Originally Published: Wednesday, 16 February 2000 Author: Matt Michie
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Learning and Linux

Lately I've been thinking about learning, Linux, and the value of a traditional university education. I am nearly 75% of the way through a Computer Science degree, yet when considering the knowledge I value the most, I've realized that I didn't learn it in any classroom.

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Lately I've been thinking about learning, Linux, and the value of a traditional university education. I am nearly 75% of the way through a Computer Science degree, yet when considering the knowledge I value the most, I've realized that I didn't learn it in any classroom.

My school uses Linux almost exclusively in the undergraduate labs, yet my experience with Linux wasn't gained there. It is a bit disheartening when one realizes that spending 15 hours a week in class isn't teaching you as much as spending 5 hours on the weekend playing with Linux. How could this be? I began to question whether it was simply my individual learning style that was a factor or whether there was something else going on here.

After some pondering, I realized that I was utterly bored by traditional academic Computer Science. Maybe this should have been obvious to me, but I refused to believe it. How could Computer Science be boring to someone that spends every free moment slouched in front of a computer?

Furthermore, I love to learn. I'm happily burning my way through about 10 different books right now, but not a single one of them is a textbook from class. The vast multitudes of college textbooks I've read are poorly written. The book for my algorithms class, while full of undoubtedly valuable information, is so dry and obfuscated as to be worthless. Imagine poring over a dictionary to learn how to speak English and you'll have a pretty good idea how this books reads. Instead of wasting my time on this book, I went out and bought Mastering Algorithms with Perl. Here's a book I can sink my canines into. I can explore and experiment with the algorithms in a practical way and increase my knowledge of Perl simultaneously!

I noticed it wasn't so much the material as my attitudes towards how it was presented and what I was allowed to do with it. Learning Linux and programming on my own let me learn things non-linearly, and at my own pace. If I write a program that isn't exactly correct, the world won't end, I'll just fix the problems and probably learn something in the process. If I trash my Linux partition, I'll probably learn twice as much attempting to fix it.

The key words I seemed to be coming across were playing and exploration. Another factor to consider was how fast and easy it was to get a technical question answered on the Internet. Usually, I didn't even have to ask it, because it was asked three years ago and is archived on Usenet or in a mailing list archive.

After doing some digging I found the following quote, which sums up my experiences rather nicely:

"Undergraduate education in research universities requires renewed emphasis on a point strongly made by John Dewey almost a century ago: learning is based on discovery guided by mentoring rather than on the transmission of information. Inherent in inquiry-based learning is an element of reciprocity: faculty can learn from students as students are learning from faculty."

--The Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University, 1998

In some small way I feel like I've had Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds, Eric Raymond, Larry Wall, Ted Tso, David Miller, Geoff Harrison, Trae McCombs, Carsten Haitzler, and countless others as my mentor. I've never met any of them, and haven't even e-mailed most of them, but they all influenced what I've learned about Linux. It is often illuminating to follow a heated discussion on the Linux kernel development mailing list, and being able to see and manipulate the resulting source code is priceless.

To me, this is the true power of free software, and my fondest hope is that it will begin to revolutionize some of the ways we learn. In the upcoming decade I predict we'll start to see more advances in Computer Science, from some kid who downloaded Linux over a 28.8 modem sitting in a "third world" nation, not from the highly paid professionals in Redmond, WA. If this seems far-fetched, maybe you haven't heard the story of the 21 year old college student from Finland and the little OS he decided to create in 1991.

Open Source Education.

Matt Michie is still a Computer Science student living in New Mexico. He maintains a small web page at http://web.nmsu.edu/~mmichie.





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