Why Public Education Must Use Free Software

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This is an essay that attempts to argue in favor of promoting and using free software for public education in the United States. With some modification it should be usable worldwide. Edit it mercilessly as you would any other FDL-licensed text. Originally written on February 7-9, 2009 by Dara Adib.

Public education ideally provides a comprehensive education for every citizen as one of the greatest accomplishments of worldwide civil governments. Without a successful public education system, the well-being of society is threatened.

Americans should be proud to be pioneers in this field. Since 1643, we have constantly improved our education system to exceed the highest global standards.

Two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson realized that a successful democracy needs an educated public and that freedom can never truly exist when the public is not educated. In his words, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be . . . Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government."

Without an effective education system, the American Revolution would have never gained enough momentum. And without real improvements over time, our democratic system would fail.

But the current state of the American public education system is no longer innovative. By now, many have realized that America no longer holds a monopoly on the math and sciences, and some question if we ever did. Other nations have been making such quick progress that a second Sputnik doesn't seem far-fetched in the near future.

We can't risk falling behind on the math and sciences. According to Jefferson, "science is important to the preservation of our republican government, and . . . also essential to its protection against foreign power." Thankfully, our current President claims to be aware of our education system's troubles, but is awareness enough?

The problem does not lie with a lack of capacity for performance. America has great minds and great resources. The problem is that our curricula has been unable to gather interest for the sciences. From a student's perspective, concepts are introduced, covered very quickly, and then left behind for the next concept. After rushing through and concentrating on memorizing facts, equations, and concepts for tests, it's no wonder that students have no intellectual interest for the subject matter. Test scores don't equal interest -- experimenting for fun on spare time is real interest. With a lack of this real interest, the endless numbers of educational concepts are quickly forgotten, and the student instinctively avoids having anything to do with the respective field later in life. No bright minds want to work on what appears to be boring, and American innovation stagnates.

The solution won't be easy one bit. It will require almost complete restructuring of advanced science courses. It will also require a completely new mindset that rejects a system that is solely grade-driven. It will come with high costs, but pouring funding won't solve the problem by itself.

America managed to get a man on the moon only eleven years after managing to get a thirty-pound weight into space. America can and must improve education.

From a technical culture at American universities, a movement has emerged that can contribute to reigniting interest in the sciences. This movement develops at a rapid pace thanks to the blood and toil of a worldwide community of volunteers, advocates, and even corporations. Nearly ten million lines of "code" have been developed so far by the movement and a steadily-growing encyclopedia containing nearly two billion words has been constructed as part of a newly-inspired cultural movement.

This movement respects the freedom of the public by freely allowing them to run, study, modify, adapt, improve, copy, distribute, and redistribute free software. For both ethical and practical reasons, developers of free software give access to the software source code that determines how a program functions and release the software under free licenses that impose few restrictions. Free software directly contrasts with proprietary software, whose publishers focus on maximizing profits by using copyright and contracts as tools to impose restrictions.

For a millenium, European elite hoarded knowledge and the region they ruled remained in the Dark Ages. Society could not progress because the wheel had to be reinvented every time. After the printing press was introduced, knowledge was disseminated on a wide scale like never before and European culture soon began to flourish. Similarly, digital technology and computers of this Information Age allow free software to be copied and modified as information. By imposing few restrictions on the natural path of knowledge-sharing, free software encourages cooperation, the idea of "helping your neighbor," and the freedom to form a community. Since all significant human advances have depended on the free sharing of ideas, theories, and research, this so-called "piracy" of ideas is actually science at its finest. It's hypocritical to talk about freedom and claim that sharing is core to education when students can't even share practical knowledge.

Free software is not just an ideal; it's no different than the pragmatic nature of American democracy and freedom. The free software programmer benefits because software can be based off the work of others and written as a community; the free software user benefits because freely available software in the public interest is written. Free software has therefore become an economic and social phenomenon, harnessing the power of cooperation and collaboration to succeed where proprietary software development has failed. The software is often more secure, more reliable, and more efficient because it has the potential to combine the power of various commercial and noncommercial interests. Like democracies and the free market, the decentralization of the field is the key to success.

Free software has long-reached the point of practical deployment after decades of development. NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense are examples of organizations that trust free software in extremely mission-critical environments where lives are at stake. In less severe mission-critical environments, free software can keep servers running for many years with requiring a reboot. On personal computers, the free Internet browser Mozilla Firefox has managed to take nearly a quarter of the Internet browser market by word of mouth. Even Microsoft -- the world's largest proprietary software publisher -- has cited free software as the number one threat to its profit margin in its most recent annual report to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Clearly something is working.

Public education is supposed to provide a model for its students. Freely available software for the public that anyone can use, learn from, modify, and send back to the system for improvement is certainly an ideal and practical model. Here is software that endorses cooperation and functions on peer review -- software that promotes creativity and independent thought. Why subjugate the student to the black boxes of proprietary software when they can learn freely with free software?

If schools use and teach proprietary software, they promote it. Proprietary software is the Information Age's version of censorship on knowledge in the form of obscurity through trade secrets (the inner workings of software are kept secret) and manipulation through restrictive licenses (confusing licensing terms for every program). Few people unfortunately realize that the End User License Agreements written in legal jargon which they blindly click "Accept" to often exploit them by embedding contract-enforced assertions of power deeply within the numerous pages of fine print. Microsoft user agreements, for instance, usually require users to consent to some form of monitoring. Microsoft claims these are "efforts" to prevent the copyright infringement of media works. Do you really want to allow a corporation to easily do what the police can't even do without a warrant? Other user agreements, like that of the proprietary music player Apple iTunes, state that the agreements can be modified by the company at any time without notice, placing virtually no restriction on the software publisher's power other than contract law. It is unethical to promote invasive software that violates civil liberties and condones the consume-consume mentality of a censored society -- rather than a creative, intellectual, or independent mentality.

Passive consumption within the confines of a proprietary system is not enough to develop a generation of students interested in the sciences. Students need to the opportunity to see how their digital tools work. They need to be able to lift the hood of their software and peer inside. Whenever they see a problem, they should be encouraged to perfect it with the possibilities they see in their imagination. For students who see the inefficiency of a school's computer system, a proprietary approach can be simply aggravating. But holding them back with locks and telling them that they must never peer inside Pandora's box, must never share their tools, and must never use their tools without paying proper tribute creates a new generation of sheeple.

In computer science classes, using free software means actually being able to see the source code behind major projects, and even being able to improve it. With proprietary software, computer science students are never able to see what the inner workings of software used by the real world look like.

Already, most workplace environments require some form of national and international collaboration. Experiencing free software provides part of the hands-on experience and expanded skill set necessary for future jobs. But more importantly, free software encourages public service as a result of the same core ethics of openness, transparency, and collaboration that our democracy depends on. Free software therefore encourages better citizens.

Nearly every student today uses websites like Youtube and Wikipedia -- user-generated examples of thriving free cultures based off the free software movement. Internet culture has already entered mainstream and will continue to do so; students exposed to free software will better understand the culture and the platform that they find to be so much fun. Understanding how something works encourages critical thinking, and learning about a fun subject grabs interest. Both critical thinking and student interest are often lacking in education.

But the turning factor for school administrators will likely not be for the above reasons. Excluding support and the negligible price of a medium to provide the software on, free software costs nothing. By using free software, money can be spent on better hardware and on improving education, not on licensing costs to a software publisher. Since unnecessary costs are significantly reduced, it becomes much easier to produce the better education system many seek. And as a result of free software's generally better performance efficiency, it often runs fine on hardware that schools would otherwise dispose of -- better for the school, taxpayers, and the environment. Thanks to few licensing restrictions, less time and money have to be spent on verifying that every user and computer in the school comply with confusing End User License Agreements written in legal jargon. Since free software can be freely copied, the software can also be sent home with teachers and students so that everyone can use the exact same software. Just like the ideals of public education, all students are able to use the same quality tools, regardless of their economic status, and the public education system does not promote privately-monopolized knowledge that the student must pay tribute for access to.

School administrators may claim that Microsoft software has to be taught because it's "the industry standard." They don't realize that the software in ten, twenty, or thirty years will be so different that only the approach towards software will be relevant. This is about education, not brand loyalty.

Critics may claim that free software is not usable and they may even cite specific software flaws ("bugs"). However, since software is complex, it's relatively easy to find specific problems in any piece of software and assign blame. Even the most reliable pieces of software have thousands of bugs; some more than others. A list of bugs is therefore meaningless because it provides no relative comparison and only restates what is already known. But if the problem is serious enough, civil governments could pay a fraction of what is currently paid directly or indirectly for software licensing, and hire a person or organization to fix the problem -- something that cannot be done when the source code is kept secret. They could even add new features to a piece of software and specifically target them towards a particular curriculum. The developed software would then be available for the entire public to use.

As with any form of change, free software would require some initial deployment costs for any related installation and support services. But change is precisely what is needed in education. It is far better to spend money now as an investment to lower costs in the future than to continue with the high costs of software licensing. Regardless, as long as the process is not permanently deferred, schools can simply install free software on a case-by-case basis when existing software licensing contracts expire.

Free software, like anything else, is only part of a solution on improving education. Although it is an effective first step, it is by no means the complete solution by itself. It saves school districts money that can be later used to improve other areas of education. When correctly implemented, it gives students a valuable hands-on experience with both experimentation and ethics. Free software also has the ability to inspire other movements, such as the free cultural movement, which are educationally beneficial.

The next generation of students will learn that improving knowledge means working with others. Since the philosophy behind the cooperation of free software promotes global collaboration beyond international boundaries, the next generation of American students, instead of lagging behind, will be able work with foreigners to develop and disseminate their combined knowledge.