Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Does the Free Software Movement Deserve the Respect of the Educational Technology Community?

I guess if you don't know much about the history and philosophy of free software, or, more to the point, you don't care about the movement, Doug Johnson's piece in Education World, "Free is Good: A Beginner’s Dozen of No-Cost Computing Tools" seems innocuous enough. But it is another small passive-aggressive thumb in the eye of those of us who advocate for free software in education.

The biggest hurdle we face long term is simply educating people about what free and open source software is and how it is different than proprietary software. Articles like Doug's make this job harder. It is exhausting trying to undo the damage caused by this kind of passage:

There are basically three types of “free" software:

  • Open source software uses code that the creator has placed in the public domain and that a large body of users then re-writes and adds to. The Linux operating system is probably the most famous open source product available.
  • Minimally-featured versions of commercial products are made available by a producer who then hopes that features available only in the purchased version will sell the software. The popular e-mail reader Eudora operates that way.
  • Web-based software applications that derive revenue from advertising are growing in popularity. Yahoo mail uses that economic model.

Open source software is one type of free software? Open source software is in the public domain? Commercial software can be is free software? Whether or not these assertions make your hair stand on end largely depends on whether or not you think the free software community, Free Software Foundation, GNU Project and/or Richard Stallman himself are worthy of any respect or consideration whatsoever.

The evidence indicates that the educational technology establishment, in which Doug is a significant voice, does not think so; the exclusion of the history, principles and ethos of the free software movement from the mainstream discourse about educational technology is complete, unwavering and systematic.

This is particularly ironic coming from someone like Doug who has written a book on Learning Right From Wrong in the Digital Age and is interested in what the librarians like to call the "the ethical use of information." The free software movement is based on a fundamentally ethical critique of proprietary software distribution. If anyone should be interested in substantively engaging with this movement, it should be someone like Doug.

I cannot explain this phenomenon, I can only point it out.

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