On World Software Freedom Day today, here is a byte of reality

Sumangala Nayak, a social studies teacher at the Sampangiramnagar Government High School in Bangalore, could barely operate a computer until recently — this, despite her school being part of the first phase of the central government's ICT@schools programme in Karnataka. Now, after going through a Free Software training camp, she is not only computer literate but also declares proudly that she is quite comfortable using a “Free/Libre” GNU/Linux operating system, something that many computer-savvy people wrongly perceive to be too technical or out-of-bounds.

“It isn’t as complicated as we had imagined. Someday, I hope to use these free tools to make daily lessons more interesting for my students,” she explains. Ms. Nayak is talking about various educational tools that come along with Debian educational distribution system (a Free Software product) — Dr Geo (to teach Geometry) and GCompris, to name a few.

In Karnataka, the ICT@Schools programme mandates that all computers use GNU/Linux-based operating systems, which besides being zero-cost offer the freedom to use, share, and study and even modify. But FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) supporters who carried out an ad-hoc survey found that little or no Linux was being taught or used there. Hence, volunteer groups comprising software engineers, students and other FOSS enthusiasts organised a training camp for teachers from 18 government schools as a pilot project.

As the sessions get ready to wind up on Saturday, another government school teacher Roopa B.N. too feels “empowered” and talks confidently about the philosophy behind Free Software. The sessions, held at the Sarva Siksha Abhyan’s plush computer facility, caught her fancy for she never imagined that software could be easily “tweaked” to suit requirements. “Only having the source available and using software made by the people and for the people allows that. That it is developed and distributed freely is relevant. Besides skills like making slide shows or sending emails we also discovered so many specialised tools on Debian,” she explains, animatedly.

ICT@schools programme works on an outsourcing model under which the government identifies vendors who set shop and then assign one “educator” to teach computers in each school. Upon interacting with these educators, trainers found that there was little or no knowledge about using the Free Tools recommended or mandated by the government. “These ‘educators’ had never used an educational package in their lives, so how can they aid the larger cause of working towards using ICT in classrooms?” asks Renuka Prasad from the Free Software Users Group, Bangalore.

Though the first and second phase mandated use of GNU/Linux, we found educators (and hence teachers) were still clueless, says Gurumurthy Kasinathan of Bangalore-based NGO 'IT for Change'. “And the battle isn't just an economical one (between free and proprietary software). Government and educators must be made aware of the vast amount of tools that are available freely — and easily customisable too — as part of any GNU/Linux system,” Mr. Kasinathan points out.

The Department of State Educational Research and Training, which supported this camp, believes training is important to “give students a comparative advantage”, says DSERT director M.N. Baig. “We want to equip children with computer skills that can help them land jobs. This training will help strengthen programmes we are already running,” he points out, adding that proprietary software corporation Microsoft too has three training academies in Gulbarga, Dharwad and Bangalore on its Open Software.

However, both Ms. Roopa and Ms. Nayak, equipped with knowledge, return to computers that either “crashed” or have no power supply. “I'd like to take what I've learnt to my students, but will simply have to wait for the computers to work,” Ms. Nayak says.