The connections among Education, Green ICT and Free Software


During the fOSSa 2010 conference in Grenoble, several speakers talked about how much Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) is important in two fields that are strictly related for the future of our society: education and environmental sustainability. This is a synthesis of the most important points that emerged in those talks (My full fOSSa report is in a separate page).

Education? It needs FOSS, but it also needs to change

Marc Humbert and Jean-Philippe Rennard explained how the Grenoble School of Management is using the Moodle Learning Management System to offer frontal and remote teaching and to produce Open Courseware.

The courses are doing fine, even if they said that it wasn’t easy to introduce such a tool in a Microsoft-driven Business School (“nobody knows OpenOffice in companies and they want people immediately useful, that is already familiar with Excel or Word”) and that they are still studying how to expand the whole program and keep it sustainable. Franco Iacomella and Wouter Tebbens presented the status of the Free Technology Academy, which has similar problems but a promising road ahead (here is my interview to Tebbens on the FTA).

Roberto Di Cosmo, speaking of the Mancoosi project, noted that, unlike civil engineering students who can’t dismantle a real, huge, state-of-the-art bridge to see how it is done, software students are really lucky, at least in theory. They can, in fact, open and try to break or modify mission-critical software programs, that is the very same “products” that they’re supposed to build once they graduate, in order to learn how they work! This, however, is only true with software whose source code is freely available to everyone for any purpose, that is only with FOSS! Therefore, says Di Cosmo, it’s essential to give students this possibility, that is to introduce FOSS in all Computer Science curriculum (see here for an example) as well as FOSS and collaboration skills in all fields of Academia.

Di Cosmo also presented a Free Software course open to university students of all courses but computer science ones, held in Paris by Ralf Treinen since 2007. The first part of the course (8 weeks) teaches basic concepts from foundations of computing to philosophy and economics of FOSS, while in the second part each student has to work on a small research project on some FOSS topic.

Gilles Dowek starting from the assertion that France is “an underdeveloped country, when it comes to ICT” (but Italy certainly isn’t in better shape, I have to add) proposed a 3 steps plan to teach in computer science in High School. Kids from 6 to 12 years old should learn how to use common software, students from 13 to 18 should learn to write programs, while University students would learn actual computer science (Turing machines and so on). Besides, in all phases there should be a balance between the 4 concepts of informatics: algorithm, machine & networks, language, information. The basic principle, Dowek notes, is that “learning (through FOSS, of course) fundamental concepts and how computers are programmed empowers, learning how to click buttons does not”. He then concluded that, since businesses would be happy to have qualified employees and FOSS is just about empowerment, FOSS teaching should seek for more support from businesses. My comments on this are in my final report.

Education to Freen (“Free as in Green”) ICT

Francois Letellier gave a talk on the huge environmental footprint of digital tecnologies and services, and on how to use FOSS to reduce it. Here are some of his starting data:

  • (the equipment to “manage”) one Second Life avatar has the same carbon footprint of one average, real life Brazilian
  • reducing power consumption of electronics devices is only a very little part of the solution, because much, much more energy is dissipated to MANUFACTURE them: for example, he said, manufacturing a desktop in China emits 24 times more GHG (CO2) than using it in France for one year
  • software inefficiency is part of the problem: Microsoft Vista + Office 2010 require 70 times more physical resources than Windows 98 + Office 97 to do basically the same things (NOTE: I had said years ago that (badly designed) software pollutes a lot!)

Letellier says that almost all we are doing and discussing these days is only “Green ICT 1.0”, which consists of merely reducing the environmental footprint of our ICT devices. But this, according to him, is only 2% of the problem (Marco: how much extra paper has been produced by “paperless” office automation?). The other 98% would be solved by moving to “Green ICT 2.0”, which means reforming and then massively using ICT to build a wholly greener world.

In practice, Green ICT 2.0 can’t happen without FOSS. The solution proposed by Letellier includes:

  • extending hardware lifespan and reuse: only FOSS can make this viable (proprietary licenses are not transferable!)
  • reduce software feature frenzy: old computers with floss perform just as good as new ones with last version proprietary software (hey, this is just why I and others started the Run Up to date Linux Everywhere project years ago!).
  • hardware virtualization, which was born and then became a mass trend in ICT thanks to FOSS

Personally, I’m a bit tired of “2.0” buzzwords, and I am also not so keen on hardware virtualization, for reasons I’ll describe some other time. However, the other proposals from Letellier make a lot of sense, and there is also no doubt for me that the transition to “Green ICT 2.0”, for lack of a better name, has to become part of modern quality education. Schools and Universities should support this, instead of acting like pushers of addictive and polluting software programs.

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