Linux Education in America: Inspiration from Russia?

Posted by PaulFerris on Sep 24, 2007 5:46 AM EDT
LXer Linux News; By Paul (FeriCyde) Ferris
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LXer Feature: 24-Sept-2007

The reason that the Russian announcement is funny boils down to the perception over the years that Russia equates to totalitarianism, whilst here in America we're all about Freedom and innovation. Yet our educational system -- the very underpinnings of how we're growing out future technological talent, is based upon the inversion of what one would expect given the respective reputations of both countries.

FeriCyde Chat
by Paul Ferris

What kind of world do you want?
Think Anything
Let's start at the start
Build a masterpiece
Be careful what you wish for
History starts now...

--Five For Fighting World
I've written this same article over the years, but it's never seen the light of day.

Over the years I've had conversations with teachers and school administrators about Linux in education. The balance of these conversations has focused upon the technical aspects of the operating system and often the discussion gets bogged down in the gory details of support and implementation. "Can it run on all my old hardware." (yes) "Will all of my Windows programs run out of the box." (no, not like they will run from one version of Windows to the next anyway) and so on. These are minor details in comparison to the empowerment, freedom and ability to innovate that Linux would bring to the education equation.

It's easy to miss these aspects and far too often the concept of operating system alone is too much for some people. Switching something so familiar is an uncomfortable subject and people sometime get far too defensive. I've even had someone accuse me of not bringing my child up correctly because he wasn't learning "the standard" -- like not learning Windows was going to mentally hobble him or something. This article, written and rewritten over the years, didn't get off the ground usually because of context and completeness.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Class Room

The Russian government announced that by 2009, their entire educational system will leverage Linux in favor of any Microsoft products. Now the sad thing here is that for years the Free Software movement has been about Linux as a vector of Freedom. It represents, digitally, the ability to potentially control your destiny.

Here we are in 2007, and, although Indiana school districts employ Linux, the stark majority of educational systems are grounded in a Microsoft mindset. People are convinced that the world revolves around Windows and Office products, so much so that the "perception is reality" side of the equation overrides the potential and the facts. That's my perception, at least, as to why a lot of American educators are not leveraging solutions that promote the freedom of the individual programmer over solutions that lock a user into an expensive proprietary choice (Microsoft).

The reason that the Russian announcement is funny boils down to the perception over the years that Russia equates to totalitarianism, whilst here in America we're all about Freedom and innovation. Yet our educational system -- the very underpinnings of how we're growing out future technological talent, is based upon the inversion of what one would expect given the respective reputations of both countries.

There's an irony that simply couldn't be planned. I could not have predicted this, in other words.

Why Does Linux Make Sense for Educators?

Linux represents more than digital freedom -- the typical Linux distribution has several things going for it from the creative side of the equation. Bear in mind that most Educators view creativity in a very two-dimensional state. What can be created with Power-Point, Paint an Word tend to be the things I hear about most in conversation.

But there's another vector, a much less visible one that originates in the potential of the mind. The fact of the matter is that application programmers are not made overnight. People that actually create applications, in other words, are rare. Doing some simple (and completely hypothetical) math here, let's suppose that 1 in a thousand kids are potentially capable, creative, application programmers.

Give them something like Linux, and they have dozens of extremely powerful programming languages and tools available. They have source code to thousands of programs to learn from. They have the freedom to take that code and make something of their own with no fear of retribution. Give them something like Windows XP and they're frozen. They can, with some slogging around, download and install some programming tools. What they won't have is the example code to something they're curious about if it's a Microsoft product.

Maybe they want to learn how a Web Browser works. Not a problem in the Linux camp: Open the source code to either Konquerer or FireFox for example -- there are even text based web browsers available.

Linux does more than empower digital freedom, in other words; It gives a young, hungry, creative mind some real food for thought. If the number of potential application programmers is 1 in a thousand (that small, in other words), this means America could potentially be starving tens of thousands of kids.

Perceptions Create Reality

Perception is not reality when it comes to Linux in the United States. I had an experience early on (2001) where I was walking down the sidewalk at Linux World, talking to someone from France. He had just corrected my perception that Linux World was the biggest Linux show on the planet. I learned, then and there, how my perception of Linux through American colored glasses was skewed.

A recent conversation in a bar with someone I had not seen in over 10 years was like an inversion of this same perception theme. My friend was not ready to face the fact that his perception of Linux as a "failure" was completely based upon the fact that his desktop choice as an Electrical Engineer was governing his view of reality.

My friend was convinced that Linux just wasn't happening. Standing beside me was a coworker who shared my line of work (Java application servers). The "simple" reality that my friend saw as hard and fast was almost comical to us both. Linux is taking such large ground these days that you'd have to have your head in the sand to miss it, and yet my friend was speaking with such a resigned, patronizing certainty about how "sad" things were. The total irony of the situation was grounded in the fact that my co-worker friend and I were very used to implementing Linux as a standard part of our day to day work. We weren't "sad" at all.

My worry is that educators in this country have similar limitations of perception. That they will miss things like One Laptop Per Child, Dell Desktop Linux, and never hear about things like Indiana's schools using Linux because the media in this country may have those same limitations. Whether they're limitations in potential (what could be) or limitations of what is / has happened on the Linux front -- either is usually enough to prevent something as empowering as Linux in the hands of all of the fresh computing minds in America.

But I digress. Here's a thought -- and maybe enough minds will turn for it to reach an execution stage. Maybe one day soon our School districts will have the freedom to switch to Linux. Maybe someday our kids will have the ability to use an operating system in school that gives them digital freedom. Maybe soon American children can use an OS that empowers them to leverage their creativity and be innovative.

And maybe, just maybe, after our educators wake up to this new potential they too will understand just why not using Linux as part of the school curriculum is a waste of something far more than tax dollars. Maybe, after they have seen the potential, our children will be allowed the same freedom as the kids learning computers in Russia.

Russia announces that their Schools will be running Linux by 2009:

The implications of this from a political perspective are stark for Microsoft. Foreign countries that base their educational system on non-MS products are likely to produce, over time, far less dependence in that country overall for the product. The odds are high that this was a one-two punch of simple math (Linux is less expensive to implement) and politics (Linux reduces Russia's dependence upon American products).

Hoosier Daddy? In Indiana Schools, It's Linux

Granted, we're not talking the majority of computing in Indiana school districts here -- kind of sad, really. There are glimmers of hope that point to at least Linux as a discussion point these days. From a pure cost perspective one would think that there would be more state-level examination of Linux just for the potential savings. School budgets in America (Ohio for example) are very tight. One Laptop Per Child Initiative

This project illustrates the low cost of Linux from several perspectives. For one, it can be configured to use far less memory and processor power (needed in this configuration). The royalty costs are sure to be less as well. I've already had a lot to say on the subject a year and a half ago, so I won't say much more here. Dell Desktop Linux

Taken separately (the Dell/Linux and Dell/Walmart annoucements), these things don't seem to connected. The implications, however, of a cheap Linux offering inside of a Walmart or Target-like setting have been visited before. I'm of the opinion that when the market finally does reach some kind of balance whereby people feel free to choose Linux, it will likely be something as mundane as a Walmart offering that tips the scales. Note that the dates on the above two Dell articles are May 2 and May 24 of 2007. Possibly these two news items are totally unrelated and have no significance. But I wouldn't bet on it.

Paul (FeriCyde) Ferris is a Linux professional and community member. He has been using Unix and Linux for a combined total of over 18 years. His articles have graced, Linux Journal, LinuxToday, LinuxPlanet, NewsForge and various other Linux news and technical information sites. His expertise with enterprise-class implementations of Linux have lead to the creation of the the batchlogin project, his first large-scale Free Software project. A husband, father and more, yet his technical passion is Linux and has remained so for the past 14 years.

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Subject Topic Starter Replies Views Last Post
Linux Education in America: Inspiration from Russia? Henry_Keultjes 23 3,424 Sep 28, 2007 5:45 AM
Not about totalitarianism now muwlgr 4 2,512 Sep 27, 2007 7:44 AM
Forgot to mention OLF! PaulFerris 4 2,442 Sep 24, 2007 1:18 PM
Public School Delenda Est Bob_Robertson 0 2,396 Sep 24, 2007 10:01 AM

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