"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."
Increasingly, computers are expected to be useful tools in our children's education. But today, most children whose education involves computers are being taught to use one company's product: Microsoft's — Microsoft spends large sums of money on lobbyists and marketing to procure the support of educational departments.
The education of children represents a major revenue stream for Microsoft, and a strategic opportunity to embed their products into the lives of future adults. By enticing schools to teach their students using Windows and associated software, Microsoft can also make parents feel obliged to provide the same software at home. Where else do we see one corporation able to put their marketing and corporate branded materials in front of children as requirements in this way?
Many US states even boast about how they are cooperating with Microsoft, either ignoring or not understanding the corrupting influence that accepting freebies from this huge corporation has on their government. Because Microsoft's software is proprietary, it is incompatible with education — users are simply passive consumers in their interactions with Windows, they are legally forbidden from adapting the software to solve a particular problem, or from satisfying an intellectual curiosity by examining its source code. An education using the power of computers should be a means to freedom and empowerment, not an avenue for one corporation to instill its monopoly through indoctrination.
Free software, on the other hand, gives children a route to empowerment, by encouraging them to explore and learn. Nowhere was the promise of an educational platform using free software more significant than the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project. Launched by MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte in 2003, OLPC was designed to lead children around the world to an advanced education using the combination of information technology and freedom. The project aimed to produce low-cost devices (starting with one called the XO) so that millions of children could have access to them, and free software, so they would have the critical freedoms to explore and share their software.
Then under pressure from Microsoft, Negroponte backed the project away from its commitment to freedom and announced that the machine would also be a platform for running the nonfree Windows XP operating system.
Microsoft is not the only threat to education — Adobe and Apple are both firmly placed in education, even on Windows. Adobe's proprietary Flash and Shockwave players and Apple's QuickTime and iTunes are widely used by educational software.
Microsoft is now targeting governments who are purchasing XOs, in an attempt to get them to replace the free software with Windows. It remains to be seen to what degree Microsoft will succeed. But with all of this pressure, Microsoft has harmed a project that has distributed more than 1 million laptops running free software, and has taken aim at the low-cost platform as a way to make poor children around the world dependent on its products. The OLPC threatens to become another example of the way Microsoft convinces governments around the world that an education involving computers must be synonymous with an education using Windows. In order to prevent this, it is vital that we work to raise global awareness of the harm Microsoft's involvement does to our children's education. A great way to do this is by downloading Sugar and helping a child in your local area experience free software.
How does free software stand up to this? Freedom 1: The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish.
Further reading: Why schools should exclusively use free software
© 2009 Free Software Foundation, Inc
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