Start your learning with open source

I actually wrote this some time ago on a blog hosted at IBM’s developerWorks. Now that I’m doing my own site I thought it made more sense to live here. I hope it’s still useful to you.


I got a note from a friend of mine.  He just finished the trial period for some video editing software and was deciding whether or not to spend the money.  Before whipping out the credit card he wanted to see if I knew of any open source video editing software that he should look at.  I haven’t really used Windows for years, except to occasionally help someone fix problems.  (I know!  Go figure!)  My current favorite for video editing is Cinelerra, which is not currently available for Windows.  So, I did a little digging.

One of the first pages that I came across was a Wikipedia article entitled List of Free and Open Source Software Packages.  Wow!  I’d not seen this list before.  It’s pretty comprehensive, and since Wikipedia gets a large number of eyes and hands on it I would expect it to have some pretty good stuff.  As it turns out there are several packages that I was able to point him to which worked across platforms.  I even noted a few for myself to check out later on Linux.

That whole episode got me to thinking about the position held by open source.  I believe that open source software is a fantastic training ground for someone who wants to learn about technologies.  I am amazed that it is not more utilized to teach people, especially kids, about technology.  Think for a moment about what is available for free to someone who is willing to take the time to download and install it.  Think of what GNU/Linux offers out of the box.

I remember when I wanted to learn about computers.  There were pretty slim pickings for a kid in the early 80s.  I had a friend with an Apple IIe.  I eventually got my own Commodore 64.  However, much of the software was just out of my reach.  If I could get hold of it– don’t ask me how– I couldn’t really access an expert to help me learn what I was doing.  I remember clawing my way through an assembler.  There was no way I could get my hands on one of the good Borland development suites.

Now look back at that Wikipedia page.  Look at all of the packages that are available.  Look at things like the open source office suites.  In any school curriculum kids could learn all of the important elements of how documents, presentations, spreadsheets and other common office artifacts are put together.  They could learn the really important things.  (Hint: it’s not how many cool slide transitions you can cram into a presentation.)  They could learn about using styles to make document management easier.  They could learn the concepts of working with form fields and the structure of a successful document.  Just about any good office suite would have all of the necessary elements for that.  Sure!  When they walk into their job they may have to read a manual on which buttons to push… but they’ll have the concepts down.  They’ll understand what the tools are for, which means that they’ll be able to apply that knowledge to whatever tool is put in front of them.

Think about the kids who want to learn about computing.  Every conceivable programming language is at one’s disposal through open source.  They can learn abut networking, firewalls, collaboration, etc.  It’s all there.  If they get excited enough to want to work with it at home, they don’t have to go buy (or steal) anything.  The software is freely available.

Any general technology can be explored using these tools.  When the user reaches a point where the open source products no longer do the job, then it’s time to go shopping, but now they are educated shoppers.  They know what they like and don’t like, what they need and don’t need.  They aren’t at the mercy of a so-called expert who may or may not have their best interests at heart.

I challenge you to go play with that list.  See what’s on there.  Some of it is surprising and amazing!  Then, keep your ears and eyes open for people who demonstrate a need.  What for someone to say “I wish.”  It might be a friend who wants to learn something about video editing or 3D animation.  It might be at your child’s school where they say they just can’t get hold of the right tools to teach some area of technology.  Imagine if you could grant that wish by just pointing them to the right resource and get them started.  Imagine how far people could educate themselves about how things work using things that are freely and legally available.

Just imagine…

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