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Windows Donations to Schools and Libraries: Charity or Tyranny?

By Katherine Noyes
Sep 17, 2009 4:00 AM PT

There are many ways to celebrate software freedom, such as by choosing to use Linux in your daily life.

Windows Donations to Schools and Libraries: Charity or Tyranny?

This Saturday, however, is the day to loudly proclaim your fondness for FOSS, for it's Software Freedom Day once again!

That's right: In a few short days, geeks and nongeeks alike will get their party on and celebrate our favorite cause with events scheduled around the globe. Whether you're in Iceland or Brazil, there are celebrations planned near you -- check out what's going on in your neck of the woods and plan to attend!

Alternatively -- or in addition -- check out one geek's suggestions for other ways to celebrate.

It's time to pay homage to all that is FOSS!

Of course, "every day should be Software Freedom Day," Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack rightly pointed out. "Don't forget to still offer help when all of this is over."

The Gates Foundation

Well, Linux Girl has been busy counting down the days to the big event, so she couldn't help but notice the overlapping theme in a few topics being discussed lately on the Linux blogs.

To wit: A recent post on the PC World blogs noted that the Gates Foundation -- which "has done a commendable job for the past ten years installing Windows computers in public libraries around the country," according to author Phil Shapiro -- still limits its support to Windows computers.

"While the purpose of these donated computers was not to maintain and expand Windows market share, the net effect of this philanthropy has been to do just that," he asserts.

That may not be surprising, but it also shouldn't be the case, Shapiro argues. Public libraries, after all, are a place for inquiry, for learning and -- Linux Girl would hasten to point out -- intellectual freedom. Shouldn't they embrace software freedom as well?

As to whether the Gates Foundation would ever support a plan to make that happen, however, bloggers on LXer, for one, were skeptical.

("They won't," was the beginning of tracyanne's retort, for example.)

Linux on Campus

Then there was the recent discussion on Slashdot of support for Linux in colleges and universities.

"Every school has proudly announced that they support both Windows and Macs, and most of these schools report having about a 50-50 split between the two," wrote yuna49. "Sometimes I would ask the student tour guide if Linux was supported and was usually met with a blank stare."

Now, colleges and universities are the very heart of freedom, one might argue --Argentina's National Technological University notwithstanding -- so shouldn't software freedom reign in the halls of academia most of all?

More than 800 comments on the topic appeared on Slashdot in short order, so Linux Girl couldn't resist asking around for some more insight.

'Support Should Be OS-Agnostic'

On college and university campuses, all major operating systems should work for purposes of network access, remote login to servers, accessing course materials and assignments, etc., student and Slashdot blogger cbhacking told LinuxInsider.

"Also, any support that is available -- setting up email, keeping your system secure, etc. --should be OS-agnostic, or available for all major platforms," he added. "Given how widely Linux installs vary, it may be necessary to provide fairly generic support, but some effort should be made to support all distros rather than just providing support specific to Ubuntu only, for example."

As for what OSes the school itself should have, "Linux should be used wherever it is reasonable to do so," cbhacking said. "For general computer labs, Linux with Firefox, OpenOffice.org, a PDF viewer and the ability to print will probably work for most students, provided that the UI is easy to use and there is some basic help available. However, since OO.o still isn't 100 percent compatible with the MS Office formats, a few machines with Windows and MS Office may be necessary."

That said, "for specific classes I feel that the best tool for the job should be used," he added. "If there's a tool that runs on Linux and does everything you want to teach the students about, by all means use it. However, for subjects where the most practical tool only runs on Mac or Windows, the school should provide lab machines with the necessary OS and software."

'It Would Be Irresponsible'

It may not yet be feasible to go all-Linux all the time, student and Slashdot blogger David Masover agreed.

"As much as I'd love to see more Linux, the reality is that out there on the job, you're going to have to deal with Microsoft or Apple at some point," he told LinuxInsider.

"I worked as a web developer for two years, doing Ruby On Rails -- I developed in Firefox on Linux, and deployed on Linux on Amazon EC2," he explained. "And my co-workers -- every last one of them, by the time I left -- were using Macs, most of them with Windows XP in a virtual machine.

"For them, this was the ideal development machine: OS X gave them a nice Unix, and they could develop on Firefox, then test on Safari and on several versions of Internet Explorer," he said.

So, "I think it would be irresponsible" of colleges not to teach *something* about Microsoft or Apple products, or have them available in some form, Masover concluded.

Nevertheless, "I do think that the majority of what a student is expected to do with a computer shouldn't be platform-specific," he said. "Certainly, using Linux on most lab computers makes sense. I don't know the actual numbers, but I think a school could offer enough experience with Windows and OS X, but save money over site licenses like MSDN Academic Alliance."

Cross-Platform Campuses

Ideally, campuses should be cross-platform, he said.

Iowa State, for example, is "pretty close," he noted. "They taught us Java, using Eclipse. The wireless worked fine with my Mac, the wired network in the dorm worked fine on Linux. Their email system was webmail and supported forwarding. The website pretty much worked in Firefox.

"The only thing I ran into was the requirement of MS Office products," Masover noted, including a creative writing course that required a PowerPoint presentation. "They didn't mind me using OpenOffice, but the conversion from OO.o to PowerPoint was ugly," he said.

In the end, everyone benefits when students gain the ability to switch platforms easily, Masover noted.

"It's good for me, because I can choose the best tool for the job, not just whatever I'm comfortable with. It also makes me employable: My skills translate to any software you need me to work with," he explained. "And it's good for corporations in general -- how much does a typical corporation spend on retraining?"

'Dear to My Heart'

FLOSS in schools and libraries is "a topic dear to my heart," educator and blogger Robert Pogson told LinuxInsider. "I have worked in education for the last 11 years with PCs in my classrooms/labs/libraries; FLOSS has no agenda to exploit our students and teachers or to abuse taxpayers' monies."

Microsoft and many proprietary software corporations "milk schools for huge licensing fees with unconscionable terms and seek to lock in schools," Pogson asserted. "Schools should not accept ANY support from organizations promoting proprietary software and not education primarily."

The model Pogson recommends for most schools uses GNU /Linux terminal servers and thin clients.

'Even Donations Should Be Rejected'

"This maximizes performance for the money and minimizes maintenance costs," he said. "Schools can have twice as many PCs for the same expenditure this way, and by upgrading the servers, the whole system is upgraded at minimal cost."

Thin clients also "heat, clutter and annoy classes less" because of their lower power consumption and bulk, he added. "They are a green solution that permits much more use of IT in education."

In short, "M$ and its partners are not seeking to educate students, but to enslave them," Pogson opined. "Even donations from these organizations should be rejected. Monopoly/monoculture is a poor model for education."

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