, RAM etc. to keep up with new versions of proprietary packages.