Free software and Free content

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The interface between free software and free content

Binary upholstery at Harvard University, Cambridge MA, courtesy of Dan4th

Software refers to the programs we load to perform specific tasks on a computer. The average user never sees the code which is used to develop a piece of software, because end users typically use compiled versions of the program. (Compiling is the technical process of converting a programming language, which software developers use for coding, into machine language, which computers can execute).

Content on the other hand is produced in many formats, for example a printed book, the spoken word, works of art, images, radio or television broadcast, web site etc. These are produced in formats which humans can process and interpret.

In the digital world, the distinctions between software and content are conflated, for example:

  • A computer program is content for a software developer
  • We use computer programs to produce, store and display content

The experience of the free software movement has provided an alternative to the dominant narrative of copyright. This is leading to alternative models of content production and distribution that will not rely on closed copyright to achieve economies of scale and sustainable business models.

It is certainly plausible for free content developers to achieve the vision of a free version of the education curriculum by 2015. It took approximately 22 years for the free software movement to develop a free alternative for the majority of proprietary software applications we use today. Certainly, all the applications we need for educational purposes are available as free software. With regards to free content, we are still a long way from having a free content version of the education curriculum. However, it should be easier to achieve when compared to the free software movement, because you do not need to be a skilled programmer to participate. Every teacher, lecturer or trainer can easily participate in helping us develop high quality learning resources that we can share, adapt and modify for different contexts.

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Self Assessment

In your view, how many teachers would we need, for example, to develop a Maths course for Grade 8?

This illustrates the scalability of free content - relatively small numbers of committed educators can have a huge impact on the rate at which free content is developed. All it requires is a personal commitment. Every content contribution adds to the intellectual commons, and will be available for use and modification indefinitely.

The challenge of open formats

The additional requirements of the free content definition specify that:

  • the source data must be available; and
  • files should be saved in a free format.

When working on WikiEducator, this is not a problem because the source data of each wiki page is available for editing using the Mediawiki software which is free software. However, this requirement can be challenging in a number of situations. Here are a few guidelines to consider when authoring free content:

  • Uploading of pdf files. Fortunately the Portable Document Format (pdf), while being a proprietary format is an openly documented format. As a openly documented format, the free software community has been able to develop free pdf readers and application software that can generate pdf files, for example Open Office. Unfortunately, pdf files are compiled and are therefore difficult to edit and modify. When uploading a pdf document, we recommend that you also upload the source file in an open format, for example as an Open Office file. This way, users will not be restricted in the event that they would like to modify the pdf file.
  • Document formats. Similarly, when uploading documents these should ideally be saved in an open document format. The Microsoft Word format (.doc) is a closed document standard. Fortunately, Open Office can import the Microsoft (.doc) format and it's a simple process to convert these files into the Open Office (.odt) format. We recommend that if you upload a Microsoft document, that you also take the trouble to convert the file into .odt format. When working on free content projects, it is unacceptable to state a requirement for participants to submit documents in .doc format.
  • Labeled images. In educational settings we frequently use labeled diagrams. Again, where possible try to save your diagrams in formats that can be edited with free software. This is especially helpful when free content is being translated into different languages, because it is easier to change the labels using the source files.

The WikiEducator community respects freedom of choice. This means that users are free to use both free and non-free software when authoring content. However, there are many free software users who do not have access to non-free software, either as a matter of personal choice or because they cannot afford to purchase expensive packages. Therefore we ask users to be considerate and to respect the choices individuals have made.

The purpose of the next activity is to demonstrate an easy way for non-free software users to convert closed formats into open file formats.

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Converting closed formats into open formats
  1. For office productivity software (documents, slide show presentations and spreadsheet files) you should download a copy of Open Office on your machine. This is available for GNU/Linux, Microsoft and Mac OS X operating systems.
    • Open one of your closed document files in Open Office by clicking on: File > Open
    • Then click on File > Save As and select the file type, in this case the OpenDocument Text format (.odt)
    • Try creating a pdf from this file by clicking on File > Export as pdf

Open Office should cover most of your needs regarding open file formats. If you are looking for a more comprehensive listing, UNESCO's Free and Open Source Software Portal is a good place to start.