Thus far in this series of posts about an open environment for designing, developing and delivering e-learning, I’ve focused on “pure” open source applications and programs. In the next few articles I will be looking at a group of applications that are neither open source proper nor commercially available programs, yet can be a powerful addition to your e-learning development toolkit – gratis (or free-to-use) software.
Now read on…
It is important to define usage of the word “open” in the term “open environment:” in this context, I qualify the use of “open” as adhering to the openformats.org definition:
We will say that a file format is open if the mode of presentation of its data is transparent and/or its specification is publicly available. Open formats are ordinarily standards fixed by public authorities or international institutions whose aim is to establish norms for software interoperability. There are nevertheless cases of open formats promoted by software companies which choose to make the specification of the formats used by their products publicly available.
It should be noted that an open format can either be coded in a transparent way (readable in any text editor: this is the case of markup languages) or in a binary mode (unreadable in a text editor but thoroughly decodable once the format specifications are known).
The distinction between open source tools proper and free-to-use tools has been called gratis versus libre debate: to understand the importance of this distinction, at this point we must digress briefly into the domain of linguistics.
There is a well-known principle that Form follows Function, an axiom that is as true for thought processes as for architecture. For example, if you are a native English speaker you “think” in English – the language your conscious “you” uses to interpret your brain’s electrochemical impulses manifest themselves “in” English. Some interesting empirical work by psychologists like Stanford University-based Lera Boroditsky seem to indicate that
one’s native language appears to exert a strong influence over how one thinks about abstract domains.
Indeed, French (post-)structuralist Michel Foucault proposed a linkage between linguistic signs and their cultures, stating that language practices help to maintain assumptions in a culture by serving as a tool for knowing and constructing the world. He calls this connection between the physical reality and the discursive reality the “dominant discourse” and gives the example of “freedom” in the United States. The “freedom” stressed in the U.S. places emphasis on the individual, unhampered, and this viewpoint persists despite workplaces that require subordination and laws that refine freedom’s limits. “Freedom” in the U.S. persists in being defined as such, despite physical realities to the contrary (Rivkin, 54)
For example, while I am not a polyglot, I am a native Irish speaker. Like most bilingual people, I transition between schemata (mental models) appropriate to the language depending on the whether I’m speaking Irish or English. Why? Because the grammatical structure of each language determines how I “think” in that language. For example, Irish has two present tenses and no equivalent of the verb “to have” – as such, my ‘English language’ cognitive processes have no rules to facilitate this usage as gaeilge (in Irish). Equally, English has no equivalent of the French feminine and masculine objects la or le or the German feminine, neutral, or masculine (die, das or der).
And so we return to gratis and libre.
The word “gratis” appears regularly as a synonym for “free” in many English dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary: “libre” does so less commonly. However, no English adjective exclusively signifies the distinction between “without cost – though not necessarily without value” (gratis) and “not under bondage or obligation” (libre). This distinction is important in dealing with laws concerning the use of information, such as copyright and patents. More controversially, the terms are used in the free software and open source communities, as well as the broader free culture movement, to categorize computer programs according to the licenses and legal restrictions that cover them. Both expression and the term gratis are used to distinguish freeware (gratis software) from free software (libre software).
In the information technology context, open source advocate Richard Stallman summarized the difference like this:
Think free as in free speech, not free beer.
My view is that both categories of software enable me to meet my objective of developing courseware. Being of a practical disposition, I don’t really suffer an ethical dilemma in combining a range of tools if they assist me in achieving my goals. With this in mind, I will discuss some of these free-to-use / gratis tools next time.
Nevertheless, I do think that it is important to highlight the two philosophies, and to discuss the implications of using open software and/or proprietary software to implement learning solutions. In my view, the debate is central to some key aspects of the 21st century socio-cultural matrix, economics, law, and even ethics. The dialectic is part of many current social issues – from copyright, copyleft, and peer-to-peer file-sharing, right through to the emergence of commercial mass surveillance through applications like AdSense, OpenSocial, Phorm, and their increasing pool of “web gadgets,” “social gadgets” and other hosted services that feed user information about web browsing and purchasing habits, personal interests, and now also social connections, to various corporations and organizations.
It is a subject worthy of more consideration, and I will revisit it here on the E-Learning Curve Blog at some point in the future.
Tomorrow: a free media authoring tool from an unlikely source.
Boroditsky, L. (2001). Does Language Shape Thought?: Mandarin and English
Speakers’ Conceptions of Time. [Internet] Available from: www-psych.stanford.edu/~lera/papers/mandarin.pdf [Accessed 4 November 2009]
Rivkin, J., Ryan, M. (Eds) (2004). Literary Theory: An Anthology (2nd ed.). Blackwell Publishing: Oxford, England.
November 11 2009 04:00 pm | e-learning
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