Originally Published: Saturday, 15 January 2000 Author: Jessica Sheffield
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Today Schools, Tomorrow the World

People rarely believe me when I tell them that I learned Linux before I learned Windows. In this day of domination by Microsoft products, I'll admit it's a little hard to fathom. The other half of the equation -- that I barely knew how to operate a computer before my junior year of high school -- is almost equally unbelievable. I mean, doesn't every geek learn to program by age 3 or so? I seem to have been operating at a terrible handicap all my life, at least by this culture's standards....

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People rarely believe me when I tell them that I learned Linux before I learned Windows. In this day of domination by Microsoft products, I'll admit it's a little hard to fathom. The other half of the equation -- that I barely knew how to operate a computer before my junior year of high school -- is almost equally unbelievable. I mean, doesn't every geek learn to program by age 3 or so? I seem to have been operating at a terrible handicap all my life, at least by this culture's standards.

Truth be told, I never knew what I was missing. I'd use our old DOS-based 386 for typing papers and such, and I could play a mean game of Commander Keen or Scorched Earth. However, I never realised that a computer could be such a powerful tool until my junior year of high school at the Alabama School of Mathematics and Science. I credit (or blame *g*) three people for my transformation into a proto-geek: my computer science teacher, Ms. Susan Rouillier, and my friends Glen Hutson and Michael Yohe.

Ms. Rouillier showed me that computers were more than just glorified Nintendos or typewriters. In her 'Introduction to Computer Science' class, I got my first glimpse of a larger world: computers could process data, provide a wealth of knowledge about a variety of subjects, and help to create beautiful art. Why, they could practically do my homework for me! But her class, while brilliantly helpful, was only a first step into the world of computing. The next one, in some ways, was so much more important.

I'd never set foot in the students' computer lab after my initial tour of the school. "Boring," I thought. "A bunch of geeks sitting around typing." I had absolutely no idea that one day I would count myself among their number. To me, the idea of sitting in front of a computer for hours on end was about as repellent as good bug spray. Little did I know that it would become my livelihood.

My friend Glen, who was the student systems administrator that year, remarked to me one day, "You need an email account, don't you?"

I shrugged. "Sure."

Over the next week, Glen set up my account and showed me how to log in at a prompt. I freely admit that it wasn't instant magic; for a day I complained that my account was broken, only to discover that attempting to log in as 'pine' wasn't going to get me my email. But once I cleared that little hurdle, I learned quickly. In fact, Glen was so impressed with my progress that he asked me to be one of the next year's systems administrators to take some of the load off of Michael. He'd learned the hard way not to do the job by yourself.

My first lesson: "Let's go to the lab and reinstall Linux on one of the backup servers," suggested Glen. Mike and I readily agreed; he'd done it before, and I was eager to learn. When Glen pulled out no fewer than seven 3.5 inch floppies, however, I was more than a little intimidated -- and that was just for the installation process. (1996. Early Slackware.) I trundled off to the lab with the guys and watched as they reinstalled tacobell, talking in geek-ese the whole time and losing me after the first sentence -- updating a kernel, or something. I nearly despaired. Was my career as a geek to end so early?

Thankfully, Glen and Michael were patient tutors, and by the time of Glen's graduation, I knew enough that, should Michael suffer illness or dire circumstances, I could maintain the system for a few days -- unless something broke. I'm still not sure I could have compiled a kernel without Mike's supervision, but I could add accounts and navigate within the system. Linux, while certainly confusing at times, was no more mysterious than That Other Operating System we ran in the labs -- which I had little to no contact with, outside of typing papers.

Fast forward a year. I graduated and enrolled in the University of Alabama in Huntsville, with Michael. He got one position as a student systems admin in the Computer Science and encouraged me to apply for the other, which I did. It was in this setting that I learned more about Linux, and a great deal about That Other OS on the side, since all the Intel-based machines we ran were dual-boot systems. I must have installed Linux on dozens of machines during my tenure in the CS department. I'm not sure anyone ever bothered to boot into it, though. Most students saw their Linux accounts as 'Open up a telnet window...'

Over my four years as a Linux user, and indeed as a computer user, I've seen so many changes occur that it's sometimes hard to believe I live in such amazing times. And the most incredible thing I've seen happen (and it still makes me smile every time it happens) is seeing a news anchor say, "Linux, an alternative operating system, made headlines again today..." Sometimes, I think of those seven floppies and how big my eyes must have grown... then realise that to many people today, even a Red Hat 6.1 installation screen will seem as daunting.

So what's the point? Why subject you to a history of MY computing experiences, as if they make a difference in the grand scheme of things? What's so special about my background that it warrants an article?

The point is the opportunities inherent in Linux in education. People can yell all they want about Microsoft dominating the education world through reduced-fee licenses for schools and similar programs, but Linux is free, so that can't be the cause. Or, you can make the argument that most teachers can only use Windows, so that's what they teach, but anyone who knows a teacher knows that there is no faster student on the planet. If they want to teach Linux, then there will be no stopping them.

The real issue here is to provide students with the opportunity to learn any operating system they choose. In an environment where the only systems are Microsoft systems, that is what the student will learn. In an environment where there are multiple OSes, the student can learn on a variety of systems, broadening their computing knowledge.

I did it. And millions of other students can, too. But we as a community must work to bring Linux and open source software to the education world. I believe it can be done. That's why I'm helping to launch education.linux.com, a section of Linux.com devoted to seeing this happen for students and schools worldwide.

The world is waiting. Are you ready to help us liberate it?

Jessica Lee Sheffield, starlady@linux.com





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