Over 500 lecturers, professors and researchers were trained on GNU/Linux software at the National Convention for Academics and Research

The implications of the word ‘Free' in the Free Software philosophy has more to do with freedom, as in “free speech, not as in free beer”, to borrow the definitive metaphor coined by Free Software evangelist and hacker Richard Stallman.

However, for colleges, particularly those teaching technical courses, the ‘free beer' part is as relevant as the ‘digital liberation' that Free Software offers; for, institutions spend huge budgets purchasing licenses for proprietary software for technology labs. A substantial part of the National Convention for Academics and Research, that was held from December 16 to 19 in Hyderabad, was dedicated to empowering teachers, researchers and laboratory assistants in technical institutions with training in Free Software tools that can help aid their research work. This convention was organised by the Free Software Movement of India, a national coalition of Free Software movements across the country.

Free or GNU/Linux-based software, available in almost every technological domain, provides a cost-effective alternative, besides giving researchers, lecturers and students the freedom to go through source code, explore, learn from the community that is constantly working on improving the code and tinker. The hands-on training workshops held in 10 core domains had over 500 technologists and researchers participating.

Subject range

Experts in using these software offered free training in subjects ranging from networking protocol and Perl (a scripting tool) to basic training on ‘how to set up a FOSS lab'. Sessions that they went through later involved basic aspects of contributing to Free Software code, getting started with different scientific tools such as ‘R' (a statistical tool) or using GRASS (Geographic Resources Analysis Support System) mapping tools. Presentations made by researchers from institutes such as the Indian Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad and Bangalore, the Indian Institute of Science, and Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, not only informed the audience on how to use these tools but also informed them of a larger technical community that uses FOSS tools in India.

Says Bhuvan Krishna, a free software expert who trained around 100 researchers and lecturers in setting up a FOSS lab: “We know that colleges are now convinced, or nearly convinced, that FOSS is the way to go. But they don't know how to make that transition. The aim is to help demystify technology. You will be surprised to know how many people are afraid or uncomfortable with the command prompt.” Basics such as installing software, creating a double boot without disturbing extra data and automated installation (installing on scores of systems at the same time), were some of the basic skills that were taught. Basically, this is a starting point for them, he explains.

Another workshop dealt with Octave — a GNU/Linux technical computing software — a replacement for the expensive proprietary computing software MATLAB. Kishore T.V.S., a research scholar from JNTU who was among the trainers, points out that participants were excited to learn the tool not only because it was a Free alternative, but also because it had larger and significant societal applications. For instance, he says, researchers were delighted to know that using a Free tool in Octave they could do advanced image processing. “When I told them that uploading a Telugu book on to the Internet by using Octave could enrich the search experience on Telugu search engines (because it scans the entire text of the book instead of just the title or a few phrases in the blurb), they were excited.”

Besides encouraging teachers to switch over to Free Software packages and tools, the larger aim was also to get them to start using these technologies as a supplementary tool in teaching, rather than teach it as a standalone subject. “If teachers can go back and say that at the end of every lesson we will ask students to go back and simulate what they learnt, it will enrich the teaching-learning experience. This is the aim. We want them to understand that using Free Software opens up immense possibilities,” he explains.

Software carpentry

Another workshop offered was ‘software carpentry,' a popular online course that is designed to provide know-how on basic software tools that can aid research, particularly for those in non-computer science fields. A civil engineering researcher, Ananda Kumar, said the workshop was helpful at many levels. “Often we use simple Word documents and do not realise that there are several software tools that can help researchers. Tools to help text editing in large research documents, automated tools to ‘track changes' in simple code we write collaboratively, are some tools that I loved learning about.”

Raghavendra S., a software professional from Bangalore, says that the conference provided him with exposure to different technical Free tools. “I might be able to include GNU's statistical plotter simply called ‘R' in my future work. Another tool, which I got acquainted with, was GRDSS based on GRASS, now maintained by the IISc. This is another tool which I have been looking for. Now that the maintainers are at IISc., I am hoping for some breakthroughs with my work related to Image Processing.”

Run-up events

In the run-up to this conference, 34 workshops were conducted, involving 350 colleges across Andhra Pradesh. The events, which started in October, involved talks with college managements to drive home the point that Free Software could foster better innovation, and hands-on workshops in colleges. It also included a seminar that brought together women researchers from technology institutions.

Prathap Reddy, professor in the Department of Electronics and Communication Engineering, Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University, who was part of the organising team, says: “The aim is to build awareness and build the know-how among the technology community.” Even if colleges wish to migrate to Free Software, it is a huge challenge. For, lab assistants, technical support staff and lecturers are all trained in proprietary software, he explains.

“The larger aim is to get these people trained on FOSS tools even as we work with managements and senior-level academicians to make them realise that the ‘Freedom' that Free Software represents is critical for them and their institutions to make the transition towards producing quality research.”

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