Public Education has transformed society and has been transformed over time, but the core belief that education should be open to all has remained. Currently Public Education is going through what could be the most profound transformation in it’s history. Increasingly computers and computer software are becoming a larger and larger part of education in schools. Computers and computing software have the potential to increase the amount of students completing their school years by providing new and innovative ways of learning, creating enriching experiences by increasing the enjoyableness of schooling which will obviously facilitate improved learning.
It’s unfortunate then that these technologies also have the potential to undermine the accessibility of public education, computers and software are not cheap. A laptop can cost in the thousands, the Microsoft Office Suite Programs can cost anywhere between $200 to $900 depending on what level of quality you purchase and where you purchase from. As digital learning becomes more and more entrenched in public learning it will be vital that all students have equal access to Computers and software, yet these exuberant prices are out of reach for many families and even some School IT budgets, this will allow systemic of inequality to take root in our Public Schools.
Quite rightly former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd declared that computers were ‘the toolbox of the future’ and under his Government part of the issue was dealt with, firstly by giving families the option to claim fifty percent of the cost of purchasing a Laptop back which, while not perfect, allowed almost every child at the very least access to a basic laptop. Secondly the Rudd Government (and continuing under the Gillard Government) is giving every school one laptop per child, the implementation of this hasn’t been perfect but combined these two initiatives largely solve the first part of the dilemma. Yet the problem with expensive software remains and so it seems that prospective inequality remains on the horizon too.
Thankfully there is a way of avoiding inequality caused by expensive software; through using Open Source software schools and families can significantly reduce the costs of buying and maintaining software. A vast proportion of Open Source Software is free so it’s easy to see where the cost savings come from. But not only does using Open Source Software reduce costs dramatically, Open Source Software also allows for schools and students to customise the software however they would like, a core tenant of Open Source development is that the source code (The code the software runs on) should be publicly available so that people may create software that fits their purposes exactly.
Unlike expensive propriety software Open Source Software is able to be freely redistributed without penalty, indeed it must be able to be freely redistributed for it to be considered truly Open Source. That applies to any customised software too, meaning that should a student or teacher create new software they are able to share that software without fear of repercussion from the original creator. Schools will be able to collaborate and share information, ideas and software to improve and enhance the learning experiences of the students. Schools will be able – and some already do – to distribute software which students can take home and give to their parents, or family friends who may not even be associated with the school.
Open Source Software allows students and teachers to see how the tools work within their ‘toolbox’, they would be able to see the inner workings of their software, and extend the tools within that software. Students shouldn’t be denied the knowledge of how their software works by copyright holders, they shouldn’t remain under a cloud of ignorance not knowing how their software is affecting their system simply because they’re not allowed to look ‘under the hood’ (as the saying goes), what is the point of going to school if you’re denied knowledge? If students and schools can and want to improve or customise the software to make it fit their needs better they should be able too.
Since Open Source software is usually free to use, customisable and freely redistributable it’s extremely unfortunate then that to the average user it is a relative unknown. Many people think they can only surf the Internet with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, or use Microsoft’s expensive Office Suite for office tasks, or use Apples extremely limiting iTunes for music or perhaps they only think that they’re limited to choose from the latest Windows or Apple Operating System when there are much more safe, secure, editable and free operating systems available!
The best and quickest way to correct these mistaken and potentially harmful beliefs is through education, and what better place to start than Public Schools themselves?
Public Education demands that all students have equal access to the tools they need to learn, regardless of wealth or status so that the values and ideals of equal education can be achieved. Software is fast becoming one of the most vital tools and it is sad, yet entirely avoidable, that some students will not have access to these tools because due to economic reasons. Making Schools use and distribute Open Source Software as much as is possible ensures that students will not be left out when it comes to having these tools, defeating disadvantage and inequality before it has a chance to arise. It’s high time to Open Source Public Education.