FOSS as an education paradigm

One of my teachers is using open-source (GIS) software and libraries to teach his courses. Last week he asked me to write a short piece on the benefits of using open-source software in a teaching environment as opposed to proprietary solutions. He is following a teaching class and needs student testimonials that ‘justify’ his choice. Since I completely agree with him, I gladly sat down and wrote a short piece about it.

Free and open-source (FOSS) software is great for education as it strikes the right balance between functionality and abstraction. Commercial software abstracts the mechanics behind polished click-only interfaces thereby limiting the student’s ability to study and learn from the inner workings of the software. OS software has a different approach. Instead of hiding the functionality behind fancy interfaces, it aims to expose it in a thorough way such that others can observe, learn from and improve it. The student is thus able to open the hood, look under it, and examine how (geospatial) theories are implemented. The lack of elaborate graphical interfaces means that students will initially experience a steeper learning curve as many geospatial tools are accessible through programmatic means only. Students will therefore have to acquire basic programming skills. This is a good thing as it gives students the ability to build their own tools instead of having to rely on proprietary commercial packages. Students acquire a fundamental understanding of the matter instead of the superfluous ability to follow recipes i.e. the workflow of click-only software packages. Being able to program allows students to read and reuse code and libraries written by others. They can thus quickly and easily link any of the numerous open-source libraries available in the community. Furthermore, the open-source geospatial community is large and lively. It is not uncommon that cutting-edge technologies and methodologies first emerge in the OS community long before a commercial entity is able or willing to integrate them in their products. Teaching students to work with OS software thus enables them to stay up-to-date.

But what the FOSS mindset teaches best is the ability to learn as you go, to quickly grasp new technologies and move freely in the geospatial toolset universe. It teaches data literacy. Students become self-reliant. Instead of giving you a cookie, it gives you the flour and an oven so you can bake as you see fit. Software changes quickly, fundamental theories and practices less so. The only way to stay on top is to familiarize oneself with some fundamental skills and abilities (next to the stock geospatial knowledge): programming, using bits and pieces of other people’s code and quickly learning how to use new libraries.

All I’m saying is that students need to learn to code and hack early on in their career.

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