Why aren’t we promoting FOSS to kids?

Over the last two months I’ve become involved in several homeschooling and unschooling communities both on-line and in our community here in Northeast Ohio. As I am an admitted geek, I find myself frequently answering questions about computers. Mixed in to the typical ‘what computer should I buy?’ or ‘do I really need a laptop/desktop or can I get away with just a tablet?’ type questions have been more than a few on programming and computer science for kids.

And its made me start to wonder something – why aren’t there programs to get kids involved in FOSS? There are growing numbers of programs to help kids learn programming, but aside from Google Code-In (which I keep plugging, though I have yet to speak to anyone who’s heard of it before…), none that I have found encourage (or even mention) the use and development of free software. Its a huge gap, and one which we should be working to fill.

If we want to convince people to move to free software we need to get them involved asap - before they develop preconceived notions about software. Many kids today have their own computers, tablets, cell phones, etc, and though many  would like to learn to develop on them, there’s just not a whole lot of materials out there to help them learn. And, unfortunately, most of what does exist, has been designed (sometimes explicitly) without free software in mind. The result is a majority of kids learning to program in closed environments without any idea that there is another, more open way to do things.

The result is yet another generation of kids who have barely heard of FOSS. Another generation lost to closed source, both as users and developers. If there is a target audience who we should be promoting free software to, its kids. They are a perfect fit – though many of them have access to technology, very few have much (if any!) expendable income. We ought to begin advertising our desire to teach them to use and contribute to free software, along with its benefits. We ought to begin designing basic programming classes for kids using free software and explaining its benefits. We also need to make it easy for those kids to talk to us and tell us about their software, what it does and what they need help with. If we want them to join us, then we need to give them the resources and the ability to do so.

We need something to point both kids and parents alike to. Something that we can show them and say ‘Look! Look at what you and your kids can do with free software! Look how it can help them learn!’ Because there are thousands, likely millions of them out there – kids who want to learn. Parents who want to facilitate their kids learn about computers. I myself continue to meet them, both online and off on a nearly daily basis – and I want, I need, something, anything to point them to.

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15 Responses to “Why aren’t we promoting FOSS to kids?”

  1. bochecha Says:

    Some people have started doing this in France:

    http://ils.sont.la/post/kids-code-and-cakes-coding-gouter-paris

    • Alexandre Franke Says:

      https://fosdem.org/2013/schedule/event/coding_gouter/ even has a video presentation in English. :)

    • Emily Says:

      This sounds amazing! I’d love to do something similar!!

  2. Rupert Says:

    We have very well-developed programmes that deliver “Computing & Information Technology” (CIT) to school and university students. They are fully funded by industry and promote products like Microsoft Office. Every part of a typical course delivery is covered in proprietary logos, and the students end up thinking that nothing except Microsoft Office or other branded products are capable of use in the workplace.

    It is hard to compete with a highly organised and well-funded system that is supported by text books available in any regular bookshop.

  3. Tomeu Vizoso Says:

    The Sugar Labs people are doing this kind of stuff, and they can put you in contact with more such organizations (some working in the US)

    • Emily Says:

      True, but they aren’t advertising. And the platform (XO) their software is designed for is nearly impossible for individual families to get a hold of. I would love to purchase a couple of XO’s for my boys, but there’s no way for me to do so.

      • Tomeu Vizoso Says:

        Well, I don’t know what OLPC is doing these days regarding sales of their hardware, but Sugar Labs works with regular Linux distros so everybody can run Sugar on common computers. Also, they have a marketing team that cares about FOSS and I’m sure will be interested in hearing your ideas.

      • Emily Says:

        Interesting. I’ll check into contacting them and see if they have any suggestions :)

  4. lamefun Says:

    I think we don’t promote FOSS to kids for the obvious reason: restricted learning, where you can only learn what’s prescribed for you, is true learning and leads to success, and schools with their fixed curricula are a proof to it. Unrestricted, self-motivated learning, on the other hand, is false learning and dooms to failure, and the fact that schools are forced is a proof to it. FOSS promotes unrestricted learning: you can learn literally anything about it and program anything. Proprietary software promotes restricted learning – you can only learn what’s for students with their limited student-orientated versions of development environments. FOSS is for responsible adults only, not for children.

    • lamefun Says:

      If we enforce FOSS as a part of school curriculum, children will hate it, just like any other curricular subject.

      If we just introduce them to FOSS without any coercion, we risk getting them addicted to programming and contribution to FOSS and that’ll lead to truancy and bad grades, dooming many children to failure.

      So it’s best to leave it as it is.

    • lamefun Says:

      Why do we have gaming addiction in children? Even many proprietary games, although not truly free as in freedom, bear many similarities with FOSS: many are non-linear and some are modifiable and even ship their own easy to use level editors. To get rid of gaming addiction in children, we need to make a legalisation that will make games must be like school curriculum: linear and impossible for children to modify in any way.

  5. Eric Fitton Says:

    I’m a teacher but don’t feel comfortable recommending Linux for a variety of reasons. FOSS, sure. We do GIMP, WordPress, GeoGebra and they hear about Open/LibreOffice. But Linux is a whole different ball of wax.

    • Emily Says:

      Why is GNU/Linux different? Installation (assuming you’re doing a clean install) is as easy, if not more so, than installing Windows. And upkeep on most basic installations is far simpler than upkeep on a standard windows install.

      My husband, several friends, and my children (3.5 & 6) all use GNU/Linux systesm with zero issues and have for several years. What most kids do on computers can easily be done in a GNU/Linux system – surfing the web, playing games on Facebook, watching Youtube videos, writing papers, etc. So why not GNU/Linux ?

      • Eric Fitton Says:

        I keep meaning to write more. However, the shortest response is: why would I think it is going to be a clean install? 70% free and reduced school lunch. IF there is a computer (and many don’t have one), it often is the family computer that everyone counts on. IF they have a family computer, they very well might not have high speed internet (or even dialup for that matter). Telling them to install a different operating system seems a little reckless.

  6. lamefun Says:

    Putting the risks of severe addiction, truancy and eventual irreversible ruining of life, what about also promoting simple game engines for children? For example, Scrach (the old one that’s free software and based on Java), LÖVE (for 2D games, with Lua), Blender Game Engine (for 3D games, with Python), ClanLib (C++) or Gluon (if it is still alive)? I used to make games (though using proprietary constructors) when I was 12 or so, that was very fun!


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