Why Schools Should Exclusively Use Free Software

Educational activities, including schools of all levels from kindergarten to university, have a moral duty to teach only free software.

All computer users ought to insist on free software: it gives users the freedom to control their own computers—with proprietary software, the program does what its owner or developer wants it to do, not what the user wants it to do. Free software also gives users the freedom to cooperate with each other, to lead an upright life. These reasons apply to schools as they do to everyone. However, the purpose of this article is to present the additional reasons that apply specifically to education.

Free software can save schools money, but this is a secondary benefit. Savings are possible because free software gives schools, like other users, the freedom to copy and redistribute the software; the school system can give a copy to every school, and each school can install the program in all its computers, with no obligation to pay for doing so.

This benefit is useful, but we firmly refuse to give it first place, because it is shallow compared to the important ethical issues at stake. Moving schools to free software is more than a way to make education a little “better”: it is a matter of doing good education instead of bad education. So let's consider the deeper issues.

Schools have a social mission: to teach students to be citizens of a strong, capable, independent, cooperating and free society. They should promote the use of free software just as they promote conservation and voting. By teaching students free software, they can graduate citizens ready to live in a free digital society. This will help society as a whole escape from being dominated by megacorporations.

In contrast, to teach a nonfree program is implanting dependence, which goes counter to the schools' social mission. Schools should never do this.

Why, after all, do some proprietary software developers offer gratis copies(1) of their nonfree programs to schools? Because they want to use the schools to implant dependence on their products, like tobacco companies distributing gratis cigarettes to school children(2). They will not give gratis copies to these students once they've graduated, nor to the companies that they go to work for. Once you're dependent, you're expected to pay, and future upgrades may be expensive.

Free software permits students to learn how software works. Some students, natural-born programmers, on reaching their teens yearn to learn everything there is to know about their computer and its software. They are intensely curious to read the source code of the programs that they use every day.

Proprietary software rejects their thirst for knowledge: it says, “The knowledge you want is a secret—learning is forbidden!” Proprietary software is the enemy of the spirit of education, so it should not be tolerated in a school, except as an object for reverse engineering.

Free software encourages everyone to learn. The free software community rejects the “priesthood of technology”, which keeps the general public in ignorance of how technology works; we encourage students of any age and situation to read the source code and learn as much as they want to know.

Schools that use free software will enable gifted programming students to advance. How do natural-born programmers learn to be good programmers? They need to read and understand real programs that people really use. You learn to write good, clear code by reading lots of code and writing lots of code. Only free software permits this.

How do you learn to write code for large programs? You do that by writing lots of changes in existing large programs. Free Software lets you do this; proprietary software forbids this. Any school can offer its students the chance to master the craft of programming, but only if it is a free software school.

The deepest reason for using free software in schools is for moral education. We expect schools to teach students basic facts and useful skills, but that is only part of their job. The most fundamental task of schools is to teach good citizenship, including the habit of helping others. In the area of computing, this means teaching people to share software. Schools, starting from nursery school, should tell their students, “If you bring software to school, you must share it with the other students. You must show the source code to the class, in case someone wants to learn. Therefore bringing nonfree software to class is not permitted, unless it is for reverse-engineering work.”

Of course, the school must practice what it preaches: it should bring only free software to class (except objects for reverse-engineering), and share copies including source code with the students so they can copy it, take it home, and redistribute it further.

Teaching the students to use free software, and to participate in the free software community, is a hands-on civics lesson. It also teaches students the role model of public service rather than that of tycoons. All levels of school should use free software.

If you have a relationship with a school —if you are a student, a teacher, an employee, an administrator, a donor, or a parent— it's your responsibility to campaign for the school to migrate to free software. If a private request doesn't achieve the goal, raise the issue publicly in those communities; that is the way to make more people aware of the issue and find allies for the campaign.

  1. Warning: a school that accepts such an offer may find subsequent upgrades rather expensive.
  2. RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company was fined $15m in 2002 for handing out free samples of cigarettes at events attended by children. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/sci_tech/features/health/tobaccotrial/usa.htm.

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