Libre Software in Education — Affordable Technology that Supports the User’s Freedom

Mariah Villarreal, founder of Libre Learn Lab (2016)
©2017, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 2017 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association

Did you know that a vast proportion of the Internet is built and operated on libre software? You may have never heard the term libre software before, but you may have heard of free and open source software. Much of what we call the Internet is a series of servers that operate on libre software from Gnu Linux and Apache, among others. The term libre means freedom and is a matter of liberty, not price, which is why I prefer the term libre software instead of free software.

Why should you care about software liberty and freedoms in education? Many schools openly use proprietary software from Microsoft, Apple and Google that cost schools thousands of dollars and leave schools with few options in regards to user freedoms, such as data collection, redistribution and licensing. Few schools are aware that there are software options that protect user freedoms.

According to the Free Software Foundation (2016), there are four distinct user freedoms that Libre software can provide.

  • The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (“Freedom 0”).
  • The freedom to study how the program works and change it so it does your computing as you wish (“Freedom 1”). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to distribute copies so you can help your community (“Freedom 2”).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (“Freedom 3”). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
Image from the Free Software Foundation

These freedoms are celebrated by software developers and system administrators but could have a powerful transformation in education. There are two main reasons schools should consider using libre software: (1) the cost; and (2) increased equity. (Learn more)

See Richard Stallman’s talk about Libre Software in Education from Libre Learn Lab 2016 at MIT.

Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation (2016)

Is Libre Software Free?

Remember that the term libre refers to freedom and not free as in no-cost. However, you will find that many libre software projects are no-cost. Take for example, LibreOffice, which is an office suite with a word processor and spreadsheet tool similar to Microsoft Office that is no-cost. Imagine how much money a school could save just by switching to LibreOffice.

There are dozens of libre software projects that are no-cost that can replace expensive software from companies like Adobe and Apple. Another issue with many proprietary software companies is that they create user dependence and lock users into paying ongoing subscription fees. Libre software upholds the value of being open and sharing for the greater good of communities.

Libre Software Increases Equity

Communities all over the world are using libre software to empower new generations of learners that value the power of software freedom. One example is from a libre software project called Sugar Labs, which is a software-development and learning community, that makes a collection of tools that learners use to explore, discover, create and reflect. It distributes these tools freely and encourages its users to appropriate them, taking ownership and responsibility for their learning.

Allowing students to learn about libre software through open exploration can help learners acquire knowledge by giving them tools that make them critics and creators of knowledge instead of just consumers of proprietary software. The real power of libre software is in the freedom that it gives users to learn and explore with a community of supporters that leads towards a culture that values equity over consumption. (Learn more)

IDRA Supports Libre Software

Left to right: Mark Barnett — c0-organizer of Libre Learn Lab, Don Davis — Presenter, and Mariah Villarreal — Founder of Libre Learn Lab (2016)

In October 2016, IDRA sponsored and planned an event called Libre Learn Lab that focused on connecting educators, leaders, software developers and policymakers to the idea of using libre software in K-12 education. The event was held at MIT in Boston and featured keynote presentations from former U.S. Department of Education Open Education Advisor, Andrew Marcinek, and founder of the Free Software Foundation, Richard Stallman. The next Libre Learn Lab will take place in Miami in October 2017 and will focus on connecting educators with libre software, hardware and open education resources. (Learn more)