Originally Published: Tuesday, 7 March 2000 Author: Jessica Sheffield
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Linux in the Classroom: Why Open Source Makes Sense for Education

The best arena for perpetuating the revolution and passing on the ideals that have paved the way for today's open source solutions is to bring those solutions to the classroom. In an educational setting, Linux and open source can and will flourish, helping to better prepare our children for tomorrow's technology.

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The past few years have seen a dramatic revolution in the computing world, one that shows little sign of slowing. Open source ideals have taken computing by storm, and the community grows daily.

However, to remain in the forefront of the industry, we in the open source world must take steps to ensure that the next generation is properly equipped to live in the world we are creating for them.

The best arena for perpetuating the revolution and passing on the ideals that have paved the way for today's open source solutions is to bring those solutions to the classroom. In an educational setting, Linux and open source can and will flourish, helping to better prepare our children for tomorrow's technology.

Linux for education. It seems like a ridiculously simple concept. So why haven't we done anything about it yet? The fact is that few to no steps have been taken to bring these worlds together, yet open source ideals make sense in the educational arena for several reasons.

The obvious reason is money. Schools have minute budgets for technology, and what they can allot for computers is often only enough to purchase one or two machines for the library. These sit in a corner quietly humming and collecting dust, for teachers have little time to learn how to effectively use them in their daily lessons, and media specialists prefer not to spend the half-hour they have per week on computer lessons, since only a few children would even get to touch it. Even in schools that can afford a computer in every classroom, the ratio is one computer per 20-25 students -- hardly an effective teaching tool. For the same amount they spend on one turbo-charged Gateway running Windows, schools could buy several 486s or low-end Pentiums or K6s running Linux, maximizing both their money and the number of students exposed to computers in the classroom. Perhaps schools that cannot afford computers based on current budgetary concerns would be able to put in a few systems for their students' use if the price tag were not so high.

Another advantage is the community already in place to support Linux. In the past years we've seen what the open source community is capable of: large-scale projects to better the operating system, hundreds of smaller projects to develop and improve various user applications, GUI development, increased documentation, and the growth of media devoted to the promotion of Linux and open source. The same mentality that drives these projects forward could easily fuel programs to bring technology to schools. They would certainly be well received by teachers.

The teaching community has long operated on an open source model, since well before it was en vogue to do so. For example, one teacher may try a new science project with her class. It goes well, so she tells the other grade level teachers about it and gives them a copy of her lesson plans for that project. The following week, one of the other teachers comes back to her with suggestions for improvement on the project, which he then implements with his class. The next year, all classes at that level benefit from the sharing of ideas by taking part in a terrific science project developed by a team of committed teachers.

When viewed in this light, teachers are an ideal group to bring under the umbrella of the open source community. However, there are several barriers to entry from a teacher's standpoint. The most obvious and most serious is lack of training on the part of the educators in fully using the technology that they have. If teachers don't understand the capabilities of the computer in their classroom, they won't have the faintest idea as to how to employ it in day-to-day learning. Workshops, seminars, and clear, easy-to-understand documentation can go a long way towards alleviating this problem. These are all services that can and should be provided by the open source community.

However, schools need resources other than teacher training for technology to succeed in the classroom. Obviously, there is a need for computer equipment to be used in classrooms, libraries, and labs. This is a need that can easily be met by corporations, individuals, and even LUGs with the resources to donate money or hardware to schools, earmarked for "open source technology." Such donations are generally tax-deductible if handled in the correct fashion, and would be joyfully received by educators, especially if support and training were included in the package.

A program called SEUL/edu is working to bring open source software to schools, and there have been many efforts by various distributions to provide free copies of Linux to schools, but there needs to be more involvement on a local level. If every LUG, every Linux-based company, and every advocate joined together in a broad-based effort to adopt schools one by one, we could make a real difference. Even groups or individuals who do not have the resources to provide tangible assets to schools can still get involved through advocacy. We can offer to teach a high school computer science class about open source, or hold a mini install-fest and teach the basics of Linux to a club or organization. We can help the teachers and students we know to become more comfortable with technology that can make the educational setting more dynamic. As a community, we can make a difference, and bring the open source revolution to a whole new generation of young people. Because if we won't, who will?

Jessica Lee Sheffield, starlady@linux.com





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