Below is a brief statement in support of a policy to give preference to Free/Libre Software tools in educational settings. The statement touches on pedagogy, culture, technical merit, and realpolitik.
We begin by discussing motivation. We assert that Behaviorist approaches, while seemingly efficient in the short term do not result in motivated learners. What does motivate learners? The triplet—autonomy, mastery, and a sense of purpose—recently popularized by Dan Pink yet grounded in the work of Khaneman, Deci, Ryan, Ariely, and many others (in the guise of frameworks such as Self Determination Theory, et al.) have demonstrable impact on motivation.
If we accept this premise, how do we achieve autonomy, mastery, and a sense of purpose? We will argue to that the choice of tools matters and that we can provide scaffolding for autonomy, mastery, and purpose by capitalizing on the inherent capacity in both teachers and learners through Free/Libre Software (See the definition of Free/Libre Software on the Free Software Foundation website).
Issues arising from learners using software on various digital devices (e.g. video-game consoles, personal computers, mobile phones) all stem from the same fundamental problem—learners are not routinely given the freedoms (and personal privacy) they need to use these tools for learning. Most learning “Apps” are self-contained and cannot be used outside of the content which the author/publisher has dictated. (Imagine a hammer that can only be used to strike a restricted set of nails into a restricted set of lumber. Without the freedom to study and modify their tools—which is not restricted in the physical world—the users of this hammer will not be able to improve upon and expand its uses.) Learners need the ability to apply tools to problems of their own choosing. Further, learners need the opportunity to explore the tools they use as learning possibilities, in and of themselves.
All software and hardware has the potential to be a learning tool. However, the software and hardware being distributed to the public is too often locked down with restrictions that prevent them from being used as such. In order for learning to happen, the technology tools need to be free in the “liberty” sense of the word. Students could, for example, learn much about math, science, logic, and more from even frivolous software and hardware games if—and only if—students are given the freedom, as well as the means, to (1) use, (2) share freely, (3) study, and (4) modify and redistribute modifications of all the software and hardware they use.
As educators, we have an ethical obligation to empower the next generation with the powerful ideas that are the driving force for the technology that they use today. As a nation, we have an ethical obligation to empower our educational institutions with the freedoms that they need to take control over how their technology works. What the public education system in America needs is Free/Libre Software.
Hardware and software tools that respect the freedom and privacy of its users empower teachers and learners to explore and study their technology, thus allowing them to learn how it works. It also allows them to modify their technology, thus allowing them to have a say in what the technology does—how it works in the classroom. (An aside on privacy: while proprietary cloud services are convenient, it is unrealistic to expect a young child to make informed decisions about sharing their personal information online. We are forcing children into potentially compromising situations when we defer to these services.)
At the present moment, the hardware and software tools being distributed to our nation's schools, educators, and students are locked down with restrictions that are outside of the control of its users—hardware and software that impose such restrictions prevent learning opportunities and dis-empower its users. Free/Libre Software and Free/Libre Hardware, on the other hand, invite all users to become its contributors. After all, don't we want today's learners to become tomorrow's teachers and leaders?
Free/Libre Software is respectful to teachers in that it is embodied in a culture of responsibility and selfreliance. While there is no requirement on behalf of Free/Libre Software to “look under the hood” or make modifications, the fact that the opportunity exists sends a message that the teacher and learner do not have to accept things as they are, but rather, they can be agents of change and part of a community of like-minded individuals.
Case Study for Free/Libre Software in Education: Sugar Labs
At Sugar Labs, we make a collection of Free/Libre Software tools that learners use to explore, discover, create, and reflect. We are non-profit and led by volunteers. We distribute these tools freely and encourage our users to appropriate them, taking ownership and responsibility for their learning. Sugar Labs was spun out of the One Laptop per Child project in 2008.
One goal at Sugar Labs is to have our user community engage in the development process. Towards this end, we have provided scaffolding to support our users in their exploration of the tools themselves and how the tools are built. Our users are never more than one “mouse click” away from seeing the source code of any Sugar App (or Sugar itself). A second “click” gives the user a copy of the code that can be modified in place.
This has not been just an intellectual exercise: in our recent software releases, more than 50% of the “patches” have come from youth contributors (10–15 years of age). (We have also had numerous contributions from teachers.) If you design for end-user contributions, then learners will take ownership and the responsibility that comes with ownership. Sugar users, even when they don't made contributions to the code, are active learners, who are immersed in a culture where they are encouraged to create as well as consume.
While we believe that there would be benefit to teachers and learners alike if the Department of Education adopted Sugar software into its elementary education offerings, we bring it up here solely as a case study of the impact of Free/Libre Software on learning.
We close with a brief discussion of the politics of education in the United States. There has been widespread push back on Federal Government intervention in curriculum and assessment (through programs such as Common Core, Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind, etc.). While there are good arguments on either side of the debate, the push for local control has been in ascent. (The rapidly growing “opt out” movement is one example; the growing home-schooling movement is another example.) Free/Libre Software is Libertarian in spirit and practice in that it guarantees that control ultimately resides in the local community, the individual school, classroom, teacher, student, and/or parent. Thus a policy in support of Free/Libre Software for education by the Department of Education would be responsive to the politics of the day while preserving the mandate to provide equitable and quality opportunities for all citizens.
Our goal is to provide every child with a quality education. We submit that Free/Libre Software will have long-term impact on quality, equitable nation-wide access, and efficiency as it is empowering to learners and teachers.
(Originally posted as a response to a call for comments on the impact of education technologies on early childhood STEM education.)