FOSS Education/Introduction

Free/Open Source Software is software that is made available along with source code as a distinctive feature. It is often available at no cost.Users can use and distribute the software. And if they so wish, they can study the source code and modify it to suit their needs. The modified version of the software can also be redistributed. In contrast, proprietary software is licensed to users for a fee and the source code is usually closely guarded and not made available to users. It is illegal to make copies and distribute proprietary software without paying additional licensing fees.

There is a fine distinction between Free Software and Open Source Software. The Free Software movement focuses on moral and ethical issues relating to the freedom of users to use, study, modify and redistribute software. Open Source advocates take a more corporate approach, focusing on the advantages of the Open Source software development method. For most purposes, Free Software and Open Source Software can be considered to be the same and we refer to it as Free/Open Source Software (FOSS). For more information on the general aspects of FOSS, please refer to the companion primer Free/Open Source Software - A General Introduction [1] which is available at

FOSS can play an important role in education, especially in developing countries. The reasons for this are described below. In Chapter 2, we go into more detail on how FOSS can be used in setting up the ICT infrastructure in educational institutions, the server software and desktop applications available, and the potential cost savings resulting from the use of FOSS. Chapter 3 focuses on FOSS for the administration of academic institutions, in particular the Library Management Systems and Learning Management Systems available. Chapter 4 looks at how FOSS can be used in the teaching of Information Technology in schools and universities. Open Content is described in Chapter 5. Although Open Content is not directly related to FOSS, it results from the application of similar principles in the publication of content and is important in education. The role of FOSS in research is covered in Chapter 6. Training and certification in FOSS is not normally a part of formal education but due to its importance in building human resource capacity in FOSS, it is covered in Chapter 7. In the last chapter,we list policy issues for decision-makers to consider in implementing FOSS in education.

Why FOSS for Education? edit

Lower Costs edit

One of the main issues that policy-makers have to contend with in making decisions on the use of ICTs in education is the cost. The cost of providing communication infrastructure, computing and networking hardware, and the necessary software can be daunting not only for developing countries but also for underprivileged sectors in the developed countries.

FOSS can lower the barriers to the access of ICTs by reducing the cost of software. The initial acquisition cost of FOSS is negligible. Indeed, it is usually possible to download FOSS without any cost. If there is limited bandwidth, it may be more convenient to get the software in a CD-ROM for a nominal fee. But there is no licensing fee for each user or computer and it can be freely distributed once a copy is downloaded or made available on a CD-ROM. Hence, the initial cost of acquiring FOSS is much lower than the cost of acquiring proprietary software for which license fees have to be paid for each user or computer. Upgrades of FOSS can usually be obtained in a similar way, making the upgrade costs negligible as well. In contrast, proprietary software upgrades normally have to be paid for even though the upgrade costs may be lower than the initial cost.

Reliability, Performance and Security edit

Lower cost is not the only reason why the use of FOSS for servers is prevalent. FOSS is considered to have better reliability, performance and security. The administrators of educational institutions should take these into account when making decisions on the ICT infrastructure of their institutions.This is especially important in the larger institutions.

The development methodology of FOSS tends to assure high quality of the software. Bugs are rapidly removed with the help of large numbers of developers, and the resulting software is more reliable.This is especially true of the more mature FOSS for servers. For example, in a quantitative analysis of database software carried out by Reasoning Inc., it was found that the FOSS database MySQL has six times fewer defects than proprietary databases.[2]

Some studies also suggest that FOSS performs better than the proprietary counterparts. For example, performance tests for file servers were carried out by PC Magazine in 2001 and 2002 to compare Samba running on GNU/Linux and Windows 2000. Samba is a FOSS file server that can run on the GNU/Linux platform and work seamlessly with workstations running Windows. It was found that Samba significantly outperforms Windows 2000 by about 100% in the 2002 tests. Tests carried out by IT Week Labs in 2003 indicate that the later version of Samba has widened the performance gap when compared to Windows.[3] More information on other performance comparison studies is available in the paper by Wheeler.[4]

It is very difficult to make comparisons between the security of FOSS and that of proprietary software. However, there have been attempts to do so and these are summarized by Wheeler.[5] The comparisons suggest that FOSS is often superior to proprietary software in terms of security. One of the reasons cited is the availability of the source code, which allows vulnerabilities to be identified and resolved by third parties. An independent audit of code is possible only with FOSS and not with proprietary software.

Build Long-term Capacity edit

There are clear indications that the use of FOSS in government, industry and other institutions is growing and that there will be a need for graduates familiar with FOSS. Hence, concerted efforts should be made to ensure the use of FOSS in the IT curriculum wherever possible. It is important that students are not only exposed to the predominant proprietary software but also have the opportunity to use a wider array of software, including FOSS.

Companies recognize the importance of the education market because the students of today are tomorrow's employees in the ICT sector. They will also be the users of technologies either on a personal basis or in the workplace. Hence, if they are exposed to certain products during their education, they will tend to continue to use them in the future. For this reason, companies will go out of their way to provide incentives, such as hefty discounts, to capture the education market.

Open Philosophy edit

The open philosophy of FOSS is consistent with academic freedom and the open dissemination of knowledge and information common in academia. "The advances in all of the arts and sciences, indeed the sum total of human knowledge, is the result of the open sharing of ideas, theories, studies and research. Yet throughout many school systems, the software in use on computers is closed and locked, making educators partners in the censorship of the foundational information of this new age."[6]

Computer software is often used in research work and the use of proprietary software and operating systems in such work is inconsistent with the principle of verifiability, as the computation of results by closed-source software is not open to scrutiny. The validity of research findings, arrived at using FOSS can be verified, because the source code is available for examination.

Encourage Innovations edit

A great deal of innovation originates from universities and many of the FOSS were initially developed in an academic environment. For example, in 1984 Richard Stallman started developing a free operating system called GNU in the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Linus Torvalds started the work that resulted in Linux in the University of Helsinki in Finland.

An academic environment where FOSS is prevalent will encourage staff and students to tinker and experiment with, and participate in the development of FOSS that may eventually lead to innovative solutions.

Alternative to Illegal Copying edit

Educational institutions that cannot afford to pay for licensing fees may resort to using illegal copies of the proprietary software. With FOSS, educational institutions can use as many copies of the software as required, regardless of whether it is for academic or administrative purposes.

The use of FOSS also discourages piracy by students, many of whom can ill-afford the purchase of licensed copies of proprietary software. If proprietary software was used for teaching, students would have no choice but to use illegal copies of the software to do homework and assignments at home or on their laptop computers. In contrast, there is no restriction against making copies of FOSS for use outside institutions.

Possibility of Localization edit

FOSS as most of the original software is developed in English. However, the open nature of FOSS is such that it can be localized. Such localization need not involve the original developer. With proprietary products, localization is constrained by commercial interests.When the size of the market is too small, there is no incentive for localizing proprietary products for that market.

Learning from Source Code edit

One of the main characteristics of FOSS is that the source code is available for users to examine and to modify.This gives students the opportunity to learn from studying high quality real-life programmes. In contrast, proprietary software is normally provided in binary form and the source code is seldom released for users to study.

Footnotes edit

  1. Wong, K. and Sayo, P., "Free/Open Source Software-A General Introduction", UNDP-APDIP, 2003; available from .
  2. "How Open Source and Commercial Software Compare: MySQL 4.0.16", Reasoning Inc. Whitepaper, 2003; available from
  3. Wheeler, D. A., "Why Open Source Software / Free Software (OSS/FS)? Look at the Numbers!", December 2003; available from .
  4. Howorth, R.,"Samba 3 extends lead over Win 2003",Oct 2003, IT Week; available from .
  5. Wheeler, D. A., "Why Open Source Software / Free Software (OSS/FS)? Look at the Numbers!", December 2003; available from
  6. Vessels,T.,"Why should open source software be used in schools?", 2001; available from