Have you ever noticed that for-profit companies often advertise free or cheap software licenses to students, teachers, and schools?
Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Google, and countless others all offer deals on their software and services to schools. Why do they do that?
This post is written for educators, not tech experts or computer programmers. If you think I oversimplified something, try to read this from another perspective.
It's not outrageous to claim that companies want to support education and do some public good. For example the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation shows us that the founder of Microsoft genuinely wants to support education. So the answer to our question today includes real generosity. But I think another factor plays a larger role, and teachers are rarely aware of it.
But to really understand this issue, you're going to need to understand the two different types of software. One type lets us learn how the software works, and the other does not.
Open Source and Closed Source
Have you ever seen computer code? Glance at this for a couple seconds. This text is part of a computer program:
Maybe you noticed some English words like "Destroy" and "MakeStructure"? Even if you're not a programmer, you can half understand the words in this code because it's my code and I'm giving it to you. It's open source. You are looking at the source code.
If a student wants to study this computer program, they can just read it. If a programmer wants to make changes, they can just copy it and change the text. That's what open source means: anyone can take the computer program and learn from it, change it, and understand it.
When software is closed source, we only get to see this:
Ahhh! What's going on? Hard to say. Even worse: a large project might be millions of lines of gibberish like this. Computers can read this. But for most people it's impossible. It's even a lot of work for expert programmers. Closed source software ensures that students and teachers are doomed to ignorance.
Software companies always make their own human readable code first, like the first example. But they keep it a secret. Then they use a computer program to turn their human readable code into the unreadable machine code. This is how they lock their software - by keeping the human readable code a secret.
Software companies keep their readable code a secret so their competitors can't copy them. But this also means nobody can learn from their code, even students.
Richard Stallman is a digital rights activist and computer programmer. Like a vegetarian during a famine, his views can be hard to digest. But when it comes to proprietary software and education he really gets it right:
"(Software companies) want the schools to make the children dependent. And then, when they graduate, they're still dependent and, you know, the company is not going to offer them gratis copies. And some of them get jobs and go to work for companies. Not many of them anymore, but some of them. And those companies are not going to be offered gratis copies. Oh no! The idea is: if the school directs the students down the path of permanent dependence, they can drag the rest of society with them into dependence. That's the plan!"
"You see, some people have a talent for programming. At ten to thirteen years old, typically, they're fascinated, and if they use a program, they want to know: But when they ask the teacher, if it's proprietary, the teacher has to say: Which means education is forbidden."
"But if the program is free, the teacher can explain what he knows, and then give out copies of the source code, saying: And those who are really fascinated, they will read it!"
I mentioned that Stallman's views are challenging. He takes a zero tolerance approach to proprietary software in schools:
"A proprietary program is the enemy of the spirit of education. It's knowledge withheld, so it should not be tolerated in a school."
I've struggled to reconcile my beliefs on this. While I agree in spirit, in practice I've had to stray from this zero tolerance approach.
As you may know, I try to popularize the idea that 3D game design in schools helps teach math and science. So far, this involves using a 3D game making tool called Unity3D, which is closed source software. Students love it. They don't even know they're learning "boring" math, it's great. Unfortunately, if a student in my programming class asks me how Unity3D works, I cannot give them the answer they deserve.
Despite it being closed source, I bring Unity3D into my class for these reasons:
- Gratis license. Even when my students leave high school, Unity3D costs nothing. You can even sell your game made with Unity3D and pay nothing, so long as you earn less than 100,000$ a year.
- As far as I know, there are no decent open source alternatives yet. But I'm always looking.
- I need all the help I can get. Unity3D is convenient and I'm not paid enough to have the time to struggle with its alternatives.
- The Unity3D community is extremely welcoming.
The important thing is that I am making an informed decision when I introduce my students to Unity3D. And if an open source tool comes along with the same instructional benefits, it's my responsibility as an educator to make the right changes.
There are still ways schools can get closer to Stallman's ideal though. Take the new Microsoft Office for example. Naturally, Microsoft is offering a deal to students.
LibreOffice is a great open source alternative to Microsoft Office. There are however a number of features in Microsoft Office that are lacking in LibreOffice. But if you don't know what these differences are, then you probably have no business using Microsoft Office instead of LibreOffice in your school! If the Open Document Format is good enough for the European Union, then it's good enough for you.
By the way, Microsoft vehemently opposed the decision for the European Union to switch to this free and open document format. Software companies fight to ensure that their software is the industry standard.
Are you thinking of trying out LibreOffice? Why are you so stuck on using Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint anyway? I'll tell you why. You got used to using those products in high school and college.
Now You Know
Now that you know a little bit about open source software, closed source software, and dependence, you're in a better position to make informed choices about the software in your school(s).
Businesses are sometimes generous to schools, but they're always businesses. Nothing they provide is truly free. Now you know what one of those costs are. Are you okay with your students becoming a little more dependent on a for-profit company? What are your students getting in return?
The next time a for-profit company offers cheap software, ask yourself why. And are there free and open source alternatives? Ask your IT department about open source software alternatives - you'll impress them! Remember: open source software has no marketing team. It's just free.
You can read more about this here.