Archive for September, 2006

The Port-A-Book Project

Monday, September 11th, 2006

About the “Port-A-Book” project

The project is still in a very nascent stage. I had this idea for the last couple of weeks and have shared it with some people. The good thing is that everyone I spoke to have been interested and willing to help one way or the other.

The whole idea germinated from a discussion (on 16th Aug, after RMS’s lecture) I had with Prof. Sankar K. Sen (ex-MIC Power, Govt. of WB, ex-Vice Chancellor, JU, ex-HoD Electrical Engg. Bengal Engg. College, Shibpur [now called Bengal Engg and Science University]).

Prof Sen is strongly committed towards embracing of GNU/Linux and Free/Open Source Software in Education. He wanted to port the Turbo C++ programs in his book (a prescribed textbook) on Power Engg., so that these would compile cleanly on g++ (the GNU C++ Compiler front-end)

The Present Scenario

At present, there is a slow but emerging understanding at the level of policy-makers in the state of West Bengal that FOSS in education needs to be taken up as a thrust area, by introduction of GNU/Linux as the teaching/learning platform of choice.

While discussing these issues with Prof. Sen, it occurred to me that this effort was destined to be a mixed success since a multitude of the Indian textbooks prescribed to the students, the programs (worked-out examples) as well as lab exercises given are generally *cleanly*
compilable AS-IS only under Turbo C/C++ or MS Visual C/C++ etc.

The Engineering students who learn MatLab for simulations etc. can do the same using SciLab/Octave/FreeMat, yet that remains difficult due to similar reasons.

Same applies to in the case of study of statistical / data analysis and methods. What could be easily taught using “R” (sometimes also referred to as GNU “S”), instead of packages like SPSS, Statistica etc., suffer from the same failings.

The Problems for FOSS

I see these code / examples / lab exercise outlines given in the books as a real barrier in teaching students (in higher/technical education) in a FOSS environment. Proprietary OS/packages continue to hold sway by proxy. Even if some institutes may make an exception, the lack of access to their FOSS-based study/course material, prevent their model from scaling up to levels where it can form the frame-work for development of FOSS-based instructional content and formats.

The Project’s Aims & Planned Activities

This realisation led to the idea of “Port-A-Book“. Essentially the example code or even the lab exercises in textbook are mostly of trivial nature. So even present students can do the porting with minimal guidance.

Port-A-Book aims to be a largely public-domain, on-line, collaborative repository of sample code / lab exercises in Indian Text Books, suitably ported over to FOSS, along with instructions on how to run them, how to install the software and software libraries needed to create the
teaching/learning infrastructure etc (the latter as well as independently submitted material that do not map onto existing material can be presented under CC/GFDL/FDL or other suitable license). The project also aims to provide a forum for constructive discussion and
debate in the area of FOSS in Education.

The Rationale for Choice of Primary License

We chose public-domain as the primary license as that would allow the authors/publishers to include (”borrow” ?) these code with their new imprints without having to get authorization from the many contributors or be subject to other terms and conditions. Students can as well reproduce the code segments in their answer papers without having to quote the license as mandated otherwise to avoid violation.

Why the project should succeed

At present, textbook code content is forcing continued use of non-free/proprietary s/w in classrooms and labs. By providing the makeover, FOSS can actually turn the tables around and enforce a FOSS-based reverse lockdown, thus ensuring that GNU/Linux is actually used as the teaching/learning platform.

By means of the project, we provide the emerging policies on FOSS in education, with the necessary teeth to cut into the ingrained system of class-room teaching and provide an eco-system that will help to nurture and shape the minds of the future generations.

Well… that is my long and rambling explanation of why and what the project is. I’m looking forward feedback and opinion. I’m also looking forward to contributors to the project.

Quote of the day - “Open Source-walo neh is University ko kharid liya hain kya??”

Thursday, September 7th, 2006

Discussion heard between participants at “National Workshop on Emerging Trends in Information Technology in University Management” organized by Association of Indian Universities and WBUT :D