21st Century Barn-Raising: Free Software in K-16 Education

Author: Miguel Guhlin

In earlier American rural life, communities raised barns because many hands were required. . .Despite traditions of independence, self-sufficiency, and refusal to incur a debt to another, barn raisings with the free labor in return for a nebulous future commitment were necessary.
Source: Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barn_raising

Educating our children, providing everything they need to be educated, is the work of many hands. As an educator, I find myself caught in the ebb and flow of funding that always seems a bit short of what is needed. The only way forward is to eliminate those solutions that require too much funding, and replace those with cost-effective solutions. After all, consider what this Texas legislator had to say, “...you're talking about money, and who's going to put more money into public education?" (Source: Scharrer, Gary. (11/27/2006). Texas Lawmakers to Address End of TAKS. Houston Chronicle). But free software in K-16 education is not just about saving money.


Rather, Free Software is about freedom from the restrictions imposed on sharing software.
This is important because it represents a point of view that is short-changed by terms like “open source” and “open technologies.”

Free software (read sidebar #2)--and its open source programming code development--is the 21st Century equivalent of 18th century barn-raising. It is a grassroots re-kindling of America's frontier barn-raising spirit in virtual environments. Given that the virtual barn-raising is critical to America's success in a global economy, Free Software movement is more beneficial than the aggressive software licensing businesses use. The Free Software Movement allows for a digital commons, or software that can be modified and used by all so long as derivative works follows the same license.

This approach is not unlike 18th century barn-raisers, who gave of their own time and free labor to improve their community. Search the web now, and you will find thousands of programmers, writers, artists, and educators developing free software and related products. In essence, they are “barn-raising” in the virtual environment of the Web.

As educators, two core beliefs might be considered essential for barn-raisers:

1.Ubiquitous access to technology can transform education. Free software is an important part of establishing that access and ensuring freedom of future access.
2.Educators, like their students, must join a worldwide community of learners. Free software and its open source code development process makes the community possible.

Today's students are already using the Internet, writing programs and designing software that is licensed—read more about the GPL license in sidebar #2--as free (with a focus on freedom, not price), open source. They are collaborating with each other, relying on experts from around the globe, to build systems that they can use in school districts and at home--whether those schools are in America, in China, or India. What's more, they use the technology that is available—exercising freedoms through the use of free software that Americans enshrined in their Bill of Rights.

Through instant messaging, email, blogs, wikis, php/MySQL web-enabled databases, mobile phone text messaging, audio/video-casting—almost all created using free, open source tools--these students are quickly building a digital reality that poses a question we cannot leave unanswered,

How do the proprietary software systems now in use (e.g. Microsoft Windows, MS Office, Macintosh Tiger to name a few) support me as I learn, teach and communicate in a global economy?
Unfortunately, only a fraction of our students in the United States even know that all the tools they need to create and share with others are available to them at no charge. While these tools are used in other countries, in America, peer to peer file-sharing in a culture of copyright violation is how students acquire software they need to do their school work.
A few teachers—such as Paul Nelson at Riverdale High School in Portland, Oregon (listen to Paul online at http://technosavvy.org/?p=368 )--have found a different path from what is modeled in vendor-centric schools today. Teachers, like many of their students, are awakening to the power of Internet-based virtual communities, yet do not know that they have a free, licensed alternative to the proprietary software purchased for them--whether they use it or not. Before moving forward, it is worth defining what open source is.


Open source software development—which is critical to the Free Software Movement--includes operating systems and applications created by a communities of users. Open source software began with development of the GNU/Linux operating system and a whole suite of software applications for that platform (Sidebar #1: List of Education Friendly GNU/Linux Distributions and software available).

Over the last decade, these software applications have found their way out of the Linux operating system and are being shared--at no cost--over the Internet with Windows and Macintosh users. Even if you do not wish to use GNU/Linux, there are many applications available.

Through the use of free software, school systems are invited to create environments that promote authorship and collaboration, as opposed to enforcing restrictive licensing. This licensing system is anti-thetical to the culture of collaboration among free, open source software developers. Worse, restrictive licensing saps the ability of students, teachers, administrators, and community members to build innovative products--together, without fear of accusations of software piracy.


Barn-raising, like free, open source software (FOSS) development, involves tapping into the power of the community. How can schools save money and tap into this power?

As we continue to spend millions per school district on commercial software purchases, foreign countries (e.g. India, China, Korea) are leapfrogging over the United States to use Free Software, developed not by commercial software giants, but people participating in global barn-raising. Free software is transforming how we do business. What do the virtual barn-raisers know that schools are failing to do?

Like 18th century Americans facing harsh winters, 21st Century Americans are living on a virtual frontier that will require cooperation and collaboration. It is a call that reminds us that each of us has something to share of value to our global community.

The virtual communities we build—investigate Second Life and World of Warcraft as two powerful examples of virtual communities that have engaged people globally--redistribute human capital to where it is needed most—and, schools should be the recipients of this capital. Virtual communities exist around each piece of software listed in this article, and available for Windows, GNU/Linux, and Macintosh operating systems.


Futurist David Thornburg writes that "The main thing that's holding technology back is...fear [that] if technology becomes ubiquitous, it will totally transform the practice of education." Can ubiquitous access to technology truly change our schools? Increased access and Free Software can be the keys to transforming our schools. It is a transformation that is gaining speed in business, and changing computing around the world.

As school districts struggle to implement anti-spyware and anti-virus solutions, staggering under a tsunami wave of malware, a silent majority is slowly saying, "Come and join us, a community of open source developers working in the best interests of the other." It is the power of Adam Smith's “Invisible Hand” at work.

It is a world where "ubuntu" is more than just an African word that describes "I am because of who we are together." It is a word that defines collaboration, community, and what is possible when we decide to build a reality together (it is also a version of Linux operating system that works on personal computers, including Apple computers).
Virtual barn-raising—the development and use of free software in schools--is the fulfillment of Metcalfe's Law, which states that the "value of a network increases as the square of the number of nodes in the network." Our children are already working in a free, open source software world, but they need guidance.
It is they who will face the competitive nations of a world that has already capitalized on the open source software development process. As Matthew Davidson shares, “You can't buy community in a shrink-wrapped box.” And, that is exactly where we are headed in a “flat world,” alluding to Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat—a global community where work begins on one side of the globe, gets transferred to another during the night, then is returned in the morning, a finished product. The tools we use are unimportant, the collaboration is all-important.
What obstacles do we need to overcome as educators to make sure children have the guidance they need?


"I would love to switch to open source but my biggest obstacle would be the lack of support from faculty, staff and administration," shared one Texas technology coordinator before she said the following, "They tend to fear the unknown." In an informal survey of Texas technology directors, a question posed was, "Is the Linux Operating System supportable in the K-12 environment?" At the time this was written, 100% of respondents agreed that it was technically supportable, albeit with initial implementation costs.

It is important to mention GNU/Linux, even though you can still choose to mix Windows/Macintosh OS with free software. With free software, you have that freedom. However, a better solution might be to completely use GNU/Linux and free software. Whatever your decision, people perceive various obstacles to implementation. While these have been discussed in detail elsewhere
Common obstacles mentioned in open source adoption include the following:

1.We don't have the staff--nor can one hire the staff--to provide Linux support for an organization the size of an urban school district.
2.We would have to retrain everyone on how to use the Linux operating system, or even if running Windows with OpenOffice.
3.How would we run all the applications that are available on Windows, but aren't available on Linux?
4.How do we determine who gets to run Windows computers vs. Linux computers?
5.What kind of backlash would we face if we made the switch from the School Board and Community?
6.Won't the cost of switching be more than the cost of staying with Microsoft servers, operating system, Office suite?

As a director of instructional technology for a 56,000 student district in Texas, I have observed that the software tools we use in "real life" are the same tools that we make available to students on standard on our computers--internet browsers, graphic organizer software, graphic design software, Office-Suites, web design and more. The cost of financing Microsoft Windows XP, MS Office Suite, Inspiration, Macromedia Studio MX 2004, Norton AntiVirus, Anti-Spyware tools can only leave school administrators gasping for air.

The real issues regarding transitions to free software in schools are about people's reluctance to change, to step away from what is comfortable, rather than technological. Kontoghiorghes (2005) shares that “Organizations where communications are open and information is freely shared, IT interventions will be viewed as an extension of existing practices and they will therefore be more readily accepted and assimilated.” How would you describe your school district?


More and more, the Internet is finding its way into our schools. This is frightening because new tools, referred to as Web 2.0 and/or the Read/Write Web, and social networking are enabling students to engage in their own “barn-raising” in virtual environments. “Social networking technologies create,” shares Anne Davis in her blog entitled Anne 2.0, “a sense of community unlike others we educators have had available in the past” (Source: (http://anne.teachesme.com/2006/07/31/another-dear-senator).
Free software is a critical enabler of these social networking technologies. In fact, K-16 schools have at their disposal Web 2.0 tools that they can use within their environments to experiment and learn more (Sidebar #3: Creating the Walled Garden), if only they will overcome their fear and institutional paralysis.
Free software is characterized by a spirit of community and global collaboration, rather than competition. When parents in Atlanta Public Schools decided to use free software to liberate teachers and students from the failure of proprietary tools—for example, computers that did not work and went unused—they changed the educational experience from failure to success. Not surprisingly, they also modelled 21st Century Skills by collaborating with a global community of learners.

Are you prepared to set aside that perception of American individualism, and instead, tap into that spirit of American community, represented best by community barn-raisings?

Ubiquitous access to technology can transform education.
What if someone told you that the secret to profound change in K-16 education was not to spend more money, but less in a consistent manner? Although there are many more (read over 50 at http://www.crmchump.org/2006/10/in_a_world_wher.html ), two stories point to the power of free software in schools:

Story #1: Indiana
"We have a million kids in the state of Indiana," Mike Huffman, special assistant for technology at the Indiana Department of Education, [said]. "If we were to pay $100 for software on each machine, each year, that's $100 million for software. That's well beyond our ability. That's why open source is so attractive. We can cut those costs down to $5 [on each computer] per year."
Source: http://www.crn.com/sections/breakingnews/breakingnews.jhtml?articleId=192201386

Story #2: An elementary campus in Atlanta Public Schools:

"What we discovered is that teachers were really using [the computers] only for browsing and office applications." The school didn't have enough money to upgrade Windows 98 or aging hardware, and [parents] were working many hours just to keep the school's technology afloat. "Bottom line is the school went from maybe one working PC per classroom to now five or six, with some classrooms having eight or nine. The teachers started integrating them into a lot of the curriculum. If you have only one or two it's more of a novelty. With five, now you can take one-third of the class and create a center of activity. That was the tipping point."
Source: http://business.newsforge.com/business/06/07/10/2115242.shtml?tid=37&tid=138

Steve Hargadon (K12OpenSource.com) shares this reflection on the two stories:

"What Atlanta and Indiana seem to show is that because it has been so costly to have computers in schools, they haven't been truly available enough for teachers or students to integrate their use into the curriculum. But in programs that are dedicated to cost-effectively getting the computers into the classrooms in sufficient quantity to impact education, the results are significant and exciting. And the "cost effective" part belongs to Linux and Open Source...."

For some, there appears to be a fixation on Windows or Mac and the high price of K-12 computing in schools. As Steven Weber shares in his book The Success of Open Source, “independent programmers--sometimes hundreds or thousands of them--make unpaid contributions to software that develops organically, through trial and error.” That sounds like barn-raising to me.

Why can't educators, who share with each other, realize the benefits of these contributions in our public schools?

Sidebar 1: List of Education Friendly GNU/Linux Distributions

UbuntuLinux Derivatives




Software list

Note that you can find a list of Windows software and Linux equivalents online at the [[http://www.linuxeq.com Linux Equivalent Project]].

Productivity Tools

*OpenOffice Suite (pre-installed)
*Scribus, a Desktop Publishing Tool - works like Quark Xpress
*NVU, a Web Page Creation Editing
*CMap Tools, a Concept Mapping Software (not open source, but cost-free)
*BlueFish, a Text/Code Editor

Internet Tools

*Mozilla Firefox Browser (pre-installed)
*Thunderbird Email program
*GAIM Instant Messenger
*gFTP client
*Ekiga, internet phone

Multimedia/Sound/Photo Management & Editing/Scanning

*Audacity Sound editing
*VLC Player
*Listen, an iTunes like program
*digiKAM+Plugins (sudo apt-get install digikam digikamimageplugins)
*Xsane, a scanner program (Pre-installed)

CD/DVD Applications

*K3B CD/DVD Burning/Imaging Software

FILE/FOLDER Management


Server & MySQL Database Browsing/Management/Setup

*XAMPP MySQL/PHP/Apache Installer
*MySQL Query Browser
*MySQL Administrator
*PureFTPD, FTP server setup


*WINE to run Windows programs

Miscellaneous Education Software

*TuxType, a keyboarding program
*TuxPaint, a KidPix paint style program
*Xaos Fractal Generator
*KTouch Typing Program

Sidebar #2: Distinguishing between Free Software and Open Source

The word "free" in the phrase "free software" is about freedom and liberty, not price. Software is considered free if it exhibits these freedoms (numbered 0-3):

0.The freedom to run the software program, for any purpose.
1.The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
2.The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
3.The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

The concept of open source, while included in free software definition, is not entirely descriptive of the freedom intended by the word “free.” As such, this article encourages the use of the phrase “free software.”
Open source software can be distinguished from free software. Open source refers to the programming code, while free software refers to the four freedoms articulated above. Another term--”Open technologies” suggested by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN)--seeks to describe open source software, as well as open standards, yet it also fails to include the concept of freedom described in the term “free software.”

An important aspect of free software is that it must be released under General Public License (GPL). All software is licensed, however, free software employs a GPL. A General Public License embodies the freedoms articulated above.

This means that all derivative works, including software, of a product developed under GPL must be distributed under GPL as well. If students in K-16 education develop a program by adapting a free software program, then they must in turn release it under General Public License.

Barr, J. Live and let License - http://www.itworld.com/AppDev/350/LWD010523vcontrol4/

Stallman, R. Free Software Definition -

Sidebar 3: Creating the Walled Garden

[[http://mguhlin.wikispaces.com/Creating+the+Walled+Garden+-+List+of+Web+2.0+Apps+for+Use+in+K-12+Schools View list of walled garden Web 2.0 apps]]
For a list of Web 2.0 apps, [[http://www.shambles.net/web2/index.htm view this list]].