How Can Free Software Be Used in Education ?

Everyday we see news of how fast and interactive online relationships are becoming, with the “boom” of social networks over the last 10 years. And we also see an interesting increase in the number of free and open source applications. But how exactly can these two types of software be used in education ? That’s what we’ll try to explain in this post.

The Current Scenario:

Since the beginning of the 21st century, we have been experiencing a rather curious phenomenon – the whole world is becoming increasingly connected. Whether is it via social networks or mobile texting, it’s undeniable that nowadays it’s really easy to spread content to basically everywhere in the world.

The world is connected

The world is connected

It is also known that this growth has led to another interesting fact: the number of free and open source applications released is growing too. Despite many saying that focusing on these kind of software generates almost no return in terms of money, it has shown otherwise.

And some people are starting to realize the full potential of using free software/ open source in education.

But how does that work ?

It is of the very nature of free and open source softwares to encourage the collaboration of several people. After all, its most famous offspring, the GNU/ Linux operating system (and of course its thousands of distributions that we usually call “distros”), was and still is mantained by a incredibly large community of users, programmers and testers, united on the wish to make knowledge accessible for everyone.

And is this everlasting wish to spread knowledge that motivates other programmers around the world to create open tools that help teaching others on the most different subjects

The desire for knowledge is universal

The desire for knowledge is universal

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As a programmer, I will focus on the benefits of free software/ open source on learning different aspects of the “coding universe”.

Free Software and Programming Skills

As I’ve stated here before, it is the collaborative nature of free software that stimulates  more and more people to choose it as a model.

When a young programmer wants to know how to work out that “for” statement, or trying to understand how in this universe pointers work, they usually go to a book or, in most cases, to the Internet. Sure, it does work at the end of the day. But what if this programmer wants to have a glimpse of how a complex text editor like LibreWriter (from the LibreOffice suite) works. As LibreWriter is an important piece of open source software, it is possible for the young programmer to study the source code. In doing this, it is likely that his understanding of how different components of a code relate to each other, or finding out that in most cases a “professional” program is not made of only one code, but of various codes, each one having a different function that contributes for the functioning of the “final program”.

The LibreOffice logo, with its services below

The LibreOffice logo, with its services below

Sure, there is a great chance that our young programmer won’t understand the code (different programming languages or even complexity of the instructions used). But he will see that what he is learning can be used to make something so complex as a text editor, and that realization will probably motivate him to study more, and even “hack” more (please, I’m using the word hack here not with the popular negative meaning that most of the media uses nowadays, but as a definition of “exploring” the software, modifying it and checking how it behaves after you’ve changed it).

How media depicts "hackers"

How media depicts “hackers”

Looking for bugs in source code is hacking

Looking for bugs in source code is hacking

But now let’s take a look at another (and much more popular, unfortunately) text editor, MS Word (from the MS Office Suite). It, as well as almost all the other Microsoft products, is proprietary software. In other words, the user does not have access to the source code. If every software was proprietary, one would still be able to “know” how a text editor (or any other kind of software, actually) works, by reading books, which would have to be written by authorized authors, and probably that would be quite expensive. But even though he managed to get access to such books, he would still lack “hands on” experience, the “do it yourself” feeling of proper hacking. And most of times, that practical experience is what it counts.

MS Office logo (2010)

MS Office logo (2010)

Final Thoughts

Open source and software freedom are fundamental ways to create and spread knowledge, due to their collaborative nature. They encourage the users to participate, and give them the feeling of being part of something bigger, of a large community that is always there to help you when needed.

These characteristics make open source/ free applications perfectly suitable to help knowledge spreading, as they can be adapted, modified and studied; and with a scenario of massive data flux, ever-increasing connectivity and fast speed, it becomes even more suitable to choose free.

Image Credits

The images are credited in order of appearance.

The Guardian

Secretaria de Relações Internacionais – UFRJ (in Portuguese)

Blog do Rodrigo Calado (in Portuguese)

Anonymous Brasil (in Portuguese)

Read Write

Red Cape

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