Educating with free software

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Frederic Muller, president of Software Freedom International, was flaunting two things at the Gnome Asia Summit in Bangalore -- his passion for free software, and his newly acquired beard. We try to capture both in this interview. Frederic has lots of hands-on experience of promoting free software in education and offers wonderful advice for others who want to do the same.

Mayank Sharma: Could you talk about your work with students and your involvement with the various educational programs?

Frederic Muller: So I was mentoring for Google Code-In which is for high school students. Nobody was interested in my project so I didn't mentor anybody. But I did have a project, small tasks that are easy to do for people who want to familiarize with the Gnome community, so it's a good way to start getting involved with the project.

I think Gnome and free software in general have a lot of things to offer to students. That's really the beauty of free software. You give the tools and the people to do self-learning while being taught by people who write real software that are used by companies, by people, by everyone.

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It hasn't come to it yet, but if his words don't work, Frederic Muller would hypnotize people into loving free software.

One of the weaknesses of the educational system everywhere in the world is that you teach students in a closed box and they do the exercises and simulations and projects that don't go out of the classroom. I have also been involved with internship and often I think internship is too short and you know the joke about internship -- people do it either for the photocopy machine or the coffee machine.

For a company to take interns it's also a big problem because you have to have the time and often students come out of the University and aren't exposed to the real world. In that sense Gnome and free software has a lot to offer because we all work on real software that people need.

The Gnome project is like a company with marketing, website design, software development, bug fixing, Q&A, feedback, user experience, and more. We have the same needs as that of a company except that we all volunteer.

Gnome is more complicated than say Firefox which you download off a website and install. Gnome is a desktop environment so you need to understand where to get it, then choose a distro, and such.

Some people actually think that no choice is good because people don't have to hesitate and they have only one button. I think life doesn't work like this. With choice comes education because in order to choose, you have to be educated to understand why you have to say click on the right or the left button. Life has a lot of buttons. Everyday you get up and start pushing buttons. Gnome is exactly that -- real life software used by enterprises to artists.

MS: This works to get students into Gnome but where do they go from there?

FM: We have an IRC channel and a mailing list called Gnome Love where we get lost souls who haven't found the way yet. We try, based on their feedback, to help them.

There's a big misunderstanding when we try to talk to students or to teachers that Gnome has a lot to offer, they feel we are trying to sell them something. I don't want to force anybody to use Gnome. I think it's great and it will give them a lot of opportunity.

I hear a lot of complaints from unhappy users. And I think Gnome can fulfil those people. It has a lot of things for everyone. I say we have a small community called Gnome and we do a lot of things and have lots of fun, so if you are interested come and take a look around and find what you like. That's the important part "find what you like".

If someone comes and has no feeling, we can't help him. We don't do psychology. We can talk but they have to find their way. Like I say, we can show the way but we can't walk through the door for them.

So in that sense we will help, but people need to have the willingness to contribute.

MS: Are you find such people at the summit here?

FM: Yes. We always do these summits in universities. I think students are in the stage of life where the society expects you to fly with your own wings and it's very challenging. You hear a lot of things from a lot of people that try to pull you here and there. It's hard to know what to do.

Free software in that sense forces you to look at yourself and wonder what do you really want, what do you really like. We aren't telling you to do this or do that, like teachers that say you should study maths because it's good for your career. Gnome, and free software in general isn't doing that. We say we have a lot of things, we all use free software, we all got opportunities thanks to free software, and we are all having fun.

You look at us. We all have different jobs, different roles, but we have found something common in free software.

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If it weren't for free software, I'd be on stage wearing pants! Gosh, that'd be so uncool!

MS: You are obviously very passionate about free software. But how do you instil this passion for free software in students looking for buzzwords such as "cloud"?

FM: We have a saying in French that the most beautiful girl can only give what she has. So sometimes what I say doesn't work on some people because somehow they don't find what the society is asking for them in free software. I can understand that.

There are some people who want to work for big companies like Microsoft or Google, and they think free software is not the best way to "get through the door". The way I talk about it, is the way I feel it, rather than the way I should be selling it.

MS: What's your take on free software in education?

FM: I think the educational system should only use free software. Education is all about sharing knowledge. Why use software that you can't share, and understand how it works?

MS: But this involves advocating free software to the higher authorities.

FM: I tend to prefer to talk to teachers because one teacher can reach more students than me. Though it's a much more difficult task. Teachers are often very happy with the course they have been teaching for the past 15 years and they don't really want to change it. It's a lot of work. They expect us to do all the work and more. As I said, we just show them the way. It's their responsibility. They decided to become a teacher.

What we have been doing in China, is going to schools with projectors and showing what free software does. We talk to all kind of teachers and not just IT teachers. We first show them the quality of free software.

In countries where Microsoft is free software in the sense it's free as freebie because everybody copies it, it is very hard to say that free software is good because you don't have to pay for it, because they don't have to pay for Windows. So you talk about the thing about sharing and that you could give legally and they can understand how it works and that there is a supporting community willing to help. There is no company that will say "you can't use this software any more" or that "you should upgrade". Teachers are very receptive to this idea.

Talking once isn't enough. There has to be a lot of follow up because the road to free software isn't an easy road. There are a lot of road blocks such as Government programs for students which are often based on Microsoft Windows, atleast in China.

People also fail to realize that there are lots of IT jobs with free software. More than half of the web is running on free software. The mobile industry is running on free software. There's free software everywhere. Any industry, you name it, you have free software. But no one knows, because no body talks about it. Nobody does marketing in free software.

MS: How does all this translate to action? How do you introduce free software in education?

FM: For schools we work a lot not on the IT side. I think teaching IT for the sake of teaching IT is not always the best way to introduce free software. We tend to look at free software to get things done. So we make people use free software to teach something that has nothing to do with computers. It's like you are teaching someone without them actually noticing that they are learning it.

We do classes on learning how to programming with an application called RUR-PLE where students learn to program by moving a robot. We are using paint to teach students basic computer skills like using a mouse, navigating the menus. They think they are drawing, and that's a lot more smarter way to teach than showing kids how to do these tasks explicitly which is kind of boring if you ask me.

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Fred and his partner-in-crime, Pockey Lam.

MS: What else does Software Freedom International do besides organizing Software Freedom Day?

FM: Besides SFD right now, nothing. We only focus on organizing SFD and that currently covers raising funds to be able to send stuff to teams that register, maintaining the registrations, the relationship with the sponsors, and more.

The board has been very protective until recently. Everything is done by the board. It turns out that doesn't work very well and I think we are looking at the Gnome community a bit like an elder brother. There's a lot of good things here that we need to implement in our community. My hope as the President is that we will be able to very quickly offload the board from this daily committee tasks and have the community doing it.

We also have to get a lot more people interested in the project. We have interest but since it's once a year, we get an attention span of maybe three-four months.

It's a lot of fun, but a lot of work. Whenever you are involved in committee stuff you always have doubts about your involvement, whether it's worth your time. But when you look at what people do out of your little time invested, it's really motivating.

Images: Shashank Sharma (under CC By-SA 2.0)

Micah Roth

Very cool article. Piqued my interest in this project. Keep it up!

2011-04-14 06:27:32

Q

@Frederic
Bravo, good sir! Education formed the origins of Free Software, and education should be the sector reaping the benefits openness and software freedom. Unfortunately the conflicting interests of the "old" style of large software corporations (I'm talking about Microsoft and Apple vs. Red Hat and even Google) has prevented this from happening.

In my opinion, change starts with the students. If you can move the students to free platforms - or at least away from the dominant brand - it gives alternative and more technically impressive platforms a fighting chance. These include Free Software such as Linux or BSD combined with Gnome, KDE, LXDE, Enlightenment, etc.

From one high school student to a keen Free Software advocate: Keep up the good work!

2011-04-17 00:15:42

Fred Muller

Thanks a lot. Very nice to also see my words and ideas written in a way that I can feel reflects my message. Quality of articles over sensationalism is definitely appreciated.

2011-04-17 06:08:19

Christiaan Theron

With a 4 year old entering school this year I would like to advocate free software to the teachers. I was particularly interested in
"So we make people use free software to teach something that has nothing to do with computers".
Could you please share any materials and resources that you use for teaching the teachers or students?

2011-04-26 11:35:46

Fred Muller

Sorry didn't keep up with the responses. Unfortunately most of the work is in Chinese (available here: http://www.greenboard.org/wiki/zh/doku.php ). Due to limit use and very little interest we haven't translated much. Besides a pure translation would not necessary make sense: all the materials have been created based on feedback from the teachers we work with. Different place will require some adaptation.

What age range are you looking at and where?

2011-05-09 07:40:44

Christiaan Theron

I am looking at the primary school age range in Northern Ireland.

2011-05-22 08:53:05

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