Should we be taking a second look ?

A line from Atul’s diary struck a chord – What’s so cool about free software ? . Till now all the activity that has been done across the country (the roadshows, the install fests, the demos and the LinuxAsias) have been based on the premise that FLOSS is cool and the devotees will flock to the temple. When we talk about FLOSS in education, perhaps it is worth a second look towards how we go about it ?

Educational institutions are about service delivery. Forgive the crude way of putting it across, but if you strip away all the frills – you get service and the branding that the institutes obtain could be the quality assurance tied in with the delivery of such service. In such a situation, creation of a matrix of FLOSS around the system would be a bit more complex. The current approach revolves around finding a best-fit software tool for the education business process. This includes Institution Management software (school, college, campus), Portal for the institute (along with necessary frills like IM, Single Sign On etc), Laboratory Management Software, Digital Library Information Services Software (Koha for the brave and others for the mere mortals).

Is this the right approach ? Perhaps not. This approach or offering is based on what the developer world makes of the requirements and the processes of the academic world. And in a way that could turn out to be dangerously skewed. Till date, at least for India, the developers have not really sat across with the academicians and educators to question them directly on what they want the software to do, how they want it to behave. I guess the time has come for us to do that. Just imagining (or assuming) the requirements and then trying to figure out the best possible pieces of the puzzle that will complete the jigsaw will only see FLOSS lose credibility.

This would of course lead to a more streamlined engagement with the developers. Only because we might see the need to develop software in house. Small example, any currently available Learning Management System if deployed directly in an Indian set up would fail to make an impact. Primarily because the course content is not on-line (or even in a state of being able to be ported online) and secondarily because the grading and examination processes are different. Then again we have to consider the need of different education boards in the country.

If you notice carefully, we have travelled down a rocky path till now. We began with the assumption that the current way of providing FLOSS for education is not proper and ended up with the real need to motivate developers to create applications or add functionality to existing applications. For example, a software like DrGeo would do pretty well if advanced mathematics modules aimed at standard 10,11 and 12 are added to it. Using that in conjuction with Octave, R and gnuplot would enable the creation of a complete tool set of educational applications for mathematics. And this is exactly what is lacking right now – the means to create modularised education stacks which can be plugged into a FLOSS based educational application framework. One framework for an entire board with modules being added at will to enable it to be re-used.

Involving developers and academic world leads to another phenomenon – User Driven Innovation. In case of a education stack based on FLOSS, UDI is the only way to get it going. It will pull in developers of various skillsets interacting with maintainers of existing packages as well as ensure that a proper fit software is developed.