Free software gets an education

Nov 12, 2008

Companies, organisations and citizens spend billions a year on licensing fees for proprietary software. Could that money not be put to better use developing free software alternatives and local expertise?

For that to happen, teachers, software developers, researchers, IT managers and citizens in general need to be educated about what free (also known as libre or open source) software is, how to use it and how to get the most benefit from it. But until now educational content and training resources about software that is free to use, copy, change, study and distribute have been woefully hard to find.

An EU-funded project has started to change that. Inspired by the community-driven development model that has led to such enormously successful initiatives as the contributor-edited online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, the researchers behind the SELF project have created an online platform to develop and collaboratively distribute educational materials about free software.

Just as Wikipedia has become one of the leading sources of information on the internet, the SELF team hopes their platform will turn into a leading resource for anyone looking to gain a better understanding of free software. The platform allows contributors to add and update a wide variety of educational materials, from simple articles to structured courses, and to collaborate on developing new training resources on diverse applications and subjects, from the Linux operating system to complex scientific programmes.

SELF project coordinator Wouter Tebbens says the team was driven to launch the project when they realised that a lack of educational resources was holding back the adoption of free software in Europe and elsewhere, despite its many advantages over proprietary alternatives.

The “free” in free software refers to freedom of use, modification and distribution, resulting in programmes that tend to be more adaptable, scalable, transparent and (frequently) more cost-effective than their proprietary counterparts.

“We identified four factors holding back the adoption of free software: Firstly, there is a lack of awareness about what free software is. Secondly, there is a perceived lack of technical support for free software products. Thirdly, teachers and trainers are mostly unprepared to teach it. And, fourthly, they didn’t have the necessary resources,” Tebbens, the president of the Amsterdam-based Free Knowledge Institute, explains.

By addressing the latter issue, in particular, the SELF team are confident that the other obstacles will also be overcome. With educational materials at their fingertips through the SELF platform, university and school teachers, vocational trainers, IT managers and software developers will have fewer excuses not to learn about free software and provide students and staff with training in it. That, in turn, should raise general awareness about free software’s benefits and uses, and, ultimately, increase the adoption of free applications and tools in both the public and private sectors.

“Our target audience is anyone with a role in teaching or training, as well as anyone in the software development community,” Tebbens says.

World first for community-created teaching materials

The SELF platform, which is obviously built using free software, is the first platform in the world that allows users to generate, update and distribute educational materials collaboratively, the project coordinator says. In essence, it merges the community-driven approach of Wikiversity – an educational information repository set up by the Wikimedia Foundation, creator of Wikipedia – with the e-learning capabilities of free software learning management systems such as Moodle.

“We have incorporated the best of both worlds, while adding some innovations of our own,” Tebbens says.

Among the innovations are a way to judge the quality of the content on the SELF platform through a popularity ranking system, middleware to allow materials in different formats to be shared, and a P2P file-sharing architecture that lets contributors host resources on their own servers.

The platform evidently does not need to be used solely for educational materials dealing with technology, but could be used to create and share any kind of educational content.

“We have seen interest from organisations outside the consortium who want to put it to other uses, and because it’s free software they are free to do so,” the SELF coordinator notes.

The consortium’s own work in the free software field is due to be continued by a new organisation that Tebbens says will be similar to the Wikimedia Foundation and will rely on donations and funding from partners to operate and maintain the SELF platform.

“Many of the SELF project partners want to continue with this for several reasons. The Open University of Catalonia (UOC), for example, wants to use it to maintain its course materials in collaboration with other partners, while an Indian partner, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, is using it as a testbed for its semantic knowledge engine,” Tebbens explains.

To raise awareness about their work, the project partners launched the Free Knowledge, Free Technology conference, the first edition of which took place in Barcelona in July 2008, attracting representatives of the software development and educational communities from around the world. They have also published a book titled ‘Introduction to Free Software’ that has been incorporated into a UOC master’s course.

“The response to the project has been very good… I think we are opening a lot of people’s eyes to the importance of combining teaching and technology,” Tebbens says.

In that awakening, he hopes people will take the project’s motto to heart: “Be SELFish, share your knowledge!”

The SELF project received funding under the ICT strand of the EU’s Sixth Framework Programme for research.

Provided by ICT Results

Explore further: UN study: Cellphones can improve literacy

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Growing app industry has developers racing to keep up

Apr 20, 2014

Smartphone application developers say they are challenged by the glut of apps as well as the need to update their software to keep up with evolving phone technology, making creative pricing strategies essential to finding ...

Sharing = Stealing: Busting a copyright myth

Apr 11, 2014

Consumers copy and share digital files. This has been blamed for a potentially catastrophic decline in certain markets. But why do consumers copy? And is it as economically harmful as often thought?

Facebook's clout in wireless industry is growing fast

Mar 04, 2014

Less than two years ago, disillusioned investors were fleeing Facebook Inc. stock, worried the company would never figure out how to make the leap to mobile devices from personal computers, let alone make money on them.

New search engine delivers content matched to ability

Feb 28, 2014

An Internet search engine developed specifically for schools by two University of Alabama in Huntsville professors is being tested as a way to increase reading abilities in challenged students and help motivate intellectual ...

Nokia engineer blogs on Windows 8 game hacks

Dec 12, 2012

(Phys.org)—Nokia Engineer Justin Angel works with Windows 8 and decided to share on his blog site what he eventually discovered: Various tactics can succeed in pirating Windows 8 games distributed through ...

Recommended for you

UN study: Cellphones can improve literacy

21 hours ago

A study by the U.N. education agency says cellphones are getting more and more people to read in countries where books are rare and illiteracy is high.

Gates-funded student data group to shut down

Apr 21, 2014

The head of a student data processing organization says it will shut down in the coming months following criticism that led to the recent loss of its last active client—New York state.

Four questions about missing Malaysian plane answered

Apr 19, 2014

Travelers at Asian airports have asked questions about the March 8 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Here are some of them, followed by answers.

User comments : 0

More news stories

SK Hynix posts Q1 surge in net profit

South Korea's SK Hynix Inc said Thursday its first-quarter net profit surged nearly 350 percent from the previous year on a spike in sales of PC memory chips.

FCC to propose pay-for-priority Internet standards

The Federal Communications Commission is set to propose new open Internet rules that would allow content companies to pay for faster delivery over the so-called "last mile" connection to people's homes.

Brazil enacts Internet 'Bill of Rights'

Brazil's president signed into law on Wednesday a "Bill of Rights" for the digital age that aims to protect online privacy and promote the Internet as a public utility by barring telecommunications companies ...

Is nuclear power the only way to avoid geoengineering?

"I think one can argue that if we were to follow a strong nuclear energy pathway—as well as doing everything else that we can—then we can solve the climate problem without doing geoengineering." So says Tom Wigley, one ...

When things get glassy, molecules go fractal

Colorful church windows, beads on a necklace and many of our favorite plastics share something in common—they all belong to a state of matter known as glasses. School children learn the difference between ...

FDA proposes first regulations for e-cigarettes

The federal government wants to prohibit sales of electronic cigarettes to minors and require approval for new products and health warning labels under regulations being proposed by the Food and Drug Administration.