Linux definitely has a place in education

Linux definitely has a place in education

Summary: But will the rest of the world follow?A few posters responding to my blog, SUSE vs.


But will the rest of the world follow?

A few posters responding to my blog, SUSE vs. Ubuntu - first impressions, noted that they felt Linux was completely pointless in education. It wasn't so long ago that I shared their opinion. After all, 90% of the developed world uses Windows. Shouldn't students be using Windows in educational settings to be prepared for the "real world"?

As one reader put it,

"Just saying that we should use linux in education is silly, when you look around over 90% of the worlds desktops PCs in first world nations use Windows, we need to train people for what MOST of them WILL encounter in the workforce, not what the select few MIGHT use. Its just silly, its like teaching children how to do maths in binary or writing in acient hebrew, its simply not relevant to what is needed and more importantly DEMANDED by todays employees."

However, as should be obvious to those of you who have been reading my last several posts, Linux (and open source software in general) has been occupying quite a bit of my attention. I'm still a Windows user, too (at least at school and on the networks I run), so what's the deal? Because I believe that a fundamental shift is occurring in education, among young people, and ultimately in the industry at large. Windows isn't going away anytime soon. That's silly. Install bases of hundreds of millions don't just disappear because a few wayward bloggers think that Ubuntu is pretty sweet.

Yet as many of the said wayward bloggers have pointed out, rich Internet applications are quickly gaining importance, while one's choice of operating system is becoming increasingly arbitrary. If the choice is arbitrary, then would you rather pay hundreds of dollars (or many thousands or millions at the enterprise level) or would you rather use something free? What if the free products have arguable advantages outside of cost, as well?

Keep in mind that the students we are educating now have little concept of intellectual property or applications that don't center around the Web. Social networking, multimedia, and real-time communications have far more meaning to them than the very latest features of Windows Vista.

What do employers actually demand? They demand employees who can manage time and projects, who communicate well, and have the ability to swiftly deal with massive amounts of data and information. A firm understanding of computing concepts that allows them to step into a variety of environments (whether they are doctors entering prescription information into handheld devices or engineers accessing designs in the field or salespeople presenting the latest features of a new product to prospective clients) is demanded by employers.

If we do a good job as teachers of technology, our students should be able to use a Windows lab in school and be issued a Linux-based Nokia Internet Tablet by their employer to stay in touch in the field without any trouble. Similarly, they should be able to use an Edubuntu lab in high school and walk into any office job and be using Windows within 20 minutes. Sure, in SUSE we click a chameleon instead of a Start button, but Gmail is Gmail. Google Docs, MySpace, IM, Ning? Office now has a Web-based set of productivity tools as well.

The nature of personal and business computing is changing faster than many of us realize. Quite frankly, I stuck with a Windows-based solution in our school instead of moving open source because of the teachers and staff, rather than the students. Any of us who have worked with teenagers recently should realize that they can intuitively grasp and work with any computer environment thrown at them, whether it's a Wii (which will shortly be allowing users to develop and post games on a Web-based channel accessible from the console), Kubuntu, or Windows 98. All they really look for is a web browser.

Given that these students are very quickly entering the workforce, I think we can certainly expect these attitudes and abilities to translate to industry. Will industry follow trends in education? If educators and their students are flexible, then business will be flexible as well. Whether Windows is around for 2 years or 200, the irrelevance of the OS will became more apparent, as will the irrelevance of Windows marketshare, however large that share might be.

Topics: Windows, Linux, Open Source

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • needed software

    As a new purchser of a Dell laptop with Ubuntu, I have found a major problem with Ubuntu that is also part of Linspire. These distributions support only WEP security for wireless connections.

    As ZDNET writers have written this is only secure for a little over 20 seconds.

    What I and, I believe, many other relative newbies to Linux need is a clearly written "how-to" on upgrading our systems to WPA or WPA-2 security.

    Any Chances?
    Update victim
    • Strange

      I've got a Dell Laptop (inspiron 6400) and I'm connected through WPA2 without any problems... (with Ubuntu feisty it works out of the box)

      What is your network card? Are you using network manager to connect to the network. And have you treid the ubuntu forums. Most people will be able to help you out.
    • WPA and WPA2

      Strange, on my notebook with Ubuntu 7.04, I can connect easily to a WPA2 encrypted wireless router....

      Maybe I can help you. What wireless card do you have inside your notebook?

      Greetz, Pjotr.
    • needed software: Your Wish Is My Command

      Try Carla Schroeder's article "Linux on Your WLAN: Configure WPA" at out for size. It was only written a year ago. :-D

      BTW, Carla's good. Not only that, but she starts by referring to her advice being applicable to Debian clients (Debian is the root distribution that Ubuntu and Linspire are based on).And if that article isn't helpful, I got nearly 2 million Google hits on "Linux HOW-TO WPA" (w/o the quotes).

      I'm still surprised they haven't service-marked this expression; "Google is your friend".
  • I agree

    Education should be about learning concepts, not about learning tricks.

    They learned us the concepts, in most cases we would use programs and the end just to get a feeling how these where implemented in the software.

    My first spreadsheet was S20/20 or something like that, never cared what kind of spreadsheet they've been throwing at me. I understood the concept. And that's how it should be.

    As long as they learn the kids the concepts, they'll manage, learn them a trick and they'll be lost the moment something changes (whether this is the UI or the program)

    Teachers that don't understand this or just want to learn kids the tricks should not have a place in education.
  • first place

    The first place linux belongs in education is in teaching students how a computer and its operating system work. With linux they get hands on experience for the cost of the hardware. With windoze someone has to ante up thousands to get them enough Visual (you fill in the blank) to actually gain this experience. Moreover the inner workings are jealously hidden and needlessly complicated to protect Micros~t's interests.
  • Cultivating an informed opinion...'s articles like these which will help raise an awareness and enable key decision-makers, such as yourself, to learn where Linux fits in and can be put to best use.

    Keep up the good work Chris.
    D T Schmitz
    • Thanks...

      Appreciate the feedback...hopefully we can keep a nice balance between the fanboys and those of us who see a place for solid skillsets in a variety of areas.

  • Not just K-12

    My local library newsletter mentions an MS Word course for adults where the registrants receive -- get this -- an CD so that they can practice at home.

    I've long held that OOo and MS Office (pre-2007) are close enough that most people can switch back and forth without any significant difficulty -- certainly my children make the switch daily (OOo on Linux at home, MS Office on Windows at school).

    Likewise, guests to my home have had no troubles navigating around a Linux system to surf the web, check their Hotmail or Gmail accounts, or edit documents.

    If an intelligent person has no troubles navigating the apps, the operating system is moot. (If you want to migrate a large group of users to Linux from Windows, get them using and Firefox first -- they probably won't notice when you eventually swap out the OS).

    And with LTSP and Multiseat Linux systems lowering not only the software but also hardware, electrical, and administration costs, I'd be amazed if Linux doesn't continue to sweep the educational sector (first :-)
  • Linux in K-12

    K-12 would be a great place to implement open source software (OS, apps) **IF**
    schools could add adequate tech support staffing to manage the infrastructure. It's
    challenging enough for most schools and school districts to manage Windows and
    Macintosh systems let alone Linux. As a different article pointed out, Linux isn't
    really free, just like old computers aren't free either - one needs to calculate the
    supports costs in any TCO analysis.

    Jeff Johnson
    Glendale-River Hills School District
    • They might need

      some retraining, or (shudder) different support staff - but I very much doubt that MORE of them will be required. One of the advantages of FOSS systems is that they tend to stay up with fewer problems than other systems.

      Another factor can be the 'thin client' setup - which greatly reduces the individual machine support issues. My understanding is that model is common in the educational field for Linux-based solutions.

      You may end with LOWER support costs, as well as lower acquisition costs - but with no guarantees that the same people will be filling the same roles (depending on their resistance to change). That will, unfortunately, slow the adoption by those who might be thus affected!
  • Agree completely

    Our office got their first PC in 1986. I've used Wordstar, WordPerfect, Office6 through to Office2003. Remember Lotus1-2-3? Quattro Pro?

    The PC of five years hence will resemble today's PC as much as Vista resembles the command line.