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Title: talk: teaching (with) open source Date: 2016-04-21 22:26 Modified: 2016-04-21 22:26 Tags: talk, education, teaching, learning Status: draft Googleadsense: True Slug: 20160421_teaching_with_open_source Summary: An expanded version of my talk “teaching (with) free/libre open source software”

This talk of mine was first given at the international education fair Moscow 2016 in a short, 25 minutes version. This is the expanded version of the same talk, made into a longer article.

Useful links: * Slides of the talk in Moscow (25 minutes)



I run my business, teaching open source game programming (mostly Python) to children since 2006. Over this time, i co-operated with many schools and teachers, giving workshops in schools etc. Naturally, i liked some teachers more than others. The teachers i like most are those who are -like me- enthusiastic about using Free/libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) in their classrooms. This article reflects my observations about those teachers as well as my own experience using FLOSS exclusively for teaching in my own business. This article is about using FLOSS technology in education as well as teaching the FLOSS values themselves.


As free/libre software and open source are often confused, mixed together and used interchangable, let me start with the distinction between free software and open source. It's a bit long-winded:

You may know and use popular software and projects like the Firefox Web browser, the Android Operation System (built upon Gnu/Linux), the Git version Control system, Blender, Gimp, Bitcoins or even Gnu/Linux. Those are free software projects. All those software projects have some things in common:

  • all of them can be considered free/libre Open source software.
  • None of those projects are “made out of thin air” by a single human. Instead, each of those projects built upon the work others have already done, by changing ideas and code and by learning from each other.
  • all of them are published and maintained under a free software license.
  • Such a free software license, like the GPL license, guarantees 4 core freedoms:
    • Use: The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
    • Study: The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
    • Share: The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
    • Modify: The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

If a program is licensed in such a way that the 4 core freedoms are guaranteed, it can be considered free/libre open source sortware. Technically speaking, the term Open Source refers only to the freedom to study the (source) code (freedom 1) of a program.

free content

You may have worked with, and used, famous websites like Wikipedia. You may have used ore created content under a creative-commons license or worked with Open Educational Resources (OER).

While the free software licenses deal specifically with software, other content like text, music, videos etc. can give a similare set of freedoms, by choosing a fitting creative-commons license. Please note that from the various creative commons licenses, only the CC-By or the CC-By-Sa licenses are considered free cultural works, comparable with the GPL license.

Please also note that the term “public domain” or CC-0 applys for American legislation and is not legally the exact same in every nation.

Most important, if you choose a creative-commons license, keep in mind that the (sadly very popular) creative-commons non-commercial license does often more harm than good, as it is not very clear what a “commercial purpose” is. To give an example, showing a cc-by-nc licensed work while teaching and while you are paid to teach can be considered a commercial activity. Also using cc-by-nc licensed music on a school festival where your studens sell juice can be considered a commercial activy.

History: Richard Stallman and Linus Thorvalds

Richard Stallman created not only the GPL license and important groundwork like the Gnu Emacs editor, he also founded the free software movement and created the Free Software Foundation to give legal aid and to advocate using of free software. He gives speeches all over the world, if you have the opportunity to hear him speaking in a town near you it is very well worth the visit.

If you like reading, i can recommend the books “Free as Freedom 2.0 biography” (biography) and “Free software, free society” (essays), both from R. Stallman. Both books can be downloaded for free as well as bought on paper.

Linus Torvalds is often considered the creater of the Linux Operation system. Technically, he created the first working version of a Linux kernel. Together with other already existing tools of the free Gnu operation system (Debugger, Compiler, Editor, created mostly by Richard Stallman) and released under the GPL license (also drafted by Stallaman), it was possible to work with computers using only free software. Stallman insists to use the term Gnu/Linux instead of Linux.

In his 2016 TED Talk, Linus Torvalds said his first version of the Linux kernel were “open source, but not open source (licensed)” and that he was introduced into the free software movement by a friend. In his book “just for fun”, he describes seeing a talk of Stallman at this university in Finland.

FLOSS values

As described in Stallman's talk and books, the whole free software movement is built upon the idea of sharing of information. In contrast, the whole (western) content and tech industry has it's business model buildt upon the idea of denying and restricting access to information. Those restrictions take various forms, like enforcing of patent laws, Digital Rights Management, Paywalls, etc.

FLOSS and earning money

Naturally, industries built upon denying others the access of information are not very compatible with the ideals of the free software movement, thus arising the question “Can make money with free software?”. The short answer is: yes, you can.

FLOSS in education

Sharing information is what education is all about, so education and FLOSS should in theory go very well together: FLOSS software is often cheaper than proprietary software, schools are nearly always limited on budget, and the in-built freedom to study the inner workings of FLOSS (software and hardware) allows students to learn by dismanteling and looking at the source-code.

In contrast to theory, the practice i could observe in schools in Austria and Germany is that a lot of schools use non-free, proprietary software and hardware, for various reasons: inflexible buerocraty, centralized decision-making, strong lobbying form proprietary industries, lacking of FLOSS awarness and knowledge in education personal, lack of pro-FLOSS lobbys.

In my local group of the Free software foundation Europe (FSFE), “how to influence schools (toward using FLOSS)” is often a discussed topic.

Suggestions usually include providing more information, influence policy makers and public opinion, offer teacher training, provide free manuals and tutorials.

Practical questions arise when working togehter with teachers:

  • strategy: gradual vs. total
    • gradual: “invading” of FLOSS (easy to change software like choice of webbrowser, apps, software), even if working on otherwise proprietary operations systems like Windows
    • total: complete change of existing computer infrastructure (Desktops, computer labs) toward Linux / FLOSS
    • mix: providing free and non-free infrastructure parallel to ease transition
  • political: top-down vs. bottom-up
    • top-down: influence top decicion maker (politcans, goverment etc.) toward using FLOSS in education
    • bottom-up: ignoring top-level hirachy and working with teachers locally, one teacher, one computer, one computer lab after another toward FLOSS

a tale of three teachers: adapting Linux schools

I personally met several teachers trying to use FLOSS and specifically Linux on their schools. I will present three of them to discuss various aspects of success and failures when adapting FLOSS.

Kurt Graemlich

I saw Mister Kurt Graemlich the first time at Linuxtage Chemnitz were in the year 2013 he gave a talk about lessons learned while migrating all schools in his country of Rheinland-Pfalz toward Linux. Mister Gramlich worked with adult education centers and is active in the FLOSS project Skolelinux, a linux distribution from Scandinavia especially focused and adapted to schools.

Because of fortunate political events, Mister Graemlich got the official aid from the top-level education politicians in his province to migrate public schools in Rheinland-Pfalz toward Linux. A number of school joined the migration program. However, as the politcal wind changed and the linux-migration program lost fundings, many of the schools in the “migrate to Linux program” stopped using Linux.

Some schools in Rheinland-Pfalz still use Linux, independent of the goverment policy. Mister Greamlichs concluded that the political “top down” approach does not work very well: it attracts the wrong kind of people: people interested in Linux migration programs because of the money or hardware grants included in the program, but not because of the ideology of FLOSS. Learning from his experiences, Mister Greamlich advised on spending time and money instead on people and shools wanting to embrace FLOSS because of it's underlying value.

He also warned against “selling” FLOSS solutions to decicion makers because FLOSS is “cheaper” or “better” (having more/better features). While that may be sometimes the case, it can can change with the next (proprietary) software update. “Cheaper” and “better” (features) is not the core of what free software is about, both are rather symptoms. What free software is about is the sharing of information, the culture of helping others, the interaction with a global community. According to Mister Graemlich, it takes novices several years of acutally being involved in this free software community, locally and global, until the former novices can truly understand and value of FLOSS: being part of a community.

Mister Kurt Graemlich currently lives in Güthersloh, Germany and is active in a wide range of projects, from building his own low-energy house to Skolelinux, music and local politic movements. In the spirit of the free software movement, he shares his experiences on talks and Linux conferences.

Helmuth Peer

Mister Helmuth Peer is a secondary school teacher, teaching sport, math and computer science in the city of Weiz, Austria. He retired in 2016. Administrating all of his school computer labs and it infrastructure, Mister Peer taught himself the necessary Linux skills. He also created an voluntary afternoon class for students interested in computers, basically transforming his school into an part-time hackerspace.

His experience with school IT infrastructure led him to bundle his own Linux-distribution, tailored to the need of Austrian school admins and teachers: Desktop 4 education

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Edgar Rice Soirée game at “zam spielen”. Image rights: Horst JENS, cc-by-sa license

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