Should We Teach with Open Source Software?

    by Pam McAllister-Johnson
    May 28, 2008

    Western Kentucky University if one of seven academic programs working on a joint Knight Brothers 21st Century News Challenge grant (Ithaca College, Kansas State, Michigan State, Saint Michael’s College, the Univeristy of Kansas, and the University of Nevada-Las Vegas).

    Three student-developed projects were presented at the Online News Association conference last year. This summer, the innovative digital news projects are being tested at newspapers. We were instructed to use open-source software for our projects.

    Open-source is free. In the open-source community, there are comparable programs for every retail package produced by the big companies. Open-source software can be well- documented and is often supported by a large community of programmers.


    For example, Gimp, an open-source tool that does most of what Adobe Photoshop does, can be downloaded for free at www.gimp.org. Adobe Photoshop CS3 is a minimum of $369.00. The developers who maintain Gimp provide downloadable manuals and plug-ins and tutorials as well. They even have a user forum. Gimp is stable and well- respected in the design community. Amazon.com lists at least five recent how-to books on Gimp.

    Another open-source example is OpenOffice (available at www.openoffice.org). Students who may end up writing for a living can download this very robust office suite for free and for just about any computer platform including Windows and OSX. The program includes a word processor, a presentation program, a spreadsheet program and a basic drawing program. Sound familiar?

    OpenOffice is very much like Microsoft Office—-some proponents think it may even be better. OpenOffice can even open existing Microsoft Office files and save them out again in Microsoft Office compatible formats. There are no fewer than six how-to manuals available via your local bookstore (or the Web) for OpenOffice.


    We tell our students that when they for go a job interview, the employer is going to be more impressed if they can do “Flash” rather than an open-source software.

    Is it okay to only teach the open-software and save the students some money?

    Tagged: education free software open source saving money teaching
    • Rick Mason

      It’s ok to teach them only open source software if you are teaching the concepts of the software and not just how to use a particular software package.

      When I did the Image Arts: New Media program at Ryerson, we were taught the concepts of image and film/video editing. We worked in darkrooms to print photos from negatives and spliced 16mm film to edit it. We spent very little time actually learning the ins and outs of Photoshop or Premiere. This was a bit extreme, but if you learn the principles behind these software packages those principles translate to other software.

      The most valuable people are those who can move between varied environments with a minimum of training or ramp up time.

    • I think it may be less important to consider which software tools multimedia journalists should use than to consider what those journalists (and journalism in general) will do in a changing mediascape that increasingly includes open source tools like Gimp or Open Office.

      If everyone ELSE is using free tools to accomplish what trained journalists do with Flash, etc, what will the role of the multimedia journalist be in the future? Frankly, I want to see everyone empowered to tell their own stories (citizen journalism is a part of that – but only a part). Open source stands to play a large role in making that a possibility for more people.

      The other part of this, I think, is developing hardware that facilitates ease of use. Imagine an open source version of Flash running on a large touch screen…I think that alone would be a huge step towards everyday digital storytelling (or reporting).

      See more here: http://tiny.cc/acyPD

    • On top of that, the benefits of free software aren’t limited to money. They are also free to modify and re-distribute.

      Obviously, you will not have the need (or the time & skills) to modify the gimp. But what about javascript, python, php libraries that are under GPL? Those are free software too, and maybe you’d need to adapt some code to use in a particular project.

      And what about Drupal, WordPress and countless of other CMS’s? You could build an online newspaper with them. In fact, some did it. Those are free software as well, and really useful for an online journalist.

      But going back to desktop software like Gimp, Scribus or Inkscape. I thought the point of college was to develop skills and learn concepts. You should not teach how to use a piece of software. And if you do, it may well be one that is free, as in beer and as in speech. It looks more ethical to me than to lock students with knowledge they can apply only to 500$ software.

    • Funny you should mention Flash. In doing our games (the latest one is here, we at Gotham Gazette have been unable to find anything that work as well. (You can play the game and let us know what you think.) Have you come up with anything?

    • I’d say that Flash is a poor example of the the benefits of free and open source software. Flash is a uniquely specialized application. But you don’t have to choose between Flash and ever using free and open source software.

      Learning server administration with Apache; learning to manipulate data in MySQL or Postgres–there is no good reason to teach students the Microsoft equivalents. (Okay, that might be extreme, but you get my point.)

      I also think that tools like Open Office and some of the free software illustration tools (GIMP, Scribus, Inkscape) are fantastic. Being in a position to walk into an office and say “I can get right to work, I don’t need you to buy me a pricey license” is worth something by itself.

      For students who are planning to go into the world of professional digital illustration, knowing professional grade tools is important, but for a journalist who is putting together a multi-media piece and liable to be bound for a newsroom that hasn’t made significant investment in expensive proprietary software, knowing how to pull off a repeat performance with tools that are free is indispensable.

      If you’re looking for more resources about where to find free and open source software that people are really using in their work, take a look at some of these links:

      Nonprofit Open Source Initiative: http://www.nosi.net

      NGO in a Box: http://ngoinabox.org/

      Social Source Commons: http://socialsourcecommons.org/

    • good article. i agree with you Pam

  • Who We Are

    MediaShift is the premier destination for insight and analysis at the intersection of media and technology. The MediaShift network includes MediaShift, EducationShift, MetricShift and Idea Lab, as well as workshops and weekend hackathons, email newsletters, a weekly podcast and a series of DigitalEd online trainings.

    About MediaShift »
    Contact us »
    Sponsor MediaShift »

    Follow us on Social Media