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Published February 24, 2017 | History

Free and Open Source Software: Much More Than Touch Screens - Useful and Responsible Computing

I’ve been using Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) for more than 10 years now. In the beginning, the fact that I could use the software for free was what I found interesting. As time went on, I grew to appreciate their user-friendliness and their interoperability. My use of FOSS has now taken on a symbolic value: a refusal of hyper-consumerism, rejecting any restraints on the free flow of ideas caused by copyright laws and opposing the commercialisation of education.

LibreOffice and Open Source Software

An interesting alternative to the purchased software for which our establishments (CEGEPs, universities, ministries, etc.) pay expensive user licenses, open source software is free and can be used, modified and copied as many times as required. Although there are a number of “free” solutions for the majority of commercially available software, I recommend that the students in my History course use the LibreOffice suite.

LibreOffice is the free, modifiable alternative to suites like Word or WordPerfect. Open Office also exists in the open source world, but there is more material available for LibreOffice. It’s the one that I prefer. In LibreOffice, you will find equivalents for MS Word, MS Excel, MS PowerPoint and MS Access. They are compatible with a variety of other software and extensions, and often have a greater number of possible options and control over the user settings, for example:

  • An impressive list of additional features to assist you while writing (spell-checkers, dictionaries, thesaurus, etc.) in many different languages.
  • Importing audio and video files.
  • Compatibility with many content management systems.
  • Hundreds of extensions that allow you to customize your interface according the way you use the software.

Other than the fact that they are free and compatible, the strength of open source software is the following: the ease with which the graphical user interface can be modified to suit the needs of the user, as they see fit. This is what makes it all the more interesting for students in my History class, who will be university students in the future.

History, Technology and Computing

For several years now in my History courses, 15 to 20% of the students were already using free and open source software. I don’t require this for my course, but I still strive to demonstrate just how useful they are, mentioning the ethical and democratic considerations associated with using FOSS.

Contrary to what some people might think, our students aren’t all that familiar with technology. I’d even say that they are somewhat conservative.They don’t really like trying out new software, especially if using involves complex functions, like automatically generating a table of contents, footnotes or bibliographic references. When it comes to using tablets, sure, they are easy to use whether you are a CEGEP student or a young child. But that’s exactly why having a fair degree of computing knowledge is not the same as knowing how to use a tablet. I require more from my students.

In contrast to most of the French or Philosophy courses, in History the students work a lot with a computer, whether it is on a laptop or a desktop. The research project for the semester and the report that stems from this research need to be done with a word processor. The student must competently use the different functions that will allow them to organize their sources and structure their research. This is where open source software is beneficial.

My work as a History teacher also involves me teaching my students how to master these technical aspects that are closely linked to research in History. Once again, open source software is not required in my course, but I invite my students to use them. It’s a good way to acquire a solid foundation in technology that will serve them in the future, whether they choose to use free operating systems, Macs or Windows. What’s more, they’re free, there are no royalties to pay and this gets students to be more autonomous and responsible, which is no small order in today’s world!

Towards the Digitally Literate Citizen

In a nutshell, not only are my students better prepared to write their university papers, but they also develop an awareness of the space and power that multinational software producers have within society in general, and more particularly within education. These multinationals are very aggressive in response to the development of FOSS, going so far as to encourage “astroturfing” in the organizations that opt to use open source software. It’s important to remain vigilant towards this type of propaganda, and an offshoot of using FOSS in my courses is that students develop digital literacy or media awareness.

I’ve been working for a long time on developing an “open” class. This is what we are trying to do at the Cégep de Rimouski, not only for students, but for the faculty as well. It isn’t always straightforward, since we humans tend to take the easy road in the shorter term, even if it can turn out to be harmful in the longer term. Technology is everywhere, as we like to say. Knowing how it works, the language, its social and economic ramifications are important in the world today. The opposite may turn us into technological illiterates.

About the Author

Kurt Vignola is a Historian and History Teacher at the Cégep de Rimouski. He has had a passion for information technology for more than 25 years and is interested in citizen-based scientific culture.

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