Monday, November 17, 2008

Free software And Using Open Document Formats in Education

In the last few months I have logged couple of thousand kilometers travelling all over the southern part of India. Right now I am on a 26 hour train ride back from the Nation Conference on Free Software in Cochin, Kerala. I am writing post sitting on the floor with my laptop precariously balanced on my lap in the doorway of a fast moving express train and the stinking toilets. I am fighting a losing battle against the stench, trying my best not to pass out and fall off the train. The engineer who decided to place the power outlets here at this ominous spot has a wried sense of humour.

I received this very interesting email today, Lulu raising an important question of weaning the teachers off the proprietary software document formats.

Dear Arky, Since I was just asking you about advocacy, perhaps you could give me some input on how to go about something. Recently, I have been supporting Linux installations for couple of college students. The problem is: Their professors often assign MS specific homework. I was hoping to draft a request for the professors to ask them to include non-MS (or non-proprietary) formats for assigned work. Any thoughts you might have on this subject would be greatly appreciated. Sincerely, LuYu

Its such an important issue that I decided to blog my answer and also I request you to comment and share your experiences too.

To start with try to meet this teacher and have a tete-a-tete conversation with the teacher. Change is difficult, change takes time, try to engage and empathize with the teacher. No one likes to be pointed out that they are wrong, instead do your homework and state the advantages of using Free and Open source in the course work and how it would boost the confidence and career of the students . Maybe the teacher isn't aware of it or not sufficiently trained on using computers. Perhaps if you know a teacher who is already uses free software, take them along.

If nothing works, write an open letter and distribute it widely. Remember its an open letter not declaration of war. A stack of student signatures and a representation to the college would also help. Thejesh and few others had run a similar campaign few years ago, Have a look at Free Software User Group-Bangalore (FSUG) wiki and mailing-list archives for theVTU FLOSS Campaign . Several individual from across the world participated in the signature campaign, even Richard M. Stallman posted his comments. A noted journalist helped us polish the letter, feel free to use it.


  1. Ahh, Microsoft Office.

    While I was in school (currently being forced into taking a break from my engineering degree due to financial hardship) it was almost the bane of my existence - I tried speaking to the professors and teachers themselves which sent things out in .docs to request that they be sent in .rtf, and eventually ended up recruiting the few in my classes who actually had MS Office to help me by converting them to .rtf or Open Document format - whichever was easier (rich text definitely seems to be the easiest..)

    I kind of miss the old days, when before Office, when people would automatically save in rich text because the program made them do it. It's really difficult sometimes to explain to teachers and professors who rarely use a computer why I don't have Office, and how to re-save documents as rich text.

  2. The petition that was prepared and signed was develop using the Wiki system from the day one. All the signatures were collected online using the Wiki edit feature.

    A print out of the document was taken and submitted to the VTU governing body. I hope that this material can be used by anyone who is planning a similar campaign.

  3. @ work

    Yeah, I use plain flat text all the time. I also like PDF (Portable Document Format) for most of my work since I can generate/read it using cli and gui envirnoment. Tools like convert from imagemagik , pdftotext, and latex/tex are very commonly used and available everywhere. Even OpenOffice, Inkscape produces beautiful documents that work on all OS's.


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