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The free and open source software (FOSS) movement is founded on the democratic principles of freedom of speech, in particular respecting individual choices in the use of software.

FOSS is widely used in today’s digital world. For instance, the majority of web sites (86%[1]) are powered by open source web server software (Apache and Nginx). You may not realise that the Android operating system, with a market share of 88% (2015) on mobile devices is based on the Linux, open source operating system.



Free and open source software (FOSS)
FOSS is computer software which is licensed to use, copy and distribute freely. A key feature of FOSS is that the source code is openly shared for individuals to improve the software.
Open file formats
Open format (or free file format) is a file format for storing digital data, defined by a published specification usually maintained by a standards organization, and which can be used and implemented by anyone. For example, an open format can be implemented by both proprietary and FOSS. (For example: PNG image format, HTML markup language used for creating webpages.)
Open standards
An open standard is a standard that is publicly available and usually has various rights to use associated with it. Sometimes open standards are adopted by international standards bodies like the International Organisation for Standardization (ISO.) Consequently, a standard may be proprietary but when published openly without encumbrances, open source software developers can provide support for these standards. (For example: PDF, JPEG image format and Open Document Format (ODF).)


It is important to be familiar with FOSS because of the following reasons:

  • Savings: This knowledge could save you, family or friends considerable money from proprietary software licenses should you choose to use FOSS.
  • Ethics: Knowledge of free software alternatives will reduce risks for individuals in using unauthorised copies of proprietary software especially for people who cannot afford licensing costs.
  • Citizenship: recognising that FOSS users may not be able to open proprietary file formats, use proprietary fonts or submit files in proprietary formats.

The essential freedoms

Richard Stallman of the GNU free software project

Richard Stallman, a founder the free software movement, stresses the importance of knowing what freedom means in the context of free software. In the absence of this knowledge it is difficult to defend freedom and freedom is easily lost. There are four essential freedoms for free software users:

  • Freedom to use, that is the freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • Help yourself which is the freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • Help your neighbour that is, the freedom to redistribute copies without restriction (freedom 2).
  • Help your community referring to the freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

If any of these freedoms is substantially missing, then it is not free software. So for example, so called freeware, which is copyright software that you can download without cost but without access to the source code is not free software. (Free software should not be confused with “freemium” proprietary software which can be downloaded at no cost without access to the source code, thus restricting freedom to improve and redistribute the program.)

Examples of popular open source packages

(Visit the Open Source Alternative site for more open source applications.)


WENote reflection activity

Share your thoughts and experience with FOSS by posting a WENote comment, for example:

  • I use FOSS because …
  • I don’t use FOSS because …
  • Education institutions have / don’t have the right to specify closed file formats for assignments because …
  • Learners should / shouldn’t have the right to choose their own software tools because …
  • Other?

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Note: Your comment will be displayed in the course feed.



  1. Describe your working or learning context
  2. Review the use of free and open source software in your context
  3. Identify the barriers and opportunities for the adoption of free and open source software in your context
  4. Identify the three most important implications of free and open source software for learning in a digital age in your own context.


  1. See for example, Usage of web servers for websites, published by W3Techs.