Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The case for free software in the classroom

Many years ago, my Dad told me that when he got married, the priest who performed the ceremony said to him, "Bring 'em to us between 2 and 5 years old and we got 'em for life." In other words, bring them in early for indoctrination and they will believe in and honor the church. He never brought us in.

It appears the same strategy has been applied to our schools, but here, in an entirely different context. Since about 1997, kids have been treated to schools with a computer at the desk, and from the beginning, they were running Windows.

This must have seemed like a coup for Microsoft. First, they can ensure that kids are familiar with Windows and that since they are familiar with Windows, they will seek out Windows when they buy a computer. Businesses already running Windows will be happier knowing that kids in school are learning something that they are already using.

Microsoft has worked very hard to earn the free promotion of Windows that they receive when schools run Windows. With early exposure, Microsoft found a ready market of kids and young adults who wanted Windows on their computers.

Unfortunately, this is not what public schools should be doing. Public schools should not be in the business of picking winners and losers to be sure. But they should never be used as a platform for promoting proprietary software.

A number of schools are now finding that not only can they save money by eliminating Windows in the classroom, they are finding that it is easier to manage and maintain Linux in the classroom. As more classrooms adopt Linux, it is becoming easier to weight the costs and benefits of migration to and using Linux compared to Windows.

Removing proprietary software from schools will, if used properly, encourage kids to learn how the technology works. Allowing kids to tinker with the software running on their computers, even to make mistakes that cause problems on the computer, provide learning experiences that they can't get on a system that is locked down - the path that the Apple crowd is on. They have nice shiny technology, but they never really learn how it works. Kids on Linux will be able to see what is under the hood at any time - to make it, to break it, to get to know it.

I know from personal experience. My trip on Linux has proved to be far more interesting than any experience I have ever had on Windows. In 2007, I switched to Linux and never went back. I started with the intention of seeing how long I would last on Linux without Windows. As the operating system matured, so did I. Eventually, I reached a point where I no longer needed Windows and I shudder at the thought of ever going back. I am confident that my kids will never see Windows or iOS running in our home. They see plenty of Windows and Mac out there, but here, at home, they will have a chance to know how their computers work.

This is the difference between Windows and Linux. Windows teaches kids that you don't really need to know how your computer runs. Software comes on a CD, or as a download, and that you pay for the license to use it. Actually learning how software works seems verboten with Windows and Mac.

Linux and other open source software is the opposite. Linux encourages me to tinker with the computer, the software, and sometimes, the hardware. The source code is there for me to read and learn how it is done right. The community of Linux users is there to help me find my feet, my arms and then to eventually coordinate them while using Linux.

This trend with technology has not gone unnoticed:
"We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. That's a clear prescription for disaster." -- Carl Sagan
When we allow proprietary technology into our classrooms, we must ask a simple question: "Are we promoting the ignorance of the technology we use?"

The simple answer is yes. The solution and the alternative? Linux and open source software.
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