Teaching Three Times

Doghouse – Education

Article from Issue 241/2020

Free and open source solutions have huge potential for use in high school and college education. So why aren't schools using more of them?

All the upheaval around COVID-19 has at least one bright spot. Many conferences have moved to being "virtual only." While the time and effort to create and promote these conferences can still be considerable, the monetary cost is dramatically reduced, so many of them have shifted from charging for admission to a sponsorship-only model. Therefore they are offered to attendees for the "price" of accessing them over the Internet. And, the organizers record the talks so people can view them later.

From my viewpoint, this gives me the chance to reach out to many more people with the message of Free and Open Source Software, Hardware, and Culture (FOSSHC).

Recently at a virtual conference we were discussing education, and once again I showed my frustration regarding universities (and even high schools) not using FOSSHC for teaching.

The use of FOSSHC teaches a student three times, versus closed source teaching only once.

Most of you readers already know how Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) can teach three times:

1 Like closed source software, the student learns how to use the software to solve their problems. Using Oracle (as an example), you can learn how to use a database to store and extract data for your programs. Using Microsoft Office, you can learn how to use an office product to run your business more efficiently. But neither of these products show you how they solve your problem.

2 PostgreSQL can not only show you how to use a database. But if you examine the source code to PostgreSQL, you can learn how it solves that problem.

3 FOSS teaches how to improve the software to solve your problem better. With Microsoft Office as an example, the most you can do is submit a problem report to Microsoft with your idea, and maybe they will implement it. Someday.

With LibreOffice, your students can work to implement the idea and then submit the patch to the LibreOffice project. They participate in the actual improvement.

With hardware it is very much the same. Closed source hardware comes with binary-only drivers, boot loaders, and scant documentation on how the hardware actually works. You simply use the hardware to run other people's programs.

With open hardware, you get the system's schematics and the programming data sheets of the CPUs, GPUs, and other sophisticated chips. You get the same documentation that the operating system developers received, so you can change the operating system to meet your needs. Paired with FOSS, you can develop new hardware to accelerate your system.

Many universities now have Surface-Mount Technology (SMT) machines that can assemble Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs). Even if their SMT system is not very sophisticated, simpler "Pick and Place" machines can assemble systems in small quantities. Companies can produce PCBs in small numbers for university projects, and even silicon fabrication plants are beginning to make their processes open to universities and high schools.

A foundry named SkyWater and Google have created a project called Open Source PDK that facilitates the manufacturing of silicon wafers designed by non-companies (i.e., students and hobbyists).

Free culture is the last of the "learn three times" model and should be first. There is not a musician on earth that does not know how expression can change and build on the words and tunes of those that composed before. No author can ignore the influences of previous authors, yet Creative Commons was a giant step in liberating art of all types while still allowing the creator to have control over licensing.

I can not count the number of times that I have found English Literature or English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers that did not know about Project Gutenberg, where over 60,000 documents in different electronic formats are available for free download. Unlike paper books and documents, these electronic documents can be searched and copied/pasted into reports. Government data is typically available for free use.

The use of FOSSHC is not limited to the world of technology. Law courses should be teaching about FOSSHC licensing and how to use it. Business courses should be teaching about FOSSHC business models and how to leverage them. Public policy courses should be instructing future leaders to use, whenever possible, FOSSHC to run their countries, and that the output of public funds should be publicly available.

Please do not try to tell me that you have to teach closed source because "that is what everyone uses." You can not convince me that you are teaching students smart enough to be future bridge designers, brain surgeons, and country leaders, but who are too stupid to learn Microsoft Office in a single day if needed.

You can not have it both ways.

The Author

Jon "maddog" Hall is an author, educator, computer scientist, and free software pioneer who has been a passionate advocate for Linux since 1994 when he first met Linus Torvalds and facilitated the port of Linux to a 64-bit system. He serves as president of Linux InternationalÆ.

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