Free software in education and remote teaching

The visuals used in this post are available here at the Free Software Foundation’s Resources section and are available in several languages, including Brazilian Portuguese.

The importance of Free Software in education

When our institute cancelled all on-campus activities in March 2020, I began looking for more free software options to keep in touch with my laboratory students and collaborate on documents and data. Although we regularly use e-mail, sometimes a quick text message is all that’s needed. On the other hand, longer, more detailed discussions take place using videoconferencing, sometimes sharing files or the screen.

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Although staff at my institution are free to choose the software they use in class or in the laboratory, only Google’s Education Suite and Microsoft’s Office 365 are the officially recommended platforms, contracts having been recently signed with these companies. Many other public universities, institutions and schools in Brazil have signed up to these contracts, see here for an overview (in Portuguese, but map and graphs are self-explanatory). Sensitive personal and academic data belonging to students and staff may be collected by these companies for use in surveillance capitalism. For more details, see these articles in The Guardian and The Intercept. A recent report, in Portuguese, highlights the risks associated with the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy of these contracts for the public sector in Brazil. For example, the onus is entirely on the educational institute to manage the data and ensure compliance with law, whereas the companies are mere operators of the data, with little or no liability.

The Lei Geral de Proteção de Dados Pessoais (LGPD or LGPDP), Lei nº 13.709/2018 (General Personal Data Protection Act, in English) has recently come into effect in Brazil. Publicly funded schools, institutes and universities, but also public hospitals, state and local authorities and so on, that have contracts with Google and Microsoft will have even more legal responsibility for the privacy and security of their clients’ data. In the meantime, these very data may be used in surveillance capitalism, which should be outlawed since this ‘business model’ exploits intimate personal information and experiences for profit, often without properly informed consent.

Public universities in Brazil have a good tradition of defending democracy, human rights and diversity. Big Tech or GAFAM+ (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, plus others) algorithms and proprietary software platforms threaten democracy, promote hate speech on race, gender and human diversity, facilitate attacks on those who defend the environment, spread fake news and misinformation, all for enormous profit. Public universities must continue to defend all forms of freedom by also defending the use of free software in education (see here for an example) and rejecting proprietary platforms.

Teaching remotely with free software

I am teaching remotely using free software, following advice on the FSF website here and here. For small, discussion based classes and tutorials (up to 15 participants), I am using a private instance of Jitsi Meet configured with an external instance of Etherpad for collaborative document editing. For larger classes, I am streaming with Open Broadcaster Studio (OBS), which is non-interactive, but afterwards small, interactive tutorial group meetings may be held with Jitsi Meet.

I use the Gnome Desktop extension Draw On Your Screen for annotating and highlighting documents, images and code execution. For a general, multiplatform, free software, screen annotation tool, I recommend OpenBoard.

Presentations can take place on Jitsi Meet with just the few essential participants and streaming via OBS to a larger audience on the Internet. There is plenty of free software for remote teaching, the main problems here in Brazil are student access to the Internet and the quality of the connection, which varies from place to place and from day to day.

Other free software that I use and recommend

Jami for secure communication, mostly instant messaging (IM)

Signal Private Messenger for secure IM, video, audio calls, file and link sharing

Syncthing  for secure file synchronisation

Emacs for just about anything!

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