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Guarding and Rescuing the FSF Titanic: Free Software in Education

A publication from the Free Media Alliance

Overview



A school bus

Summary: "If everyone learns to code, then everyone gains some understanding of how to code in other languages."

In the decade that the FSF was founded, computer education was not yet based on applications. By the 1990s, education was moving towards application training, which meant two things: computer training became a lot more superficial, and it better served the market for proprietary software.



Computers are multi-purpose machines, and applications focus on specific tasks. This means that if your education shifts from teaching about computing to training to use applications, you also move from teaching something multi-purpose to teaching something application-specific.

This is fine of course, if all you intend to do with the computer is use those specific applications.

"Computers are multi-purpose machines, and applications focus on specific tasks. This means that if your education shifts from teaching about computing to training to use applications, you also move from teaching something multi-purpose to teaching something application-specific."This point should bother every Free software advocate. We are trying to give people control of their multi-purpose machines back, and they aren't even taught what they can do with that control.

The essence of computing is not applications, but code. Although it is reasonable to assume that most people will not become skilled application developers, the fundamental understanding of computing is still missing for anyone that hasn't learned how to code.

Coding in one language to some degree teaches much of what someone would have to learn to code in other languages. When Silicon Valley initiates their teach-everyone-to-code schemes, they are gambling with the compromise that was made to education in the 1990s.

If everyone learns to code, then everyone gains some understanding of how to code in other languages. To a small degree, they get back a part of their understanding of what power they really have.

"If everyone learns to code, then everyone gains some understanding of how to code in other languages."Nonetheless, education is still focused on teaching a lot of proprietary software. If Free software advocates make it a goal, there is no reason we can't create "Free software coding schools" (they will be cheaper if they're virtual. Consider something less like DeVry and more like Khan Academy, for starters) and stand up to the non-free-laden schooling that teaches people to compromise their freedom long before they're halfway through university.

We have such classes online -- we don't have our own schools, and one should be built. If someone can build PeerTube, we can make Free Software Academy and send all of our friends there.

Silicon Valley is doing this, and we should be doing this for Free software.

If we do not reach at least high-school-level students with an education in Free software, then we have squandered an opportunity to teach about freedom at an optimal stage.

If the idea is to reach people as early as possible, then a practical language that is easy-to-learn as possible should be considered.

A single implementation is probably not the answer. It's a nice goal, but if we had a team of 20 people to work on such a thing we could split them up into 3 or 4 teams to come up with 3 or 4 different solutions.

"If the idea is to reach people as early as possible, then a practical language that is easy-to-learn as possible should be considered."Then we could go to each member and ask them which solution they thought was best, and second-best (this means they must vote on at least one solution that is not their own) and ask them to explain their choices. Perhaps the team could then work on the top two choices.

It would be ideal for developers to try teaming up with educators (or vice versa) to develop teaching environments that are closer to what educators really need. This is a great opportunity for volunteers. Teaching this sort of computing to educators would also be a great idea.

Of course the FSF isn't likely to do this. It only has so much money and so many volunteers, and it is not making good use of its volunteers-- if the FSF were making good use of its volunteers, it could do this. Instead the volunteers are focused on promoting the organisation and its message, much more than they are invited to help develop solutions.

The FSF should be training people to become coders, or trying to encourage people to create an organisation for that purpose and then supporting that organisation (with money or at least advice and promotion) but they are not. What the FSF cannot do, someone else ought to. Of course this chapter would not be here if we were not inviting all Free software advocates to help with this.

"But along with Free software, Free Culture, Free Hardware and OER (or better yet, "LER" for "Libre Educational Resources") society and Free software alike would benefit deeply from an organisation dedicated to Free software (coding) and free culture in education."This is a specific area where additional Free software organisations would be useful -- whether the unincorporated, no-dues no-budget volunteer-only sort, or the more traditional 501c-type organisations (or both.)

But along with Free software, Free Culture, Free Hardware and OER (or better yet, "LER" for "Libre Educational Resources") society and Free software alike would benefit deeply from an organisation dedicated to Free software (coding) and free culture in education.

Lightweight applications for education are also recommended, because even if your school has plenty of money, countless others don't. As long as we are creating our own software, we should be standing against Wirth's law. Simple languages aimed at teaching these basics:

1. Variables	 2. Input	 3. Output
4. Basic math	 5. Loops	 6. Conditionals	7. Functions


can make it easier to learn the fundamentals of coding and help transition those interested to more complex languages. Earlier languages can be more forgiving of syntax errors if there are fewer places to get the syntax wrong. Simplifying some of the interfaces needed to build distros and applications would also help immensely.

Licence: Creative Commons CC0 1.0 (Public Domain)

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