Free Technology advocates are used to being misunderstood. Between open source, creative commons, and the plain old law, it's sometimes hard for the layman to figure out what free tech is for and what it's against. That's where the Free Technology Academy comes in.
The FTA is like no university you've ever seen – even though they offer accredited classes – partly because you can't see it. The project is a collaboration between the Free Knowledge institute and universities in The Netherlands, Spain, and Norway, but has no campus. The courses in the FTA program stretch from the theoretical ("The concepts of Free Software and Open Standards") to the practical ("Software development", "Web applications development"), but all are devoted to the propagation and increased use of free technology. Students who wish to enroll in classes taught by professors pay small tuition fee and interact with their teachers through the FTA's web interface. But what's so free about that?
In the coursebook for the FTA "Concepts" class mentioned above, they use Richard Stallman's (the movement's grandfather) four-part defintion for what makes free software free:
1) Freedom to run the program in any place, for any purpose and forever.
2) Freedom to study how it works and to adapt it to our needs. This requires access to the source code.
3) Freedom to redistribute copies, so that we can help our friends and neighbours.
4) Freedom to improve the program and to release improvements to the public. This also requires the source code.
What this means is that companies can sell free software, but anyone they sell it to must be able to give it away for free. The FTA adheres to these principles by making all of its textbooks freely available to download in .pdf format under copyleft licenses.
I've heard free-tech folks frequently use one analogy to explain what the movement is about: "Free as in speech, not free as in beer." Free technology is about the common production of knowledge for people, not for the profit of large tech companies. The lynchpin of those four freedoms is the last, the ability to alter content and release the product. In this spirit, the FTA takes a collaborative approach toward their courses, endeavoring toward a peer2peer horizontal network of knowledge production. The course materials comprise a 2000+ page kind of Our Computers, Ourselves curriculum, giving students the tools, both conceptual and practical, to use technology rather than be used by it.
Universities seem like an odd place for free technology to function, given as they are to top-down instruction models and proprietary information. But Franco Iacomella, a communications leader for the FTA, told me universities have a chance to remain relevant: "I think that higher education may remain as an important social actor if it starts to open its doors to new ways of understanding education, innovating in the use of technology applied on learning experiences and in some way or other, incorporate social dynamics such as peer production, horizontal organization and community building."
The next round of FTA courses begins April 9 and all modules still have places. You can register or find out more here.
And if you're interested but don't want to sign up, you can access the FTA course materials freely here.