FOSS and Education: A study

FOSS in Education

M Sasikumar, ni.iabmumcadc|isas#ni.iabmumcadc|isas

FOSS in Education: The need and implications

Open source software has gathered the attention of people from all walks of life across the world. The variety of benefits that the approach brings have been found to be valuable for different segments of people. One major sector among these is education. FOSS and education has connections at many levels. At a philosophical level, both are about the mindset of sharing as a way to enrich the giver and the taker - FOSS shares the software and education shares knowledge.

An academic environment where FOSS is prevalent will encourage staff and students to tinker and experiment with and participate in the development of FOSS this encourages enterpreneurship by being able to value add to existing solutions and thereby creating niches, deeper understanding due to seeing and working with the internals of actual complex systems etc. Adopting open source software in schools will teach children the spirit of community cooperation, while producing graduates that are skilled in using and maintaining such software. For example, the K12LTSP Open Source Lab is an initiative for schools in Australia which provides powerful desktop applications published under open source
license that encourages modifications and improvement of the program code. The source code availability to examine and to modify gives students the opportunity to learn from studying high quality real life programs.

One major emerging concern in the IT space across the world is accessibility. Tim Berners Lee's vision for the new generation web lays explicit focus on making the web accessible to all types of people, including the disadvantaged sections. This is particularly true of education; no one can afford to discriminate among students based on physical and other difficulties. Open source movement has identified this concern early enough, and has a number of systems including screen reader, speech recogniser, Braille systems to offer. The GNOME accessibility is a powerful general solution to speech enable any Gnome application without having to modify the source code of the application.

On practical level, there is much that FOSS brings to the field of education. A companion article explains these linkages in detail. Briefly, there are three directions in which FOSS plays a role in education.

Open Content (Traditional)

While this is not software in the sense of computer programs, there is a spreading movement across the world in creating and sharing content freely. People create content with explicit license norms permitting free use of the content with very limited restrictions such as keeping the original author name/attribution, not modifying the document in place, etc. The popular creative-commons attribution license schemes encourages this further. A wide variety of content is now available this way. The most popular among this would be the project gutenberg offering nearly a million titles of books in machine readable form, librivox offering audio versions of classic books, wikipedia offering millions of articles on almost every aspect of life from medicine to computing, MIT open course ware initiative, and so on. These enrich the resources that a teacher has at his disposal to offer the students.

Open Content (software)

The strength of using computers in enriching the teaching learning process comes primarily from the enriched content that can be made available to facilitate instruction. Computer simulations, interactive animations, etc belong to this category. Intelligent tutoring systems on specific topics (e.g. algebraic equation solving) offering personalised coaching and individual performance based intervention also belong to this category. One can find hundreds of such software packages, many available in open source license along with some Linux distributions, on the net. Some of these distributions are listed in a later section of this document, along with some of the softwares available through them. Many programs in areas such as astronomy, physics, mathematics, chemistry, etc can be found, which can be good learning supplements in schools and higher classes.

Use of such tools help significantly to deepen the learning, by providing an opportunity to experiment and explore with real-life settings. One can vary the various parameters associated with an experiment (say, the motion of a projectile) and internalise the relevant concepts more easily. A number of doubts that they may have can also be answered by experimenting with appropriate setting. Learning in an experiential setting has been found to far more effective than a purely lecture based teaching that is generally followed.

Here is a small indicative set of softwares in this category; the full list will run into hundreds of items.

Euler Complex numbers and matrices
KStars Astronomy with over 130000 stars, all planets, etc.
Chemlab Chemistry lab
Sage algebra, geometry, etc
Units Unit conversion
Earth3D real time 3D view of earth
Kalzium periodic table and properties of elements
Atomix puzzle game for physics
Kig high precision geometric constructions
Xaos fractal geometry

Open source for learning management

These include a vast collection of tools for supporting the school/college administration, curriculum management, result processing, assessment conducting and evaluation, assignment submission and evaluation, creation of content such as course material and slides, and so on. A wide range of softwares are available in open source for the various tasks mentioned here. UNESCO education portal has an explicit section on FOSS, which provides a categorised list of hundreds of such softwares. One side this shows the importance to these resources from international organisations such as UNESCO, and on the other it shows the variety and quality of resources available. The major categories listed there include

  • Digital library
  • Operating systems
  • Productivity tools
  • Learning management
  • Science and education
  • Virtual laboratory

A number of software systems are available under each of these. Some example popular open source softwares.

Web browser Firefox, Iceweasel
Document creation Openoffice, Latex
Audio record/edit audacity
Web page creation Nyu
Content management Drupal, Jhoomla, Plone/Zope
Learning management Moodle
Question banking, testing exe2learn, Moodle
School administration schooltool
visual programming? scratch
diagram editing Dia
scanner Xsane
3D animation Blender
image editing GIMP
page layout like Adobe Illustrator Scribus
Plotting Kmplot
Keduca creating and running tests

For common utility tools and base operating system, FOSS offers an effective and user-friendly alternative to proprietary solutions. The low-cost (mostly free) makes the alternative appealing to schools which are short of resources. At the individual level, India's per capita income is Rs 20,862 ($474), while PC hardware costs Rs 10,000 ($227) and software costs approximately Rs 11,000 ($250). This means that the cost of hardware and software is comparable to the annual income of most Indians, making them unaffordable. With a FOSS based solution, the software component can be obtained essentially free of charge.

Compared to a few years earlier, the FOSS solutions today are robust and provides simple installation mechanisms and also auto-configures common tasks such as network, printer, USB, etc. Add to this the major attraction of very low downtime and repair overhead, thanks to the low-virus vulnerability. All these make the case for a FOSS based school PC a viable and attractive option.

International Scenario

UNESCO portal: The portal is located at: http://www.unesco-ci.org/cgi-bin/portals/foss/page.cgi?g=index.html;d=1 and contains a variety of resources related to use of open source in education including an excellent categorised listing of open source softwares relevant to education (as explained in the previous section), useful articles, and case studies. An international body such as UN recognising this segment and providing a portal focussed on this is a clear indication of the significance of the role that FOSS has for education.

The TuXlab programme started as partnership between the Shuttleworth Foundation and South African School to provide learners with access to information, knowledge and education. tuXlab programme has successfully installed over 150 tuXlabs in shools around South Africa. Tuxlab is derived from Edubuntu with Xfce instead of Gnome for desktop. It encouraged teachers to contribute to the repository too.

The open source schools program (www.opensourceschools.org.uk) compiles a number of case studies of specific initiatives by schools in using open source softwares. Open source adoption in UK schools is slow; "the major obstacle has been a lack of coordination, direction or understanding from the relevant authorities, exacerbated by a series of agreements with Microsoft at government level that have effectively tied the education system into Microsoft-only solutions", says a report.

Countries adopting FOSS for education (some snapshots):

  • Switzerland, department of public instruction, supporting FOSS migrated 9000 PCs to Linux. They tried dual boot for a while, and based on experience decided to switch fully. Saves licensing cost, allows students to work from home, etc are some of the advantages they expect.
  • Italy has a specialised education distribution of Linux, Sodilinux, based on Eduknoppix.
  • China planning to install a total of 141,624 new desktop computers running Linux in school classrooms this year. The PCs are ticketed for the Jiangsu Provincial Department of Education, for an educational program called the School-to-School Project. They will run Sun Wah Linux's Debian-based RAYS LX.
  • The Republic of Macedonia decided to deploy about 5,000 Linux desktop computers in 468 public schools and 182 computer labs nationwide last summer, based on a Ubuntu distribution with a GNOME desktop, the GNOME Journal reports. The deployment was part of a joint project called E-School.MK, involving the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Education Development Center (EDC), and the Macedonian Ministry of Education and Science (MoES).
  • Brazil's Ministry of Education (MEC) has sponsored its own customised Linux distribution based on Debian GNU/Linux, called Linux Educacional. By the end of 2008, Linux Educacional will be deployed in 29,000 computer labs using Linux thin client solutions to serve 36 million students, and by the beginning of 2010, these numbers are expected to grow to more than 53,000 labs.

Efforts in India

The large scale interest in use of computers at the school level is relatively recent (excluding the initiative of CLASS a couple of decades back). The awareness of open source movement is also not high at this segment. However, the examples of Kerala and some of the other states is triggering significant interest in use of FOSS in Indian schools. A number of NGOs are also getting involved in this effort, given the potential of making ICT affordable and accessible to the non-urban segments. Linux based PCs are available in a number of Indian languages, with the support to create/view content in these languages. The NRCFOSS is also working on preparing a BOSS specialisation for schools.

  • Kerala has set up 40000 computers in over 2800 schools with Gnu/Linux, with help from the free software foundation. The IT course part of the 10th standard examination is to be taken only on Linux. Internetworking of the high schools in Kerala with broadband is also planned over a free software base.
  • e-swecha initiative at select states. The FSF initiated movement is attempting to create a Linux distribution for engineering students, with a lot of relevant softwares pre-loaded. This system is called e-swecha, and has been tried in many schools in West Bengal and Karnataka and is being taken up in Andhrapradesh.
  • Other case studies (some snapshots):
    • Bijra High School, Bijra, is situated at the vicinity of Durgapur Steel Town Ship is using Fedora Core based computers in the school for allowing students to work with computers.
    • Government Girls High Schools Challai, in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala uses Gnu/Linux based computers with Malayalam support via the FSF in Kerala
    • LTSP based GNU/Linux system had successfully implemented in a number of government schools in Kanuur. These included schools at Chelora; Munderi; Valapatnam; Chala; Thottada; Technical Higher Secondary School, Thottada; Chittariparamba; Kuthuparamba; Vengad; Chavasseri; Pinarayi; Kottayam; Manathana; Maaloor and Edakkad.
    • Kanakpura, Karnataka - teachers given laptops with Gnu/Linux

Useful Resources

  • UNESCO portal at http://www.unesco-ci.org/cgi-bin/portals/foss/page.cgi?d=1&g=10 is setup by UNESCO for sharing information about FOSS in education. The portal offers a categorised list of softwares relevant to education [categories 2 and 3, as per section 1].
  • Edubuntu: "Ubuntu" is an ancient African word, meaning "humanity to others". The Edubuntu Linux distribution brings the spirit of Ubuntu to schools, through its customised school environment. The current version of Edubuntu (url: www.edubuntu.org) is aimed at classroom use, and future versions of Edubuntu will expand to other educational usage, such as university use. It offers a wide range of softwares covering basic utilities and packages/games for science/maths/etc and the Gcompris game-suite for children. Some of these are listed in the section earlier. Edubuntu is based on LTSP thin-client system.
  • Free software directory at http://directory.fsf.org/ is a well organised collection of open source/free softwares spanning over many categories. The categories range from business and productivity to web authoring and maths utilities. This is a UNESCO-FSF initiative.
  • OSCAR at http://oscar.iitb.ac.in is a compilation of Java applets for all school subjects. The applets can be used independently, and are organised based on subject and standard. Some are locally developed and many are collected from the net.
  • Schoolforge at schoolforge.net
  • opensourceschools.org to foster open source software in schools, collects software list, case studies, etc.

Future Directions

One concern is to ensure that the current teaching does not discriminate against open source softwares and solutions. Therefore, education syllabus in schools should be made vendor neutral. Education system must teach principles and not product/brand names, with generic descriptions like operating systems, word processors, spreadsheets, etc. This gives teachers and students the freedom to choose the applications that meet their requriements and their budgets at appropriate times. Unfortunately, proprietary software vendors have been targetting the schools for popularising their own branded softwares, and in the name of computer training, is imparting training on these specific softwares. And often, schools form their syllabi on these topics, retaining even the brand names in the description, biasing the choices. This is a matter of concern, as the focus of education shifts into system specifics, away from general concepts.

Establishing a setup like Tuxlab within the State would be valuable, to coordinate the distribution being used, and localise it to the syllabus and requirements of the schools in the State. This can include ensuring tools and resources relevant to the local syllabus, Indian language support as appropriate, localisation of resources as per local requirement, continuous upgrade and maintenance of the distribution, selectively incorporating contributions from the teacher/student community, etc.

The entire software suit for school requirements are today available in open source. An appropriate subset of this could be selected based on the local requirements and vision. This set could be integrated into a common umbrella like BOSS, localised as required into desired languages, and then made available to schools. The existing BOSS support network can provide training on these systems, at least to start with.

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