One of my favorite books–and my daughter’s, too, a fact I take credit for since I introduced her to it–is Where the Red Fern Grows. by Wilson Rawls. I remember reading it several times as I was growing up. It was my favorite because it involved: 1) Dogs; 2) Hunting; 3) Boy protagonist; 4) Getting out of school; 5) Perseverance of a boy chopping a big tree down; and 6) Blood and guts. In regards to hunting, I’ve been trying to “tree a ‘coon” and regretably, I have no able four-footed assistants with me, and the edge of my axe is dull.

However, I’ve been trying to better understand something, and that’s what this blog is for…exploring a concept.

A week or so ago, Steve H. wrote to Richard Stallman (you’ll need VLC Media Player to view the video that will pop up in OGG format when you click his name; thanks to Leigh at TALO) and asked him to be a guest on the K12OpenSource Webcast. Since I’ve read Stallman’s work on trusted/treacherous computing, I was excited about the kinds of ideas and conversations that he would bring to the table. But, I understand now that my excitement was misplaced. It was misplaced because Stallman is a heretic (or a visionary), a maverick (or a prophet) advocating for a point of view that few in K-12 education might approve, or even be willing to identify with. Let’s see if you agree with this opinion of Stallman’s perspective.

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He makes a few interesting points in email, points that I didn’t really understand and failed to make time to research properly (personal illness, time, etc). Peter ( GNUosphere) has been great in explaining some of these points, since when I do read about these items, I’m a bit confused. Consider this point Stallman made after he looked at the K12OpenSource.com wiki:

I looked at k12opensource.com, and was very disappointed, because it emphasizes the name and ideas of open source. The name free software is hardly seen, and the ideas of free software are not seen at all. See http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-software-for-freedom.html for more explanation. The site also calls the GNU/Linux system “Linux”, which is unfair to the principal developers of the system. See http://www.gnu.org/gnu/gnu-linux-faq.html.

As a first step, how about looking at uses of “Linux” in the site and determining which of them really refer to Linux, the kernel, and which of them really refer to GNU/Linux, the complete usable system? You could then make each reference correct. Likewise, you could look at each penguin and decide whether you should have a gnu next to it. In real life computers, other than embedded systems, a penguin can’t live without a gnu.

As for “open source” vs “free software”, those refer to two different philosophies. So it is a matter of what position you would like to champion. I cannot tell you what views to profess, but I would like to convince you to support the views of free software. If you do, then I would ask you to wave our banner — which is the term “free software”.

As I read this, I was confused by Stallman’s approach. Did he want to get his message out to a bigger audience, or, taken another way, did I want to waste my time with someone who was going to define every single term used on a web site to the point that we couldn’t get to the read meat of a webcast interview? And, then, what was even more irritating was this exchange regarding the use of Skype:

If you invite the public to use Skype or Gizmo to listen to your show, what is the effect? You’re saying, “Please use non-free software!” That doesn’t help the cause. Just the opposite. So how about playing with Ekiga and WengoPhone? And if they don’t have all the features you want, how about helping to encourage people to add what’s missing? That’s the way to contribute to our community.

In response to the question of doing a Skypecast, I wrote the following to him: The “Skypecast” is done in parallel with the interview, and is a method of allowing many people to listen into the conversation real-time, and then when appropriate also indicate that they want to ask a question–at which time, they can be individually given voice capability and become a part of the conversation. His response?

I couldn’t possibly do that.

The reason I didn’t get was WHY he couldn’t do that. Or, I got it but I didn’t GET IT. It didn’t become obvious until he explained more about his views regarding free software banner. It is a banner that Lessig picked up in his presentation at WikiMania 2006 and helped me understand a bit better. So, even as I advocate for open source, I’m really advocating for FREE SOFTWARE. But, I still didn’t “get it” until I read this:

As one person put it, “Open source is a development methodology; free software is a social movement.” For the Open Source movement, non-free software is a suboptimal solution. For the Free Software movement, non-free software is a social problem and free software is the solution.
Source: Free Software Foundation

As an open source advocate, Freespire then is a nice solution because it allows the use of non-free software. But, non-free software is a social problem…that has to be overcome. While this may seem incredibly obvious to my readers, it’s not to me. It makes me question the distinctions made between open source software and open technologies. So, when my editor says to me, “People really need a good clear overview and explanation for what Open Source is and what Open Technologies mean,” she’s not understanding that they are one and the same. The distinction is between open source and free software.

This really is splitting hairs for an educator. The bottom line for an educator is, “I want it to work when I need it, not make a statement about injustice and oppression.” But, is this really the point? I would bet that if you’re a bloggin’ teacher, you’re a free software advocate, even more than an open source advocate. But, if you don’t blog, then you’re more inclined to be an open source advocate. Let’s make this an informal poll…leave a comment and declare yourself!

This all causes me to consider my transformation category of this blog. Free software is about transforming society, while open source is about getting things to work. . .as the FSF acknowledges, it’s a more practical consideration. This practicality in K-12 education is the same kind of practicality that pushes teachers to illegally photocopy class sets of books for their students or install multiple copies of software on computers in a grade level, or when we buy stuff out of our own pocket…because we just want it to work to the benefit of our children, and, of course, ourselves. So, the free software movement–a social movement–doesn’t seem like that far a stretch from where we are at as teachers. But, it is.

The problem is that if one chooses free software, one is essentially saying, “I’m not going to use proprietary, non-free tools at all, even if they are of great benefit. Life’s too short for me to NOT use those tools and I only have these kids for a year.” And, we have no choice over the tools that are put in our schools–except to NOT use them. Like Stallman saying he couldn’t possibly do the interview over Skype because it would send the wrong message.

What if we said to our principals, our technology directors, our superintendents, I’m not going to use that computer because it’s running non-free software on it. I’m not going to give that student assessment because it’s running on Pearson’s non-free system that I can’t contribute to. I’m not going to use that curriculum because it’s a closed, non-free (not cost, but concept). The answer is obvious. Teachers would be ostracized, fired, asked to leave in the million ways possible.

You have to admire someone who sticks to their beliefs–and don’t get me wrong, I do–in education today! Then, of course, the consequences of such an action in K-12 education would be tremendous. Could you see ed-tech leaders like Jim Hirsch (speaking to the idea of CoSN’s K-12 Open Technologies) advocating free software? Or even David Thornburg who’s not afraid to share that “Inspiration” will be available for Linux? Free software says these guys have not gone far enough.

It’s almost the same kind of expectation we have for teachers now, to abandon Read Only web for the Read/Write web. It’s the idea that they will unite and throw off the shackles of an oppressive system, even as the overseer stands there with a whip and a pistol. Imagine if we, as educators, re-wrote this story:

That movement does not say users should have freedom, only that allowing more people to look at the source code and help improve it makes for faster and better development. The executive grasped that point completely; unwilling to carry out that approach in full, users included, he was considering implementing it partially, within the company.

What if we said, that teachers should have the freedom to look at curriculum in a wiki, help improve it for faster and better development. This means that teachers could improve the curriculum, but that they would lack the freedom to…what? This is the idea I’m unsure of. I’m beating around the bush because it’s dark, and I’m not sure where the bush is. Is it that teachers wouldn’t have the freedom to innovate with the curriculum, that they deserve the freedom to experiment?

So, from a PRACTICAL approach–or, Open Source–Stallman’s decision to say he couldn’t possibly use Skype or other non-free software is a pain in the rear. It’s a pain because it means that it will be difficult to record a conversation as to how “free software” concepts apply to K-12 education and the idea of free culture. It’s a pain because I just wanted the conversation in a way lots of folks could jump in on (e.g. Skypecast), and make it easy to share with others (e.g. podcast).

From a SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION point of view, Stallman is right on target for avoiding use of non-free tools to get his message out. His silence becomes the message. The problem is, if there’s anybody else like me out there, that silence means that silence may be all we hear. I want the ‘coon, and if that means chopping the tree down, then so be it. If we all chop the trees down with our coon hunting, eventually there won’t be enough trees. So be it…right?

Just a blogger chasing his tail….


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