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From the Desktop: E Stands For Education - page 2

Linux in the Schools

  • October 24, 2000
  • By Brian Proffitt

All of these arguments are just varying examples of so much FUD. We all know that. This is a chance to prove this nonsense wrong in an environment that would be pretty receptive to our help.

We can be the ones who help bridge that knowledge gap. We can go into a school system armed with the knowledge and the experience to get solid computers in every classroom that needs them. We can assist existing admins to make the cross-over and provide volunteer assistance for them after the fact. We can help train them in general admin work, platform integration (because those Mac and Windows machines won�t go away overnight), and better security... just for starters.

In addition to negating the three arguments mentioned above, here are some real advantages of using Linux in the classroom.

Advantage #1: Stability. How many teachers have to waste valuable class time messing around with blue screens of death or little bomb message boxes? Teachers do not have the time, or often the expertise, to deal with this. Give them an always-up platform that they don't have to be techies to use.

Advantage #2: Flexible configuration. Linux boxes can be set up to run as anything from full-blown developer's boxes with every library and toolkit to quiescent little setups running cute bunny flash card programs for kindergarteners. Admins can lock these setups down, too, thus preventing the common "I can't find my icons" error. Systems with less of a lock would give students training in interface setup and workflow management, too. Oh, and since Linux can run circles around Windows on older machines, did I mention that Linux hardware is cheaper than Windows hardware? That'll put a gleam in any school board member's eye.

Advantage #3: Security. This goes without saying for Linux users and it is a real need in schools. How many script-kiddies out there can blow away the so-called security on a Windows system? Right, rhetorical question. Put a Linux system in and you'll definitely shut down the casual hackers.

There're more ways Linux can help, of course. I think the fact that it's is a little rough around the edges is an advantage as well. Why should we spoon-feed our kids with an interface a four-year old can use? Yes, the interface should be transparent, but a little challenge is fundamental to learning.

I am charging the Linux community today, right here and now, to start helping their local community schools to get a real computer education curriculum in place, with real computers.

I am not saying drop everything to do this, either. I know what the time demands are on us all: work, family, friends--it's huge, it adds up. Nor am I saying we should all trade our pocket protectors for tweed jackets and print skirts and become teachers. I am saying do what you can.

Talk to your local school's systems admins and see what their problems are. Offer to help in little ways, if need be. Let them borrow a Linux book or two and let them become Linux advocates in their own systems.

LUGs and LUCs: want something to do with your meetings besides scarf cookies and talk tech? Run an installfest, only this time at a local school. Take the newbies along and let them learn about Linux at the same time you're training the school employees.

Don't like kids? Fine, you don't need to. In fact, go down to the high school and offer to tighten security. When the script-kiddies start playing around, give them a virtual smackdown and work out your own frustrations. Raise the bar, make them work to get into the system. And when they do, don't kick them out of school for hacking into Mrs. Johnson's grade database. Reward them and challenge them to build a secure system that even their friends can't hack. Make it a contest.

The ways we can help are as varied as the twisted personalities that got us into Linux in the first place. And we needn't do it alone.

I further challenge the Linux software corporations, big and small, to start putting up funds and expertise needed to start getting systems to the schools that need them. Help school admins figure out what they really need so they can get the most bang for the buck. Start working with school boards to develop practical course guides for schools. You know what you want from new employees, so tell the schools!

I call on PC manufacturers to start offering special pricing for hardware sans Windows installs so schools don't have to pay for an OS license they are not going to use.

Oh, and Loki Software? Love you guys, but start cranking out some ported educational software along with that next new version of Quake, okay? How hard would that be? You can start by selling it to all of the Linux parents who have to keep a Windows machine around for their kid's software.

If you can't be convinced just through sheer altruism, then think of the future benefits to all of IT if a new crop of technically literate graduates hits the streets in as little as four years. Not only technically literate, but Linux-savvy.

Nay-Sayers may point out the Mac's stagnation, despite its apparent high instance of use in the education system in the United States. I agree. Just because an operating system is in use in the schools does not guarantee its widespread use after school is out. We need to train them, too.

This is something neither Apple or Microsoft has ever done in the primary and secondary education levels in North America. Why is that? Simple, in the case of Microsoft: wait until the kids are out of school and in the job market before offering training. "Sure," Microsoft croons, "you can be an MCP and put that on your resume, just draft that check to us, and you'll be all set."

Pay for MCP? Are they kidding? I have nothing against high-level certification programs, but to have to pay any fee for what amounts to little more than basic user training is ridiculous.

Schools should not make the use of the computer secondary to some other goal all of the time. Make the operating system the learning goal as well as the tool. Teach kids how to work a console. Have them understand the Internet's foundations as well as its superficial flash. Show them basic scripting.

Obvious statement: computers are right now a huge part of our lives and they are going to play an even bigger role very soon. Do we really want a bunch of knuckleheads getting overly dependent on what the corporations feed them?

So why is it we are giving our kids hand-me-down equipment, software, and curricula? Forget the hand-me-downs. Give them cutting edge.

Oh, and for the people who say "that's not our job, that's what taxes are for," I say get your heads out of the sand and look around. Wait for the government to do something meaningful in a timely manner? In the U.S. (and most of the Western world), you are the government. Start telling the school boards and the congresspersons what Linux can do. Don't complain to us about the FUD from Redmond, you're preaching to the choir. Go convince your government representative why Linux is so great. That's a real challenge.

I admit, this won't be easy. Things that are worth it never are. You may run into school politics, runny-nosed kids, and worst of all, Microsoft reps. But if we can pull this off, we will have advanced the cause of Linux and certainly helped a more than a few kids get better prepared for the technological future we all face.

Peace,

Brian

P.S.: If you or some LUG you know has started or will start something along these lines, let me know. I look forward to sharing your success.

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