The many devices and tools available to us for data processing and communication are the result of ideation and engineering. This lays out a stage wherein there are two archetypal characters in the play: the creator (developers, engineers) versus the consumer (users). Each engages with technology in a unique manner, their actions motivated by disparate needs and end goals, resulting in fairly distinct profiles. Naturally, both are required to sustain the digital community. It follows that each character’s attitude towards these tools, and ultimately their behavioral patterns can have a significant impact on what kind of community is cultivated. One such philosophical force has been the open source (software) movement, which albeit largely driven by creators has definite implications for the end user by the sheer economics of choice.
The movement towards openness and transparency in the creator’s process had its genesis in the 1970s and ‘80s, and gathered momentum leading up to the formation of the Open Source Initiative in the late ’90s. In contrast to the proprietary version of product development, the focus here was to lay the foundations for a creative culture “based on sharing and collaborative improvement of software source code. For those who are creators and developers, this method has borne fantastic fruit, particularly with regard to technological innovation for social change.
Take for example, FrontlineSMS, a product which has won accolades from entities across the globe. At its basic level, what it does is leverage the greater prevalence of mobile ownership (over computers and internet access) in developing regions, and allows internet independent communication with an ‘offline’ information portal. This technical innovation has found application in a range of development concerns such as medical assistance, micro-finance and citizen journalism. On the matter of the spin-off applications, FrontlineSMS creator Ken Banks says, “We make [source code] available to existing NGOs and grassroot organizations. If we hadn’t open-sourced it, we wouldn’t have this rich ecosystem of developers! People working in certain other sectors have identified some additional functionalities that can be added to the software that make it more useful and more relevant.
Such endeavors, and myriad other examples, act as clarion calls to action for those who are keen on joining the force of creators in this field and have an inclination for affecting social change! For such young learners, early exposure to FOSS applications can work to inculcate in them an appreciation for collaborative creation that may well be sustained across the years, and result in an enthusiasm to actually contribute. Yet, what about their classmates who will graduate to join the ranks of the complement: the consumers? It does well to note that the values underpinning the FOSS culture are collaboration, creativity and meaningful problem-solving, thus mirroring the much touted “21st century skills.” Therefore, an introduction to FOSS is rather well aligned with the goals of today’s educators.
What remains to be unpacked is the practical implication for the future consumers who will now engage with FOSS-based computer application. One of the primary motivators to use proprietary tools is the real or perceived (depending on the software or feature in question) existence of a greater range of features. Another motivator is the easy inertia inherent in following the masses, toeing the dominant line of using proprietary software. One might quickly consider the basic office applications: word processors, spreadsheets, presentation tools, database tools, and perhaps multimedia editing tools. Today, the fundamentals of this array are expected to be imparted at the school level, whereas the higher order functions remain largely untouched out of a lack of necessity, knowledge or curiosity.
Here is the kicker: the very same fundamentals in question continue to constitute the entire repertoire of the average post-employment user! In April 2014, Softwatch, a software analytics company, published their findings on a recent Microsoft usage benchmark study. They sampled 150,000 individuals employed from across different enterprises. According to their press release, “The benchmark shows that on average an employee only spends 48 minutes a day on MS Office applications. It also reveals high numbers of inactive users in the organizations; in particular PowerPoint was not being used at all by half of the employees. In addition, most of the users of the other applications used them primarily for viewing and light editing purposes, with only a small number of heavy users: 2% in PowerPoint, 9% in Word and 19% in Excel.”The take-away? Mark Vizard, blogger/commenter at IT Business Edge summarizes, “The real issue is that the distribution of Microsoft Office across the enterprises continues to be pretty much taken as a given. But upon closer examination of how the applications are actually being used, it becomes clear that 80 percent of the users are not getting as much value out of them as the other 20 percent.”
If most people are not likely to use even half the available features, where does this leave us? Continuing the example of office tools, we may note that the FOSS counterparts to Microsoft Office (OpenOffice, Libre Office) are fairly competitive in terms of features and functions, the difference becoming negligible when comparing the features that are frequently used/”basic”/”fundamental.” What this then relates to is a need for end-users to focus not so much on particular softwares, but rather in honing the practical functions that one is able to perform, e.g. word-processing, data-crunching, representing information in graphs or presentations, and so on.
Whereas any particular application software may get updated or uprooted, it is the ability to explore and the confidence in self-learning that constitute the skills that will persist despite those changes, and therefore need to be developed today. This is the driving force behind InOpen Technologies unique computer science curriculum: Computer Masti. The academic program exemplifies this spirit of providing a much needed learning experience, spring boarding the exploration of underlying concepts and principles of topics off of FOSS platforms.
Now, add to this idea of no longer requiring software-specificity a reminder about how FOSS applications have the potential to further engender an appreciation for the creative process, the thrill of having agency to affect change behind the scenes and it quickly emerges as a great choice for those interested in financially viable, socially conscious learning platforms! It is imperative that today’s educators draw the widest arc possible in employing the range of tools available, so as to grasp the common principles that drive digital tools, to bring in young learners an understanding of their place in the spectrum of creators and consumers, and the nature of exchange betwixt.