FOSS Education/Policy Issues
As the earlier chapters have shown, FOSS has an important role to play in education. We have seen how it can be used in setting up and running ICT infrastructure in academic institutions. It can be used to meet specialized administrative needs, such as the management of libraries and the setting up of learning management systems. Its use can potentially lower the costs of providing ICT facilities. The use of FOSS also makes possible improvements in teaching computer literacy, programming, software engineering and other non-IT subjects. FOSS has a role to play in academic research and it has influenced and contributed to a more open dissemination of academic and research content.
Nevertheless, in considering the adoption of FOSS in education, policy-makers and decision-makers should be aware of the following issues.
Since there are a number of advantages to using FOSS in educational institutions, including lower costs, reliability, better performance and, arguably, better security, strategic plans or policies for education at the national or institutional level should have guidelines for procurement of software that give due consideration to FOSS. These guidelines should also apply to decisions on software acquired for use in various curricula.
The different approaches that can be taken for developing guidelines for the procurement of software are:
- Making it mandatory to use FOSS unless a suitable FOSS equivalent to the proprietary software is not available.
- Recommending that FOSS be used whenever possible
- Ensuring that FOSS is given due consideration and not excluded in favour of proprietary software.
In many situations, an educational institution may already be using proprietary software for both backend servers and desktops. In these cases, a strategy should be developed to migrate to the use of FOSS. The first place to start is usually the backend servers, since the migration will be transparent to users and a wide range of high-quality FOSS is already available for servers. The exception will be certain applications such as financial management systems, where good FOSS equivalents are not yet available. In such cases, servers running proprietary operating systems in support of such applications can be maintained and can coexist with other servers based on FOSS platforms, on the same network.
For desktop applications, the adoption of FOSS can potentially result in greater cost savings. However, a migration policy will have to take into account the existing use of proprietary software and the need to maintain the use of some proprietary applications for academic requirements. A gradual approach can be taken, for example, by first introducing and supporting FOSS applications that run on Windows, followed by the introduction of GNU/Linux as part of a dual boot system. There may be a transitional period where dual or multiple operating systems have to be maintained, which may result in additional support costs.
The available FOSS expertise within the institution will determine the training requirements for system administrators and other IT support staff.User training may also be required for other administrative users.
Curricula in Schools
More and more schools are being equipped with computer facilities and many have already implemented curricula to teach computer literacy to their students.These curricula should be examined to ensure that they are not based on specific proprietary software. If necessary, modifications should be made to the curricula so that the emphasis is on teaching concepts and generic skills. As we saw earlier, FOSS suitable for teaching computer literacy is available and should be used wherever possible. It has cost advantages; discourages software piracy; raises the awareness of the students regarding the availability of FOSS solutions; and avoids over-dependence on one proprietary platform. This does not necessarily mean that proprietary software should be excluded entirely. If the resources are available, proprietary software can be used to demonstrate the range of software available to accomplish certain tasks.
A lot of FOSS educational software for specific subjects are available,and teachers should be encouraged to use these to enhance teaching and learning. If they have the skills, the teachers should also be encouraged to develop appropriate software for their classes and make these available as FOSS.
To introduce FOSS in the curricula of schools, appropriate training for teachers is likewise required. The emphasis in this case will be on training the teachers to use the appropriate desktop FOSS, such as OpenOffice, Mozilla and GIMP.
Curricula in Tertiary Institutions
At the tertiary level, the policies of institutions with respect to curricula for Computer Science or Information Technology programmes should encourage the incorporation of FOSS. Academic staff should examine course syllabi and modify them where necessary. Student projects that leverage on the availability of source code of FOSS and encourage participation and contribution to ongoing FOSS development efforts should be introduced. Consideration should also be given to the introduction of computer languages that are increasingly being used in FOSS development such as PHP, Perl, Python and Java, in addition to the traditional languages. FOSS development methodology and the tools commonly used in developing FOSS should be incorporated in software engineering courses.
Non-IT students should be taught computer literacy using curricula that is FOSS-enabled, with emphasis on acquisition of generic skills. It may be useful to expose students to a wide selection of software, including both FOSS and proprietary software if the resources are available. FOSS for teaching specific subjects should be identified and used wherever possible. Staff with the requisite skills should be encouraged to develop relevant educational software and release them as FOSS.
Development of FOSS for Education
The numerous FOSS available for educational use range from Learning Management Systems to software that can be used to teach specific subjects in schools or universities. However, in order for academic institutions in a particular country to use these software, it may be necessary to modify them to suit local educational requirements. In countries where English is not used as the medium of instruction, there is also a need to translate the software into the local language. Where there are no suitable FOSS available such as a Student Information System or software applications for specific academic subjects, then there may also be a need to develop new applications.
To encourage the customization, localization and development of FOSS for education, the relevant government agencies should consider establishing incentive schemes for the private sector and academic institutions to undertake these activities. This can be in the form of grants that would help to alleviate the risks involved in investing in the development of educational FOSS that may not have direct commercial returns for the private sector.
Earlier we gave some examples of the use of FOSS in research and the reason why it should be used, instead of proprietary software, where possible. To promote the use of FOSS in research activities, agencies providing research grants can consider making the use of FOSS one of the criteria for the award of the grants. They can also specify that any software developed as part of research activities should be released as FOSS. These conditions should apply regardless of whether the research is related to ICTs, since computer software are very often used as research tools in many other areas.
Immediate measures need to be taken to build the human resource capacity required to implement and support FOSS. This will require setting up training centres that conduct programmes preferably leading to certification such as LPI or RHCE certification. The training centres may be government-run, set up by the private sector or set up in partnership with universities or colleges. To act as a catalyst and to ensure the availability of sufficient trainers to run these programmes, "train the trainers" programmes can be established.