The ability to tweak it to suit learning needs and its free availability have made Free and Open Source Software popular among educational institutions. Still, there is need to develop open source alternatives to many applications.
Though India is considered to be at the forefront of the IT revolution, many of the software applications that we use regularly are western in origin. We are living on borrowed technology. To encourage home-grown innovation, many institutions have been promoting the use of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), especially in learning environments.
‘Cost' and ‘Customisation' are the two key advantages of FOSS. As the name indicates, FOSS can be used and modified without restriction. It can also be copied and distributed without restriction. The best part: Initial installation is mostly free of cost.
“Most institutions do not understand what they are missing out on as they continue to pay and use proprietary software,” says V. Manus, of the Jaya Free Open Source Software Club of Jaya Engineering College. “We have been distributing FOSS such as Linux-based operating systems in educational institutions for free and creating awareness on its benefits.”
In the last few years at Shaastra, the annual technical fest of IIT-Madras, sessions have been organised where students get to interact with the Indian open source community.
Within educational institutions, there are support groups that try and encourage the use of FOSS. “At our hostel, we gather our second-years and educate them on the benefits of FOSS and also train them to use it,” says Ashish Rajan, a third-year mechanical engineering student at IIT-Madras.
Since the source code of the software which specifies the actions to be performed by a computer is available to the user, the students can work with it and modify it as per their requirement. “Until I used an open source operating system like Linux, I did not understand what triggered the computer to start. I have also modified open source programming languages like Python to create applications like automatic registrations in the canteen,” Ashish adds.
However, since FOSS adoption is still low, many applications do not have an open source alternative. To use applications like CADD, for example, students have to rely on proprietary software such as Microsoft Windows.
Following the example of the IT@school programme of the Kerala government that took FOSS to middle schools, the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC), Chennai, has developed a software platform called EDUBoss to expose students at a young age to open applications.
The student laptop scheme launched by ELCOT also facilitates training in Linux and Linux-based software to students.
The other advantages FOSS has over conventional software is the ease with which it can be updated. The vulnerability to security threats is also low.
Networking public libraries
As a first step in networking public libraries, the Connemara public library and 32 other District Central Libraries are cataloguing all their books online. For this purpose, the Tamil Nadu Directorate of Public Libraries has issued instructions to migrate to the open source Integrated Library Management System (ILMS) which is being implemented with assistance from National Resource Centre for Free and Open Source Software (NRCFOSS) project funded by the Department of Information Technology.
Affordability is the major factor that facilitates the use of FOSS in the Indian context, says C. N. Krishnan, programme director at the Anna University-KB Chandrasekhar Research Centre. “With the objective of introducing FOSS elective courses in at least one university in every State by 2012, this year we trained the faculty of Punjab Technical University. We are also planning to introduce an M.Sc. in Open Source Software in the online mode,” he adds.
In an era where the use of computers is inevitable to any industry or profession, users say that open source software gives them a better understanding of a computer and its underlying coding architecture.
“During my internship I had an edge over the others since I had worked with open source applications and knew the programming and the command line script. As a result, I automated many time-consuming menial tasks such as copying files, etc. A lot of time was saved and I found myself more productive,” said Arun Chaganty, a final-year Computes Science student.
However, he emphasised that understanding of proprietary software is essential since it is important to be in tune with others in the industry who continue to use them.