There are many obvious and fundamental ways in which usingfree software is good for you, such as choice, cost, andrights. Additionally, there are more abstract fringe benefitsthat should be considered as well. I feel that free softwarecan be used to build both professional and life skills.
Consider the generic, most common software packages that youuse on an everyday basis. These generic solutions offer notnecessarily the path of least resistance, but the path of broadestappeal or support. Sometimes, a specialized solution is moreappropriate. What better way to experiment with differenttools and techniques than to use free software?
For any particular niche, there's probably dozens, if nothundreds of options to choose from. A greater number ofoptions doesn't intrinsically lend itself to a better educationalexperience or a better solution. However, as you mine throughthe diverse array of available options, you'll research, experiment,and in the process develop fundamental skills.
When looking for a particular package, you first have toidentify the task you wish to complete. Then, researchpossible software solutions, and select some candidates. Trythem out in the same manner, and compare the results to see which bestfits your needs. Decide whether you found your solution or ifyou need to repeat the process and change your methods. Finally, publish your results by telling your friends or writing aboutit in a publication, such as a blog.
These steps roughly parallel the scientific method, theessential basic process for investigation and gainingknowledge. Consider the alternative; rote memorization andregurgitation, or just tagging along with the group in a popularitycontest without actually taking the time to use criticalanalysis. In the end, you gain experience and wisdomthat runs deeper than any blindly repeated opinion without backing.
Sometimes, you'll find an area that doesn't have the rightsolution for your need, and you've got a solid idea of what wouldwork. Using free tools, documentation and community support,you may be able to build your own program using your knowledge, driventhrough the learning curve by your interest and need. Whenyou release the finished product to the public, you're sharing yourknowledge and expertise.
If you're filling a niche, you may find others in thecommunity who share your interest and want to help. You'llwork with a diverse array of knowledge, background andpersonalities. You'll learn to adapt and work with others whomay share many commonalities, but also a diversity of opinion andmethodologies. Regardless of the success of the project, thecollaborative process should provide you with valuable networkingopportunities and a degree of professionalism that would be difficult,if not impossible to find anywhere else.
The idealistic personal growth aspect of free software isunique; can you commonly find this kind of potential in other types ofsoftware? These theoretical pathways to scientificmethodology, experience, wisdom, collaboration, altruism, andprofessionalism should not be overlooked.