Free & Open Source Software in Education Research Paper Starter

Free & Open Source Software in Education

Free and open-source software use has been on the rise in public schools in the United States. Beginning in the 1980s and the advent of the personal computer, schools across America have been large-scale consumers of educational software. Much of the software used in schools continues to be proprietary software that schools must pay to license from vendors. The Free Software Foundation began to advocate for free software in all areas of life—school, home, and work. In the 1990s, the arrival of the World Wide Web changed the educational software dynamic, with more schools opting to use free Web-based applications. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, in addition to Web-based educational tools and proprietary software, educators have been able to choose from free and open source software and free operating systems. Some large-scale projects to educate the developing world, such as the One Laptop Per Child initiative, rely entirely on free software because it can be easily and legally modified to suit local and individual pedagogical needs. This article discusses the role of free software running on personal computers and looks at the ways in which it presents a challenge to the prevailing ways in which students interact with technology and schools maintain their information technology.

Keywords Closed Source Software; Educational Software; Free and Open Source Software (FOSS); Free Software; Free Software Foundation (FSF); One Laptop Per Child; Open Source Software; Operating System; Proprietary Software; World Wide Web


During the final decades of the twentieth century, Americans witnessed a technological revolution. A century that began with automobiles and airplanes ended with personal computers and the World Wide Web. Experts continue to debate whether the personal computer or the Internet was the most important invention of the end of the century, but there can be little doubt that both technologies have worked together to radically alter the ways in which people work and play.

What is Free Software?

As defined by the Free Software Foundation (FSF), the leading advocate for free software around the world, free software must meet certain criteria. Free software is a matter of the users' freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change, and improve the software. More precisely, it refers to four kinds of freedom for the users of the software:

• The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).

• The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

• The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).

• The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this (Free Software Foundation, 2007).

Free software includes virtually all the software written for the free Linux operating system, a competitor to Microsoft's Windows and Apple's OSX operating systems. Some well-known free software includes the Firefox Web browser, Sun's Open Office office suite, and the sound editor Audacity. Another distinguishing mark of free software is that it is cross-platform, meaning that it can run on all the major operating systems—including Linux, Apple's OSX, and the various versions of Windows. Many in the media refer to free software as open source software to highlight the fact that its source code is available to all.

Free vs. Free

The FSF makes the helpful distinction between software that is free (as in freedom, defined above) and free (i.e., does not cost money) software (Free Software Foundation, 2007). Free (as in no cost) software does not come with one or more of the four software freedoms outlined above—most importantly, its source code is unable to be modified by the user. While the user does not pay for the software or for licensing, this type of free software does not fit the above criteria for free (as in freedom) software. Some well-known examples of this type of free software include Google Earth, Google Maps, and the Opera Web browser.

Both types of free software, commonly known by the acronym FOSS (for free and open-source software), are to be distinguished from commercial software programs, such as Microsoft Office or Adobe Photoshop, which must be purchased or licensed before they can legally be used by individuals, schools, or corporations.

Brief History of Free Software

Free software was commonplace for the first decades of the computer era, beginning in the 1950s. As computers became more advanced, and corporations began investing large sums of money into developing software for the burgeoning enterprise, school and home software markets, they began to place restrictions on the use, modification, and distribution of their software. Virtually all the software sold in the United States today is what is known as proprietary (or closed-source) software.

In the 1980s, Richard Stallman, an IT industry veteran, became alarmed at the trend toward proprietary software, and in 1984 be founded the FSF to advocate on behalf of free software. The FSF has helped free software to earn pride of place on the servers running in many government and commercial data centers. Today many well-known websites, such as (Shankland, 2004) and Google (Delio, 2002) run on free software operating systems, specifically Linux and BSD.

On the desktop side, free software has made far fewer inroads. Linux and BSD continue to have a small segment of the overall operating system market, which the proprietary Microsoft Windows continues to dominate. As for the applications that run on a given operating system, most continue to be written only for Windows, or only for Windows and Apple.


With the growing user base for the Apple II in the 1980s, as well as the introduction of increasingly powerful PCs running increasingly powerful incarnations of Microsoft's Windows operating system, proprietary software developers began to see a myriad of business opportunities in three different markets: business, home, and education.

Many schools in the United States—like businesses and home users—have used proprietary software since the use of personal computers became widespread in the 1980s. This software has been used by administrators to manage school budgets, teachers who instruct students, and by the students themselves to learn computer skills and complete assignments.

As the business world put away typewriters and adopted the personal computer on a grand scale in the early 1980s, education leaders began to advocate for its use in schools. Their logic was simple: students should learn computer skills in schools so that they will not be left behind when they enter the job market. When the competitive dust had settled, Apple was the most successful in getting its more beginner-friendly computers (complete with a graphical user interface) into elementary schools, while other PC manufacturers such as IBM captured the majority of the high school market. As late as 1995, five years after the Apple II was discontinued, it still accounted for nearly 38 percent of all school computers (Flynn, 1995).

Beginning in earnest in the early 1980s, a wide variety of educational software became available for home and school use. Reading and math software was especially prominent in elementary schools, while typing tutors and office applications (such as word processors and spreadsheets) were fixtures in middle and high school computer labs. Software titles such as Reader Rabbit, Where In the World is Carmen San Diego?, and Oregon Trail became fixtures in elementary school classrooms.

The accepted wisdom was that educational software was helping both to modernize the American educational system and to make quality education more widely accessible. As a report from ABC News notes, "Almost every school district in the country has bought computer software that's supposed to help kids do better in math or reading" (ABC News, 2007).

In the early 1990s, a new phenomenon known as the World Wide Web began to transform the educational software industry, making it Web-based rather than simply computer-based. Using the Internet, students were able to tap into a global community of teachers and learners to expand their educational horizons. And teachers began to join together across the globe to share resources and advice.

Throughout the 1990s the reach of the Web quickly expanded—some would say exploded—across the educational landscape: while only 35 percent of public schools were wired in 1994, the number climbed to nearly 100 percent by 2001 (Wells & Lewis, 2006, p. 4). Moreover, the ratio of students to Internet-enabled computers dropped from 12.1 to 1 in 1998 to 3.8 to 1 in 2005, meaning that more and more students had easier access to the Internet at school (Wells & Lewis, 2006, p. 6). Fast broadband connections provided quicker access to...

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