I believe anyone interested in learning more about technology and software should consider investigating open source options. Open source is a term used primarily when discussing the production and development of software that can be used by anyone at no cost. The idea is that the source code of the software is available for anyone interested in adding to, or improving upon, what is already there. Open source is free for download and gives every person equal rights to software and the improvements and features added to the software.
The folks who contribute are generally not concerned with ownership or making money off of the software. In fact, developers I know who contribute to open source software generally have other jobs, and do this out of love for the concept.
At first, I found this confusing. Why would someone code something in their free time for something they won’t make money on? Why would they come home from work and work more on something for free? Now as teachers may know, this is often part of their job and reflects the innate desire to be a life-long learner. I suppose I forgot that techies and developers might have that desire too-it just seemed odd with my knowledge of start-ups, the tech boom, and everyone wanting to get a piece of the pie.
I then started thinking about it differently. For example, why would scientists keep contributing to their fields in their free-time? Many of them are driven simply for the sake of improving science. Open source is for the greater good. People contribute because they know it is much more difficult to develop new solutions when working alone. As teachers, we all know the power of collaboration, discussion and exchange, and the endless possibilities that can emerge from this approach. We know that the combined knowledge of many is better than the knowledge of one. Apparently, some developers do too.
So, why should you consider open source software? Well, for starters, it’s free. Don’t get me wrong, I love using the Adobe Creative Suite, but it sure is expensive. Not to mention the fact that it becomes outdated so quickly, and updates can be expensive, too. Teachers don’t necessarily need the Creative Suite, but we can get by with what’s available, even if the open source software is relatively limited. In fact, sometimes having limitations can be quite liberating.
My advice is to explore your Open Source options, and make yourself familiar with the products that speak to you and your needs. You might already be using Firefox, one of the more popular open source web browsers. All of the add-ons and updates are built by Firefox’s open-source community, which is why they are free. I’m currently researching Open Source options for graphic design and visual communications in order to stay in line with my agenda here at CET. I am trying out a program right now called Scribus, which is an open source program for professional page layout. It is available for Mac OS X users as well as Windows users.
That said, understanding that you have access to a host of products is probably the most liberating concept I can expose you to if you’re not already aware of it. It gives anyone and everyone a chance to produce. Open Office is a great replacement for your word processor. WordPress is fantastic for web-development, and there are countless other software platforms available for you to try out at little risk. If you’re looking for an open source solution to a problem of yours, try googling “open source _______” and starting there.
I have a friend who works for the GNOME Project, who travels the world discussing the culture, progress and specifics of Open Source and its community. I suggest checking out the site for some software that you might be inspired to explore.
To investigate further, I decided to write my friend, Maïa Semmes, and asked her if she could sum up her thoughts on open source software in a few sentences. Maïa is a web developer and interaction designer, and has been working with open source software for some time now. She is currently learning a language called Madhat and is also organizing a project to eventually build a computer that runs on Linux, an open source operating system. I will leave you with her response:
Open source relies more on the creative thinking of the development community to extend applications, and moves us away from our dependency on proprietary applications, which, to many are unavailable because of costs. The downside is many applications aren’t ready to replace the proprietary applications in terms of functionality. An example is Open Project compared to Microsoft Project.