[Author Prev][Author Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Author Index][Thread Index]

[school-discuss] Freeing computers in schools ... (India)

This is an article I recently wrote for an Indian educators' mag. Your 
suggestions/corrections would be most welcome. FN

Why Free Software makes sense in education

Riza is a four-and-half Indian kid. For her, the computer is a toy. Instead
of adding one more difficult 'subject' to her tiring school-day, she
occasionally plays educational games on the PC.

When her friends come over, they end up learning without even being
conscious of it. One girl her size, who's never handled computers below,
drags on the mouse. As she moves it across the mouse-pad, the image of a
furry bear gets jerkily unveiled on the monitor. Another younger kid just
dances to the music that a programme called 'Bump and Jump' plays.

This particular piece of software was written by a team of Swedish students.
They would like to get a thank-you email from anyone willing to take the
trouble. Even if you don't, you can of course continue to use it. 

The best part is nobody paid for the CD they're using. It's not pirated
either. You can run it off any computer, by just booting up from your CD-Rom
drive! It comes in a 'distro' (distribution) called FreEDUC. See

Okay, so what's the point?

Free Software is opening up a whole new world. Education is one of its major
beneficiaries, globally. Are we sitting up to take note, though? 

You have Free Software tools that help students, whether they're in
kindergarten or studying complex streams of engineering.

Let's start at basics...

It's name might be a bit misleading. The term 'free' refers to 'freedom' and
not price (as in, zero-cost). Free Software, and its more-recent offshoot
called Open Source, gives the users a number of 'freedoms'. Unlike in the
world of proprietorial (pay-per-computer) software, the user has the right
to run a Free Software program for any purpose, study how it works,
redistribute copies, and also improve the program and release improvements
to the public.

In real terms, this means that it is next to impossible to charge huge
amounts for that software you so badly need to make your PC productive. This
is very relevant for a resource-poor, talent-rich country like India. 

Secondly, because knowledge is so freely shared, Free Software allows for
very low entry barriers. Anyone can see the source-code of a program
(without which, you wouldn't have a clue how it works) or contact coders who
have played a key role in writing this program itself.

Niranjan Rajani, a South Asian researcher based in Finland, recently put
together a study titled 'Free as in Education: Significance of the
Free/Libre and Open Source Software for Developing Countries' argues about
the benefits of FLOSS, as it's also called. See

Says he: "Take the example of education.  In terms of computer education,
FLOSS has no match. Nothing else provides that much value to learners as
FLOSS does. You're free to tinker with the code. Not only that, you can get
in touch with the people who wrote the code and ask why this or that was
done in a particular piece of code."

Rajani adds: "FLOSS has a complementary and reciprocal relationship to
education. One needs an educated section of the population to fulfil the
full potential of FLOSS, and at the same time FLOSS helps, enhances, and
complements education by providing tools to promote education."

But it's not just computer education that we're talking about. Free Software
has a big role to play, and here are ten good reasons why: 

o Not by bread (money) alone: Because Free Software evangelists are not
motivated by money alone, chances are that they will work on areas which
have the highest social need. Not just those that pay attention to the
luxurious needs of the affluent. It's no coincidence that education is high
on their agenda, both within India and abroad.

o Some of the best brains are here. That's a fact. The strong sense of
'community' makes it very easy to share software, ideas and solutions. 

o Anyone can get involved. Entry barriers in contributing to Free Software
are very low. Educators can, and are, shaping this movement and how
responsive it is to the world of education.

o Indian concerns, Indian developers: If we don't solve our own problems,
will a giant corporation in the US do so for us? FLOSS makes it easy for
anyone with the motivation, and a bright idea, to contribute to an exciting
global network. And, the software world shows us that people contribute
their skills and work not only for money. They do so for altruism, and a
sense of sharing knowledge. They do it "just for fun" or because they find
it a challenging task. They do it to develop new skills, or even in
anticipation of indirect rewards (like improving job opportunities). 

o Affordability: Free Software is not about price. It's about freedom. Yet,
in cash-strapped countries like India, the affordability of this tool makes
it particularly suitable for deployment in education.

o Support community worldwide: To scare off users from Free Software, one
argument is that there are few firms behind this global campaign. Yet, once
a region builds up its skills -- and we're fast getting there in India --
then these carry on spreading fast. Dozens or hundreds of mailing-lists and
newsgroups exist that offer support from a worldwide community of users and

o Indian-language solutions: If there are a handful of volunteers, it is
possible to make rapid strides in Indianising software. Even for small
languages, which proprietorial software might not see as viable. We can't
restrict computing and technology to a handful of English-language speakers
in this part of the globe. Networks like the Indic-computing-users mailing
list are doing interesting work on this front. See

o Adapt, rebuild, reuse: You don't have to re-invent the wheel. Anyone
interested can adapt existing software for their needs. In tiny Goa on the
Indian west coast, the local chapter of ILUG (India Linux Users Groups)
rebuilt a 'distro' that was meant to make it easy and uniform to install by
even unskilled people in schools.

Sankarshan Mukhopadhyay from eastern India wrote recently: "If you happen to
meet Arvind Yadav, can you pass on a message -- my friends have successfully
implemented LTSP (a terminal-server, which allows for the use of earlier
generation hardware) with graphics thanks to his wonderful Goa Schools CD
which he so kindly provided to me."

Says Arun <arun@gnu.org.in> "We have tested gcompris (a set of educational
software) in Malayalam (a language spoken by over 30 million, but still
awaiting computing solutions in many spheres). Some games like typing tutor
needs to be modified for Indian languages." This is an international
educational software, who's name is based on the French term "I understand".

o The interest is here: In India itself, a number of groups are working to
adapt Free Software to education. There's even one called LIFE. This list is
at life@mm.hbcse.tifr.res.in, or write to its admin Prof Nagarjuna G.
<nagarjun@hbcse.tifr.res.in>. See the box alongside.

o It this won't work, nothing will... In the software world, the FLOSS
movement has shown its ability to produce results. This is one area of life
where the alternative is proving to be really good. Maybe better than the
'real' thing, i.e. the dominant model of software production!

To wind up, some pointers on getting started.

Using Free Software often means that you need an additional operating system
(OS) to run it on. (Some software, on CDs like GNUWin or The Open CD, run on
the Windows platform. But this is rare.) You can install a new OS alongside
an existing OS like Windows, provided you have the space for it. 

You should be able to access much of your earlier work in GNU/Linux too,
unless it is created under proprietorial file formats. GNU/Linux-based
computing can achieve almost everything that a computer run on proprietorial
software can, and more. 

CDs of Free Software can be download from the Net (a laborous process given
the slow lines most of us use in India), or copied quite legally from
friends. It can even be purchased from outlets in Bangalore or Mumbai,
Belgaum or Pondicherry at a price of Rs 25-50 per CD. Many Indian cities
have GNU/Linux user-groups, called LUGs or GLUGs. Find a list on
www.linux-india.org or check gnu.org.in Paid services are also available,
but if expecting friendly neighbourhood support, a little bit of politeness
could bring you support that money simply can't buy!
FREDERICK NORONHA is a Goa-based freelance journalist, who often writes on
IT issues. He is actively involved with the GNU/Linux movement in India. For
more details, contact him at fred@bytesforall.org

For use as a separate box please:

Tools... available within arms reach:

Below are some tools available with the gcompris and drgenius and other
GNU/Linux packages.

junior-math   # Basic arithmetic. Q&A.
junior-toys   # Simple toys to adorn your desktop.
junior-typing # Typing tutor
tuxtype       # Educational Typing Tutor Game Starring Tux
gperiodic     # Periodic Table
ding          # language learning (default: german-english)
12e           # English to spanish translation dictionary
multiple versions of pool (billiards) games   
ksokoban      # excellent game to teach logic.
mathwar       # A flash card game designed to teach maths.
garlic        # [Chemistry] a free molecular visualization program
ghemical      # A GNOME molecular modelling environment

(Also Debian junior games for the network, simulation games, text-based
games, junior internet tools, junior programming, junior puzzles, junior
system tools and ucblogo - a dialect of lisp using turtle graphics famous
for teaching kids.)

B O O K M A R K S #####################################################

For a listing of case-studies of GNU/Linux's use in education, visit

Schoolforge works to promote free and open resources for education. Join
Schoolforge-discuss at http://schoolforge.net/sfdiscuss.php. One condition
is that members must participate in discussions. As the volunteers say: "We
are all busy, but we are all doing our best to collaborate wherever
possible." They also encourage the setting up of Schoolforge units and
meeting places wherever possible.

Recently, a project has been started to produce a free school administration
software package. It is at the planning stage and has need of volunteers to
help define the requirements of the system and assist with the construction
of it. See http://schooltool.sourceforge.net

Some useful mailing lists include the demo-schools network in South India,
the international schoolforge, and the Linux-Delhi schools network. See


See also linuxforkids.com
Frederick Noronha (FN)        | http://www.fredericknoronha.net
Freelance Journalist          | http://www.bytesforall.org
http://goalinks.pitas.com     | http://joingoanet.shorturl.com
http://linuxinindia.pitas.com | http://www.livejournal.com/users/goalinks
T: 0091.832.2409490 or 2409783 M: 0 9822 122436