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Educational Freeware Update: there's a mailing list to discuss the project on eGroups, so click here to join the discussion -- CdG

Educational Freeware

Introduction

This is just a quick write-up of a plan that has been breeding for the last couple of months, which means that it is not yet complete. I am releasing it at this moment because I want to see whether people or interested to participate in this project, in any of the manners described below.

If you are interested, please drop me a note. Don't worry, I'll cope with the volume of response I'm expecting ;-). If there seems to be a lot of interest, I'll setup a quick mailing list and add anybody that has expressed interest.

Note that at the moment of this writing, I'm not aware of similar efforts. If such efforts do exist, I rather direct attention to them (given compatible operating parameters) then start a competing project.

Note, too, that I'm talking basic education here: from 4 to 18 years, depending on your country's school system.

Background

Our kids are going to be educated in a thoroughly different world than the one we grew up in - I don't think I need to explain to the readership of this document the impacts of the information age. Hopefully, the various school curriculae will adopt to these changes fast enough, but for several reasons I'm not too sure that this will happen.

First of all, it is all going too fast. Schools are typically used to a pace in which the curriculum needs to change over periods of 5 or 10 years, not 5 to 10 months.

One of the results of this pace of change is that hardware requirements change too fast. Schools are typically dumpyards for obsolete, or at least 'current minus one generation', hardware and this is already taxing their budgets. Furthermore, the success of hardware acquisition is often tied directly to parent's pulling some threads, which gives schools in better neighbourhoods very large advantages.

Having spent all their money on hardware and an Internet connection, there is no budget for software. Windows'95 or '98 probably came with the box (or MacOS, in the case they opted for that), and a bit of bundled software was probably included as well, but really high-quality educational software that could really support the school's courseware comes with pricetags that are way too steep to fit the budget. Maybe a single copy will go, but what schools will need, sooner or later, is at least a two-to-one relation students/computers.

I don't want my kids (4.5 and 2 at the time of this writing) to be educated on second-hand computers running obsolete versions of monopolistic operating systems, with "surfing the Net" being the most advanced use of these boxes. Probably most parents agree with me, and I think that most non-parents would like to see a tad more computer literacy taught as a part of basic education.

I can't equip all these schools with hardware, and I cannot volunteer all over the world to install Linux on their computers (which will close the one-generation-too-old gap the hardware causes at least a bit), but I can volunteer to help in making sure that schools have plenty of access to quality educational software, and have free (speech) access to it.

Project Goals

I'd like to call it "the Project" for now - even though I have some possible names for it, I want to keep them to myself in order to avoid having to reserve the corresponding domain names up front.

The Project aims to deliver quality, free, platform independent educational software that can be used by schools all over the world.

In the following paragraphs, I'll elaborate on these terms.

Quality software

With this, I mean: indistinguishable, unless in a positive aspect, from commercial offerings. From installation procedure to manual to artwork, the stuff should simply be good.

Free Software

Quite and simple: everything that is packaged to form the final product - software, manuals, artwork - must be either under the GNU General Public License or be licensed to the project under liberal conditions (the latter mainly to enable licensing of well-known characters - Sesame Street, Teletubbies - although I'm not holding my breath here).

Platform Indepentent Software

The Project is not and should not be in a position to excert an influence over the school's hardware buying decisions. Therefore all software should be written in the Java programming language. At the moment, this is the best environment that helps in attaining the goal.

Educational Software

In the broadest sense: it has to support or enhance the teacher's job. From teaching arithmetic to Internet search engine front-ends, a lot is thinkable.

All over the world

Software should not be too specific to local school programs, and internationalization/localization is a must. While we're at it, we can throw accessibility into this basket so that children with disabilities can profit from The Project's output.

Project plan

Internet site

The homebase for The Project will be an Internet site on an aptly named host in the .org top-level domain. This site will be equipped with basic collaboration tools (mailing lists, FTP space, and maybe off-the-shelf collaboration tools like BSCW).

People can apply for membership in the producer-side of the project, and barriers for access will be put suitably low. General discussion groups will help people to organize themselves in specific projects while some mandatory lists will make sure that work is reused. Nothing fancy here, a lot of large groups are doing this all the time.

Contributions

Most freeware/open source projects out on the Net are run by programmers for well over 90%. This explains a lot of the bad documentation for freeware out there ;-). Clearly, the story is completely different here...

Java Guys

Given the development platform, hardly a surprise - we need Java coders.

Graphics Guys

Educational software must be a joy to use, etcetera - it is therefore highly visual so even more important than the programmers are graphics gurus who know how to make software look good, but who can also come up with funny characters, animate them, etecetera.

Story Tellers

This kind of software needs storyboards. A lot of interaction is taking place, and in order to support the educational goals the interactions must be well thought-out.

Pedagogic Types

Yes, we need these extreme right-brainers as well ;-) These are the ones that setup school curriculae, and these are the pros in their field who can give advice on the do's and don'ts to the amateurs.

Doc Writers

Even the highly interactive, fun-to-use software this project wants to produce is going to need documentation on installation, with teacher's instructions, etcetera.

Sponsors

Plain, hard cash; equipment, domain registry stuff, Internet connections, administrative staff; licenses to use well-known characters for the Project's software - just a couple of examples how you can contribute even if you don't fit into one of the other categories.

As you can see, this will be a very mixed group with the hard-core techies hopefully forming the minority.

Timeframe

Phase One: discuss it For the moment, I want to have couple of weeks of ideas exchange on this project, rewriting this document, filling in the details, checking feasibility, etcetera.

Phase Two: set it up Then, when at least a sponsor for DNS and a sponsor for the box plus Network connection has been found, it is time to name the project, set things up, and get publicity. This will take another three months at least to get a version one of the collaboration environment going.

Phase Three: kick off During the box setup, initial project plans can be discussed, and - via some form of democratic participation - a vote can take place on the first project that will be started. This is not the typical "scratch-your-own-itch" environment, and due to the type of software a bit more structural approach needs to be taken. Even when everybody is at all times welcome to do what he/she wants, a couple of projects will be active at any given time and be managed in a bit of a structured manner.

Phase Four: incorporate If phase three is a success, The Project should be incorporated in a suitable country (Berne Convention, etcetera) as soon as possible to be able to hold onto the copyrights. I think this is an important measure to give schools the feeling that they're investing time into reliable, long-term supported, software. It is needless to say that this will be done as a public-interest, not-for-profit organization.

Conclusion

I think this is an interesting and worthwhile project that deserves a lot of the creative energy floating out there. Please give me feedback on this proposal and help me in making this a success!


Cees de Groot

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Last modified: Sun Jul 4 23:47:50 CEST 1999

 
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