Sunday, June 6, 2010

What's Wrong With Free Software

What's wrong with free software for educational uses? I'm not talking about free software with trial versions or free software that's full of spy-ware. I'm talking about quality open source software such as Linux, Open Office, Moodle, Gimp, Audacity, Blender, Scribus and Geogebra to name a few. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of open source titles that we could be using in education. The use of open source software would allow schools, districts and governments who fund the purchase of software to save what seems like a ridiculous amount of money; money that could be better spent on hardware or anything else for that matter. The savings aren't just a one time occurrence either. Not only do you save on the initial purchase you also save on future upgrades.

Another good example of high quality, free software is Google Apps for Education. Although Google Apps isn't open source it is free, ad-free, easy to use and could still save schools a truck load of money. The nice thing about Google Apps is that it's a cloud based service which means no installation, no maintenance and it's accessible wherever there's an internet connection.

One of the biggest advantages of using free software is that students are not limited to access at school. They can use the tools at home or anywhere else they choose to work. Doesn't it make sense to provide students with the tools they need to learn when they want and where they want?

 Many people I've talked to about this issue say that it's important to teach students using the industry standard (i.e. MS Office) so they will already be familiar with the software once they get out into the workforce. This to me seems like a poor excuse. I strongly believe that we should be teaching students life-long skills that are transferable. I'm confident that when I teach students to use a spreadsheet in one program they will be able to figure out to use all other spreadsheet programs. The other issue I have with this line of reasoning is that the industry standard today may not be the industry standard tomorrow. In the current climate of rapid technological growth, open formats and the open web I'm not entirely sure there is an industry standard anymore.

Many IT departments seem very reluctant to move in this direction and those that do are willing to adopt open source software seem to be providing it as a duplicate service alongside a paid service. I realize that there are issues involved moving from the 'industry standard' to something else but those issues can be worked out and surely it's worth working out those issues given how much money is at stake.