1Free Software in education Advise, vision and proposed action planExpert group:
Mark De Quidt
Eric Verhulst Ministry of the Flemish Community Education Department
2Table of contents
What is Free Software?
2.2. How is Free Software created?
2.3. Why do people make Free Software?
2.4. Free Software and education
2.5. Competitive advantages
2.6. Competitive disadvantages
3.2. School administrations
3.3. Technical ICT coordinators
3.4. Educational ICT coordinators
3.6. Teacher training
3.8. Commercial providers of educational materials
4.1. ICT skills
4.2. Free Software as a model
4.3. Stimulating international networks
4.4. ICT infrastructure
4.5. Promoting a vision
5.1. General actions
5.2. ICT skills
5.3. Free Software as a model
5.4. Stimulating international networks
5.5. ICT infrastructure
5.6. Promoting a vision
6.0. Recommendation 0: ICT as an aid to individual self-development
6.1. Recommendation 1: Free Software as a model
6.2. Recommendation 2: ICT skills and attainment targets
6.3. Recommendation 3: Infrastructure
6.4. Recommendation 4: Teaching materials
6.5. Recommendation 5: Training
Appendix 1: List of terms
Appendix 2: References
Appendix 3: Authors
Free Software in education
Vision and action plan
Herman Bruyninckx, Mark De Quidt, Kim Lauwers, Eric Verhulst, Wilfried Feijens1. Introduction
This document develops a vision and an action plan for the responsible introduction of
Free Software in education. It is based on existing (though not yet always recognised)
needs and provides action points to support the different target groups in school practice.
The essential contributions of this document are summarised in six recommendations for
the responsible introduction of Free Software in education practice, each with short,
medium and long-term suggestions.
This document not only highlights the technical potential of Free Software in education,
but also its non-technical added value. The latter is evident particularly as a model for the
development and cooperation for the meritocratic creation of, and democratic access to,
knowledge and information.
For a good understanding of the terms and definitions used in this text, the reader is
advised to consult the list of terms in the Appendix, or by following the hyperlinks (in the
electronic HTML and PDF versions of this document). 2. What is Free Software?
This section provides a summary of the essential characteristics of Free Software, better
known internationally under the names Free Software
and Open Source
software. For all
the details we refer to the website of the Free Software Foundation and of the Open
Source initiative. 2.1. Definition
Free Software is software in which the makers (i) make the source code available and (ii)
use the protection of their copyright to link a licence to this source code which permits
free use. The software can be used free of charge and without explicit consent on an
unlimited number of computers and can be adapted, disseminated and integrated with
other software. This free use
goes much further than the fair use for which regulations
have been introduced in the legislation, and in practice avoids the lock-in effects which
are so damaging in closed software.
However, the free use
is not unlimited, because the users must observe a number of
conditions when adapting, disseminating or integrating the material; these conditions are
described in the licence which accompanies the software. Every Free Software licence
imposes slightly different conditions in this field and in practice, these conditions are
somewhere between the extremes represented by the following licences:
1. GPL: adaptations which are disseminated fall under an obligation to return the
software and integration is permitted only with software for which the licence is “GPL
One example of GPL software is the Linux-kernel (Linux is a Free Software operating
system which has been very successful worldwide in all the ICT sectors since the late
2. BSD: adaptations do not have to be returned, and the integration with software with
any other licence is permitted.
An example of this sort of software is the Free BSD operating system, which Apple uses
in its Mac OSX products.
In the context of ICT in education, it is important to realise that the above- mentioned
concepts of available source code and free use
not only apply for software, but for all
immaterial forms of knowledge and information, such as texts, sound, images, figures,
etc. Specific licences also exist for these, such as, for example, the Creative Commons
licence. 2.2.How is Free Software created?
The democratisation of the internet creates unlimited possibilities to immediate
worldwide cooperation in a community of interested parties. This technological
opportunity has taken advantage of the so-called “creative mass” to prove that it can
create socially relevant added value (in a cultural, but also in an economic sense!),
outside the traditional economic actors of the market
and the company
. This occurred not
so much because it was technologically possible, but above all because many people and
businesses benefit from it. Furthermore, the Free Software licences (with GPL in the
lead) provide the legal framework to achieve the best possible balance between, on the
one hand, the personal enrichment of every individual in that creative mass, and on the
other hand, the leverage effect which occurs in a community when everyone makes the
knowledge they have developed freely available to that community.
Free Software is such a “lever”, particularly because of the high level of modularity: it is
self evident that new projects make as much use as possible of already existing
components (to save effort), and in turn produce modular software in the hope of being
used by as many other projects as possible (to flatter the developers). In other words, the
wheel is not reinvented every time. Or at least this applies in principle because practice
has shown that there are enormous numbers of Free Software projects which just produce
yet another new version of already existing ICT applications. Most of these Me too
projects do not provide direct added value, but are indirectly still an essential component
of a healthy Free Software biotope, because (i) they give newcomers the chance of
gaining experience and building up a reputation, and (ii), they create a “biodiversity”
which cannot be paralleled by commercial software producers. 2.3. Why do people make Free Software?
The term used above “personal enrichment” refers both to individual people and to
companies, and means much more than purely financial benefits: many volunteers have a
sense of satisfaction when their contributions are valued by others and when their name
acquires a reputation within a community of peers. Furthermore, for many businesses,
Free Software is a business model based on sound arguments which is actually not very
different from the model behind many traditional professions: after all, a plumber,
surgeon or lawyer also performs in such a way that the results can be examined, used and
adapted by anyone (or usually by peers), without affecting the intellectual property rights
of the original professionals.2.4. Free Software and education
The distributed and incremental development model of Free Software not only works
with software, but for all abstract forms of knowledge and information, insofar as this
knowledge and information benefit from (i) incremental adaptations, and (ii) discussion
in a large community of peers. Therefore the Free Software role model in principle also
works for most types of educational materials: text books, educational content,
of best practices
in school practice, training for teachers or ICT coordinators, etc. Which
commercial provider of educational materials and software, for example, in mathematics
or French could compete with a motivated group of several dozen teachers cooperating in
these fields? Particularly when you take into account the fact that international
cooperation in Free Software is almost self-evident. In fact, in practice this cooperation is
much easier to achieve than that between publishers of educational materials who all
want to protect their own intellectual property rights.
The lever of Free Software will probably not be efficient in fields such as art and culture.
In these fields there is a possibility of reusing ideas, but not of improving the works of art
themselves incrementally or with group discussions.2.5. Competitive advantages
Free Software can be used free of charge. However, nothing prevents the makers
of Free Software from asking money for their creation, though the freedom with
regard to unlimited copying automatically leads to an unlimited downward price
spiral when there is a large group of users.
N.B.: The use
of the software may be free of charge, but the services provided
relation to Free Software (creation, installation, maintenance, integration,
programming, training…) does not have to be free at all. Therefore Free Software
allows for the possibility of developing commercial activities based on the
Free Software generates human networks of interacting users and makers, because
everyone has access to all the information about the project (documentation, code,
design discussions, problems, etc.). It is these networks which give Free Software
its large leverage. For example, this lever is quite frequently more efficient than
to solve problems, and also goes much further towards a
constructive participation of the user in the evolution of the software.
It should be remembered that the large majority of Free Software projects never
achieves the critical threshold of interested users to achieve this leverage affect.
Free Software never goes bankrupt and therefore does not “destroy” any
knowledge. After all, in contrast with commercial software, the code and
knowledge in a Free Software project do not disappear when its makers cease
their activities for whatever reason.
In practice, it often happens that Free Software projects are not further developed
(in fact, this is even the case with a large majority of projects), but good ideas and
the code from these projects can be reused in other projects without any problems.
In practice, Free Software leads to the integration of different projects and
initiative, while commercial software often leads to “extegration” in monolithic
programmes and counterproductive differentiation.
Integration is very important in ICT (and also in all the sectors outside this),
because it permits different programmes to work together, independently of the
supplier or computer platform. However, commercial ICT practice does not
naturally tend towards integration. All the manufactures make as many efforts as
possible to integrate only their own programmes and to make the integration with
products of competitors as difficult as possible (this is known as “extegration”.
This unsatisfactory exchangeability greatly increases the chances of monopolies
in the whole ICT field.
The commercial UNIX market is an example of counterproductive differentiation:
every provider has developed his own version of UNIX to differentiate himself
from the competition. The result of this is that none of the commercial UNIX
versions have access to all the innovations that have been developed, the software
is not platform independent, and the price is therefore unnaturally high. This has
resulted in the gradual disappearance of commercial UNIX versions from the ICT
market, to the disadvantage of Windows and Linux.
Free Software projects particularly benefit from cooperation, which means that
the leverage effect of Free Software can be achieved as far as possible. Integration
is also much simpler because Free Software gives preference to the use of open
file formats and communication protocols.
Free Software never places users before a fait accompli, although this is the norm
for commercial software: after all, most businesses do not wish to invest more in
versions of the software which have been sold as soon as they have newer
Free Software is user-friendly in this respect because (i) it enables everyone to
maintain existing software themselves, even if no one else wants to do so, and (ii),
it is possible to upgrade
to new versions without licensing costs and without
Free Software has a strong UNIX background and therefore uses strong modular
This modular approach leads to systems which can be maintained more
efficiently, to greater flexibility in making specific configurations, a better
controlled security and less far-reaching consequences when security leaks
occur after all.
Free Software is based on an ethical code and a mentality which perfectly
complement the values and practice of education: the unconditional sharing and
passing of knowledge, critical reflection, cooperation, a respect for other people’s
creations and views, etc.
In practice, this leads to highly motivated employees, because the sense of being
socially useful and ethically responsible are strongly present in most Free
Software projects. This is the same motivation which has encouraged people for
centuries to participate voluntarily and without payment in charitable activities,
sports, clubs, youth movements, music workshops, etc.
Free Software is accompanied perfectly by commercial software: more and more
ICT suppliers are supporting their products under Linux, without having to release
them under a Free Software licence.
The most common “type of cooperation” is that Free Software is responsible for
the “lower layers” of an ICT system, while closed software deals with the “higher
layers” where there are more pickings in terms of added value. The evolution is
that Free Software has moved higher and higher up this chain.2.6. Competitive disadvantages
The above-mentioned advantages have a permanent character while the disadvantages
discussed in this section are only temporary. However, for many users, these
disadvantages are still substantial at the moment and it is very difficult to predict how
long the period will last in which these disadvantages will continue to apply.
At the moment there is still little educational material available in Free Software,
and its quality is also lower than the commercial provision, and even lower than
the freeware provision.
Most people see Free Software as a brand new, incompletely understood
(r)evolution, and consequently have a rather conservative and critical attitude.
There is a great deal of inertia against change in their ICT habits.
Before a Free Software project can be established in a particular field and can
develop and remain viable, initial starting efforts must be made in some way. For
“small” target groups, commercial initiatives are better and faster, at least under
the condition that the target public has adequate financial means itself.
At the moment, the ICT market still provides much less commercial support for
Free Software than for software on Windows and MacOS, except for the large
projects (Linux, Apache, Mozilla, Openoffice.org, etc.).
Every newcomer to Free Software is confronted very quickly with apparent
chaos: the range is so overwhelming that is easy to lose your way when you first
come across it.
The Linux distributions (Red Hat, Suse, Debian…) are already providing ready-
made solutions without the above-mentioned chaos. The Dutch foundation, ICT at
school has made a CD package available for education.3. Target groups
“Education” is not a unique, uniform target group with identical needs. A description of
the relevant target groups and their specific needs and greatest challenges is given below.3.1. Policy
(Ministry of Education, organising authorities and umbrella organisations).
Needs: the best possible ICT for as little money as possible, good provision of education
for other educational target groups; guarantees for an honest and transparent ICT market
and for a minimum of “biodiversity” in the ICT solutions used; establishing international
networks; the identification of the relevant ICT skills and recording them in attainment
targets; providing sufficient hardware for schools.
Challenges: defining the “correct ICT skills” in attainment targets; as identified by the
educational ICT coordinators; finding a balance between monitoring and stimulating ICT
developments with which teachers can achieve these attainment targets; ensuring the
correct place for Free Software in education; finding a balance between saving costs and
dependence in Public-Private Partnership
related to ICT.3.2. School administrations
Needs: finding the best possible ICT support for the specific education-related ICT
processes; achieving a critical mass and synergy in this field with other government
administrations to ensure the right place for Free Software and, in the first place, open
standards. After all, the ICT needs for Education are not fundamentally different from
those of other government administrations.
Challenges: to ensure that: (i) all administrative ICT works with open standards as
quickly and extensively as possible in order to create a fair and competitive market, and
(ii) the administrative ICT solutions do not inhibit the efficient integration of Free
Software in the other target groups.3.3. Technical ICT coordinators
These are the “people in the field” who, together with the educational ICT coordinators
and teachers, play a key role in the successful introduction of ICT in the classroom.
Needs: the capacity to install and maintain ICT networks; monitoring the evolutions of
the (free) software market.
Challenges: learning to discover the competitive advantages of Free Software and
implementing this in school practice without being constantly distracted by the very
short-term solutions which the majority of administrative and educational staff expect.
The technical ICT coordinators must prepare to play an important, probably even the
most important role in every change in ICT practice in education.3.4. Educational ICT coordinators
These are the “people in the field” who must support the teachers, with the educational
aspects of the use of ICT in teaching practice.
Needs: gaining experience in connection with how and at what age ICT can best be
integrated in non-computer-related subjects; identifying the instrumental, useful and self-
development ICT skills which children can tackle at different ages; looking up and/or
providing additional support for software and teaching materials; participating in
Challenges: identifying ICT skills; creating appropriate teaching materials.3.5. Teachers