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Whither free software in education?

I just arrived back from the Australian Computers in Education Conference (ACEC). It’s actually still going, but as I’m not a teacher and hence hanging out at education conferences doesn’t constitute paid work for me, I decided to go home early.

It was all a bit of an eye-opener for me. There was a huge hall filled with exhibitions mostly from commercial software companies, where all meals were held. I was rather taken aback at the idea that teachers might wander around and actually purchase software based on these stands. Reminded me of pharmaceutical companies marketing to doctors.

For fun I spoke to the woman at the Encyclopedia Britannica stand. I didn’t even realise they had much Australian presence. And I didn’t even realise the main thing they were pushing these days was website subscriptions (as opposed to books and CD-ROMs!). They offer basically three versions of each article, written for different ages/reading comprehension skills. She also told me a couple of scare stories, like what if chill-uns look for pictures of the murray darling (“Imagine what they get, with the word ‘darling’!” — actually they get exactly what they’re looking for), and a surely made-up story about her 10 year old nephew looking for pictures of soldiers by typing in “pictures of privates”.

There was exactly one talk relating to open source software (many others by commercial software providers). At first I was so excited to see another FLOSS advocate (despite the somewhat troubling use of the word “freeware” in the abstract.) So I went to it… and the speaker proclaimed that “Google” was “open source”. I don’t even know what that is supposed to mean, most Google products don’t even supply source, let alone under an open source license. So that was kind of a shocker. What a shame. There was supposed to be an OLPC talk but that was cancelled.

I spoke to a university lecturer there I had met before, and I said how I found the lauding of web-based technologies a little worrying given the concerns about network lock-in, and that as I saw it there was little difference between being locked in to a software product/format vs a website. (It’s all about the API — can you get your data back out if you need to? If not, tread warily!) He mentioned how a large company had come to his campus offering to take care of his university’s infrastructure (email, course management etc), and his university had just laughed at them because it would be ludicrous to give up that control to a commercial company for little to no benefit. And seemingly the large company was taken aback because elsewhere they had had a good reception. Seriously.

What primary school and high school students learn to use is likely to be highly influential. Many of them may never go software-exploring beyond what they become familiar with at school. As I remember my grade 12 software development and design teacher putting it, why the hell should the state education department pay Microsoft (or anyone else) for the “privilege” of using their software or services? Why the hell shouldn’t they be paying the education department for the opportunity to influence this captive audience of millions of students?

OK, so that’s a naive dream, but I learnt more about free software in education at a Software Freedom Day event with an audience numbering tens, than I did at a gigantic biennial national computers-in-education conference. So we freedom lovers can’t afford lobby groups and trade show exhibition stalls; I reckon we could have at least put together a FLOSS talk from someone who actually knows what the term means.

01 October, 2008 • , , ,

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"Foundations of Open" Australia 2020 local summit

australia2020.gov.au

Well, it’s over a week since I attended the Foundations of Open: Technology and Digital Knowledge local summit. For those outside Australia, in November last year Australia elected a new government after eleven years. One of the new government’s first initiatives was to announce a plan for a Australia 2020 summit. The summit proper is being held next week, with 1,000 attendees taking part. The whole thing is very encouraging of participation, and part of that includes the “local summits” by MPs. Senator Kate Lundy held hers with a focus on open source, open access and related issues. In 12 years, where might progressive and friendly government policy lead us? This summit was about putting heads together and dreaming big, then filling in the steps in between to try and make the ideal a reality.

Appropriately enough, Senator Lundy runs her own website using Joomla, and the summit co-chair Tom Worthington put up all the notes from the day into a Moodle course. (And I noticed while slides and things were being set up that Senator Lundy runs Ubuntu. Mad :D)

Anyway, for some reason I find the video files time out or something and won’t play. You can download them directly instead. The recordings are excellent – close up and very good sound. (The small sized files are quite decent quality, don’t feel obligated to download the large files.)

I particularly recommend

The first four are very good speakers, each in different ways. Tridge was very impassioned and articulate. Jeff is has quite a showman style. Pia is straight-up and her talks are information-dense and clearly informed by her experience. The integrity and leadership of all three, from the free software movement, is inspiring. While they know the importance of being able to speak other audiences’ languages (business, government) and how “selling” free software can help it spread, they also know there are certain values that cannot be compromised — and they are up-front about this too.

Professor Cram’s talk is considered and nuanced; he’s clearly aware (in a way that perhaps people from the free software movement tend to underestimate) that there is a cost to freedom (from (7’20’‘):

I think the way that we’re [ANU] thinking about it [university open access policy] is interesting to reflect on. There’s a technology layer that we’ve already got control of: the repositories, and the interfaces that people can access our work through are now available, and in many respects turned on. We’ve got a policy layer that has to do with the management of copyright, the interactions that we have with publishers. […] And then finally there’s the user layers, and they’re really quite interesting.

Just to show the kinds of things that we have to worry about: suppose that we conduct medical research. And our medical researchers publish a paper that’s quite erudite about a treatment for diabetes. And suppose that that, then, is on the web. And it’s uninterpreted. People will access that. The writers of the article never intended it to be addressed by people who worry about diabetes, and it’s not, therefore, interpreted in a way that’s helpful to them. It would be wrong, I think, to withhold the information, but it also has elements of wrongness to not interpret it as well. And the interpretation is something that we don’t think of doing at present. If you publish a medical paper in a medical journal, you’ve got a pretty good idea about most of the audience, and you don’t need to interpret it. So we are thinking about what it would mean to interpret, the portal through which the community accesses our online information.

(Professor Cram’s talk of “interpretation” reminds me of Andrew Keen in The Truth According to Wikipedia, lamenting the loss of “gatekeepers”, editors and publishers who choose what to publish — except Professor Cram can see the potential benefits despite the guaranteed difficulties on the way. It strikes me that Andrew Keen can see no better society than the one we had 10-20 years ago.)

There is also Jessica Coates from Creative Commons Australia (video, 37min), just in case you’ve never heard a Creative Commons spiel :) and Ann Steward from the government Information Management Office (who knew such a thing existed!), (video, 29min) if you want to hear some more perspective from someone actually in the public service (eg. what barriers exist to adoption of FLOSS). (I also found out about this document: Guide to Open Source Software for Australian Government Agencies.)

…FLOSS. I just wrote “free software” and changed it. The phrase reminded me of a “nomenclature problem” that came up from Ann’s talk. Tridge earlier had deliberately used the phrase “free software” (well, I kinda feel everyone who uses it must do so deliberately). Ann, during her talk, said something like “Open, but not necessarily free, software”, then talking about the cost of e.g. training. “Open, but not necessarily free” is a strange thing to people who hear the phrase “(as in freedom)” in between the words “free” and “software”. After her talk, Tridge tried to make clear the distinction, of free-as-in-freedom software, but it didn’t quite make it.

Stallman says, Every time you say “free software” rather than “open source,” you help our campaign. Sadly I think the campaign for keeping alive that distinction is one that does not survive outside the software development community.

Anyway, Foundations of Open is now done, and the presenters’ submissions are now available. Let’s see if this big picture thinking can translate into anything concrete!

12 April, 2008 • , , , , , ,

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Fundraisers a-go-go; a new license on the block

Card-carrying free culture proponents, here’s what’s hot at all hip water coolers this week:

It’s fundraiser time


A school in Zambia:
© Florence Devouard CC-BY-SA-3.0

The WMF fundraiser continues, with some interesting comments from Board chair Florence Devouard in an interview with the Wikipedia Signpost this week, about the success so far and whether or not there will be matching donations.

Wikipedia is many things to many people. While to some it’s nothing more than status or a game, imagine what it could be for the students of this school.

Also happening is the iCommons Auction. Thirty items have been donated by free culture leaders, and they range from the limited edition to the slightly weird. (I can’t say I have a hankering for the lead item, Lawrence Lessig’s coat. What would you do with it, sniff it? Wear it? About the only place you would get bragging rights for it is at the iSummit.)

More interesting, to me at least, are prints of our very own Joi Ito’s photography:


You can join the iCommons mailing list to be notified when particular items become available for bidding.

A new license: Affero GPL

No beta for this baby, straight to version 3!

The Free Software Foundation, the folks behind the mighty GPL and the less-championed GFDL, have announced the release of GNU Affero General Public License (so file this acronym away: AGPL).

The idea behind it is thus: The GPL came about because RMS wanted the right to view and modify source code of programs on his machine. You can make a web app available using GPL code without releasing the code, and that is OK, because the code doesn’t go onto users’ machines and you’re offering a service (use of a program) rather than a product (the software itself). I think that’s the story.

So, some people in the FLOSS movement find this dodgy and feel that such developers should be obligated to release their code, while others feel that that would be a radical and unwelcome interpretation of the GPL. Hence, new license. Soon you’ll be saying “Is it Affero GPL?” quicker than you can mouth Open Social.

Well, maybe. In this age of APIs where users can be grateful to have the very data that they contributed released back to them in an accessible format, is it too late for AGPL to have an impact?

Mako has some thoughts on it worth reading.

Free culture/free software symbiosis

Mako has also published a short piece Free Culture Advanced which describes how the nascent free content movement has drawn inspiration from the free software movement. As one of the authors of the Definition of Free Cultural Works he is hardly an impartial observer but it is a useful primer. As an even more basic guide I suggest the Ideology and philosophy section on the Wikimedia Commons “Choosing a license” guide, which, um, I mostly wrote. (Lately even that is overkill, given you can learn who to namedrop via xkcd.)

I have a vague memory of a CC-authored “free content definition”-style document being mentioned on one of the CC mailing lists, but I can’t find it now. Anyone else recall this?

Amazon’s Kindle ebook reader

Ebooks are great except for one nagging problem… The Future of Reading has some sobering quotes to contemplate.

Cool toy: GunnMap

Enough Serious Biz. Say hello to GunnMap (Flash, sorry). No more handcoding coloured maps! Just tick, tick, write, click, “Save SVG”, upload as CC-BY-SA, done! (Confession: I haven’t actually used it. I’m not a map creator by trade. But it looks pretty awesome and I hope it works as well as it looks.)

PS: For Facebook addicts, RSVP to the Wikimedia Commons Picture of the Year 2007 event so you won’t forget to vote! :)

20 November, 2007 • , , , ,

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