Linux is a win-win for education

Linux is a win-win for education

Summary: Articles on the use of Linux for educational purposes have come up frequently, some focus on the use of Linux in educational institutions. Often times, these institutions are looking to save as much money as possible, and using Linux can be a good option for just that reason.

TOPICS: Open Source

Articles on the use of Linux for educational purposes have come up frequently, some focus on the use of Linux in educational institutions. Often times, these institutions are looking to save as much money as possible, and using Linux can be a good option for just that reason.

But there are other advantages of using Linux in educational environments, that we may not realize. It can save a considerable amount of money if a school or institution cannot afford to upgrade hardware every few years, to stay up to high standards that Windows requires. Linux is known to run very well on older hardware, which means the PC hardware can have a longer lifecycle. For instance, obtaining the latest version of Fedora 14 Linux, and installing on a Pentium II machine, will work just fine. It isn't the fastest, but it works, and will allow the user to keep updated with the latest and greatest versions of software like Firefox, Thunderbird, or system related tools like rsync, ssh, etc.

It is a well known fact that learning multiple languages aids in becoming more fluent in those languages. The same concept can apply to operating systems. Learning Windows is key for getting out in the world since it is predominantly Windows-based, but learning a second operating system like Linux is also very valuable as well. Getting to know both increases knowledge of their different behavior and increases general knowledge about operating systems as a whole.

There is a wide range of software available as well. For example, GCompris is a suite of educational games designed for children age 2+. There are other scientific programs and a while range of applications available that all run on Linux. Fedora (and I'm sure other distributions) have a spin released that is specifically targeted for educational use. The spin includes software specifically designed for teachers and students. You don't have to use a spin, simply add whatever software you want to the distribution you already use. Fedora and Ubuntu are excellent with this, by using graphical tools that download, add/remove software with a simple click. The best part is that a test PC can easily be set up and looked at, with no cost other than using the hardware. And keep in mind that since all software is open source, teachers and students are actively involved in developing and improving the software.

And finally, one thing that I think is extremely valuable about Linux that proprietary software cannot offer is the fact that it is open source. This means anybody, including students, can download the source code and study it. It can be modified and tested, and even distributed to friends in that fashion. Now I am not a programmer, but I have cracked open some source code and fixed problems on my own, and it has further increased my knowledge of how things work. Simply installing software and using it is one thing, but finding out how and why it works the way it does, is another. This is the beauty of the GNU General Public License, that the Linux kernel and 99% of software within most common Linux distributions fall under.

A lot of educational institutions ranging from grade schools to colleges and universities use Linux today. Both in classrooms and public labs. I expect to see more and more pick it up in the future, despite the lobbying from Microsoft and others. Linux is a win for teachers, and a win for students.

Topic: Open Source

Chris Clay

About Chris Clay

After administering Linux and Windows for over 17 years in multiple environments, my focus of this blog is to document my adventures in both operating systems to compare the two against each other. Past and present experiences have shown me that Linux can replace Windows and succeed in a vast variety of environments. Linux has proven itself many times over in the datacentre and is more than capable for the desktop.

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
  • The only problem with this philosophy is that it's likely that Microsoft will still be dominant in the workplace when he current generation of students are job hunting, and for the vast majority being a skilled user will be more important that having a detailed technical knowledge of how everything works.

    I feel the best compromise would be to teach in both MS and Linux environments so students are aware that there is more to the world of IT than just MS. This is an important fact that a whole generation seems to have forgotten. It's vitally important to debunk the myth that MS has always been around and always will. The IT world tends to go through revolutions (as in 'The French..') followed by long periods of stability. I.e. Once mainframe technology became affordable in the 1960s we had 20 years of stability with core business functionality running on big-iron, then in the late 1980s the networked micro swept all that away and we had another 20 years of stability. We're about due for another revolution and I suspect MS will be swept away with it. We need a new generation of developers & techies capable of handling that transition.
  • The important thing is to teach students tools and not technologies. Teach them about operating systems and not Linux or Windows. Teach them about word processing and not openoffice or MS office. A student with sound understanding of the fundamentals of computing and computer tools is more likely to survive better on any environment compared to student who are thought to use a particular product. Over the years products like MS office and even Linuxs changes and it could be that when the student is ready for employment the progamm he used in school as gone through a rewrite requiring him to relearn everything again. When the student have an idea of the fundamentals he would not have a problem adjusting easily.
  • MS Windows is the reality today, like it or not. The battle for market leadership was fought in the early 1990s and Windows was the winner. We have had a long period of calm, marked by continued product refinement for almost 20 years now. Linux works great, but there is no need for it on the desktop. All that it does is try to replace Windows at a lower price, but the price is rather artificial and is not seperable from the computer package itself. Where manufacturers have offered Linux pre-loaded machines in conjunction with Windows machines, the price difference has been close to non-existent. Where problems may exist with Windows, it is far easier to just fix those problems than to try to replace it on a wholesale basis. Linux is redundant.
  • Thank you for the comments.

    I definitely agree, Windows will be around and is actively used all over, but even Windows itself is constantly evolving and changing. Well, everything is. Learning Linux in conjunction with Windows and the concepts of both, is more valuable than learning just Windows. But Linux is a solid platform and can run virtual machines with Windows, too. You could do it the other way around, run Windows and Linux in virtual machines. Take your pick.

    AndyPagin's point about a revolution is a good one. Let's teach students today about multiple environments, so that they are well prepared for our future.
  • Well, to the extent that we all learn new things as life goes on, we are all students. We will be taught by life's experiences regardless of levels and methods of formal education. It is only a platitude to say that "students must be prepared for the future". The future will prepare the students in any case.

    The main purpose of any sort of "computer training" is to explain the "How To" of its operation, not the principles of operation which are trivially obvious and self-explanatory. Whether or not Linux can run Windows on a virtual machine or vice-versa is immaterial. With few exceptions, any computer that a common student is likely to encounter will be a Windows computer and how to use it effectively is a desirable talent. Knowing how to derivatively operate some obscure substitute is essentially useless for the 99% of the students who will never see one.
  • @apexwm, Excellent article. While it is true we live in a "windows world", full of viruses, adware, malware, and trojans, and we have to learn how and when to run defrag, anti, virus, registry cleaners, malware, and adware removers. This takes up a lot of our time. Today a child can sit down in front of a computer, and use it, whether it be a PC, MAC, or a Linux machine. The only difference is the software has to be purchased for a PC and MAC. I have two grandsons, ages 6 and 7. They both use my main computer, and can use both Linux and XP, with no problems. By knowing both systems, they will be ahead of their classmates who only use windows. And in case one of them gets into an IT department, after college, they can make more money by knowing both systems. @amicus_curious, I don't know what position you hold at MS, but it's obvious you have never used Linux, or MAC. How sad.
  • Ator1940, do you really think that all of the 500 million or so purchases of Microsot products worldwide each year in lieu of selecting an open source alternative are made by MS employees? I am not an MS employee and never have been one. And I have a Ubuntu workstation and also an Ubuntu server on my local network as well. My only transgression here seems to be a disbelief that know how to use a Linux workstation has any benefit for the 99 out of a 100 students who will never encounter one. It would be a waste of the taxpayer's money to just add Linux to the curriculum and it would be a disservice to the students to remove Windows from the schools.
  • Oddly enough much the same could have been said in times past. Why learn DOS when there was all sorts of other more common OS's out there? When DOS became prevalent why learn Windows or Mac? And now your claiming it's worthless to learn Linux because it's not all that common.

    History doesn't support the "only learn it if it's as common as muck" theory. That and even if they learn Windows [insert version here] it'll all be out of date by the time they use it all in a job. Note that schools really can't afford the latest and greatest hardware/software combinations anyway.
  • Long, long ago, in the DOS days, the industry was in an infant stage of product development and user expectations. What was smart to do then is not possible now as the industry has become a mass market and so subject to different rules and levels of scale.

    Don't misconstrue my opinion, either. I am not saying that leaning Linux has no value as an absolute, I am saying that it has no value for anyone who would never use it and so the cost to the schools in terms to time, money, and administrative focus is wasted. Anyone needing to learn about Linux can do so quickly, I think, after all, it is, from a user's POV, becoming almost identical to Windows (and Mac for that matter) as time goes by. The differences are immaterial.
  • That would lead somewhat inevitably (I think) that it'd be better to go Linux then, as it's free (and it's the "same" as Windows). Which I guess is part of the premise of the blog.
  • amicus_curious

    We really need to shake off this mistaken belief that MS will be around forever.
  • "Free" and "same as Windows" is MOL true about Windows, too. For the hundreds of millions of buyers of new computers each year, it simply comes with the computer. I know that is artificial, but the people buying a computer see it that way as do the people selling the computer. If the sellers were to change, they would have to pay a lot for retraining of their support staff as well as make many changes to the way they put a computer together. That is not "free" at all and they would not gain any sales since a Linux computer sale gained is just a Windows computer sale lost by that supplier. There is no way to recover the investment, particularly if the supplier has to lower the price to entice the customer to change his attitude.

    As to the permanence of Microsoft, it has been around for 30 years now and is running at an 80 billion dollar clip. It is as permanent as anything can be said to be permanent. Certainly it will be around for decades if not longer.
  • @amicus_curious, I too was once a Microsoft shill, in 1990, when I bought my first PC, after 10 years on Commodores. But, I got smart in 2001 when I started using Linux. The thing I hated, and still do, is being forced to pay for windows, on a store bought system. That's why I build my own now. My money, my choice. But, as devices get smaller, and appliances get smarter, they need a small, fast, secure OS, and MS is being pushed out of the game. Unless they do a complete rewrite of their OS to apply on theses smaller devices, they will be left behind. The desktop may always be around, but the numbers are dwindling.
  • @ator1940
    > @amicus_curious, I too was once a Microsoft shill, in 1990,

    I hope you're not seeking to imply that @amicus_curious is a Microsoft shill, because his comments to this post have been intelligent, perceptive and accurate. My apologies if I am jumping to unwarranted conclusions, but I am often disgusted by the nasty and dishonourable tendency of some "special system advocates" to resort to insults and smears rather than address the facts and arguments. I know that sort of stupidity is common in the comments at some sites but ZD Net aspires to higher standards.

    > The thing I hated, and still do, is being forced to pay for windows, on a store bought system.

    Plenty of companies have tried offering Linux machines over the past decade, including Wal-Mart, which is as mass-market as you can get. Most of those companies have gone bust, but you are still not *forced* to buy Windows. The fact is, most people prefer to buy PCs running Windows. You're welcome to your opinion (as is everybody else) but it's not one the market shares.

    > they need a small, fast, secure OS, and MS is being pushed out of the game.
    > Unless they do a complete rewrite of their OS to apply on theses smaller devices,
    > they will be left behind.

    Microsoft recognised this in the early 1990s and wrote a new operating system to run on smaller devices, Windows CE. (It didn't sell too well; I'm just pointing out something you appear to have missed.)

    Today, however, small devices are starting to get processors that are actually capable of running Windows 7 and 8, which is one reason why at the latest CES, Microsoft showed Windows and Office running well on ARM chips. It doesn't mean that Windows will win on ARM, or even sell any at all, but it does mean Microsoft now has less incentive to write a new OS than it did 15-20 years ago.
    Jack Schofield
  • @Jack Schofield: "The fact is, most people prefer to buy PCs running Windows"

    To be honest, most people *don't know* about Linux. They buy a computer, not the OS. There's no choice without knowledge.
    Jake Rayson
  • Jack Schofield,

    Let me state for the record that I am not now nor have I ever been a Microsoft employee. I have been, for the past 20 years, a product manager and even senior developer for MS-DOS and Windows compatible software for companies that were sometimes partners and sometimes competitors of Microsoft. As a sort of mitigating condition, that software was also, at one time, available for OS/2 and Unix environments.

    I am used to being labeled a shill or troll or liar or similar whenever opposing some FOSS or Linux platitude, so I am encouraged by your reasonable understanding.

    An OEM developing a product has always had an option of making that product as proprietary as desired and in the early days of computing, just about every company did so, including the Commodores so beloved by ator1940. Radio Shack had TRS-DOS, Apple had theirs, Atari theirs, and so on. Ironically, Microsoft's move to create an environment where multiple manufacturers could offer the compatible machines are competitive prices was the first really effective instance of "open" computing. That is, of course, ignoring the S-100 bus stuff that, while "open" was unbranded and not very prolific. Microsoft made it fashionable (and possible) for companies to participate in IBM's popularity with a variety of software add-ons that didn't really exist prior to the establishement of some "critical mass" of users who could be addressed efficiently.

    Of course Microsoft today is not the Microsoft of 1980 and they must approach markets quite differently. They have fiscal responsibility to their stockholders and must follow the laws and practices for such.

    Smart phones and tablets are not the well-defined environments that IBM PCs were decades ago. Rather, while they are sort of the same as one another, there is no dictated appearance or interface that would result in a Windows-like platform software market for these devices. I think that the existence of Android, as an essentially zero cost, adequate solution for platform needs would block any such product market from forming. Microsoft may choose to pursue Windows Phone 7 and persuade OEMs to supply it, but I don't think that they could ever charge much. if anything, for a licenses for it.

    I think that they will be more likely to give it away and make it necessary for accessing their cloud level services. That seems to be the new way to monetize apps and platforms today.
  • Jake Rayson,

    I agree that they do not buy the OS and so do not "choose" Windows, although many will pay for an "upgrade" to Windows 7 Professional or else Ultimate as part of a selection process. Rather, what people do is "expect" Windows to be part of any new computer purchase and also expect that their past experience will be applicable to the new purchase.

    That expectation is met by simply supplying Windows, as virtually all OEMs save Apple are doing. To offer Linux in the same channel demands an effective (and consequently expensive) educational effort on the part of manufacturers, distributors, and retailers to change the buyer's expectations and, so, acceptance. There do not seem to be enough economic advantages present to offset the cost of doing this.
  • @Jack, I'm not sure Microsoft would agree CE didn't sell too well - they don't give figures for Embedded but I know by 2010 they'd sold a million Fiats with Blue & Me in, which is CE, as is Ford's Sync. It's in sewing machines and industrial machinery (the Germans get so excited about the CE-based pig slicers that slice pigs twice as fast) and set-top boxes and a lot of things that aren't PCs.... It's a question of what you need a small, fast OS *for* and it's actually more than tablets ;-) The comparison is more QNX than Android or any of the mainstream Linuces; Android may partly power Google TV (badly) as well as phones and phone-like tablets, but QNX is behind Cisco routers as well as the PlayBook. In short, it's a lot more complex than desktop Windows vs desktop Linux (after all, Mac OS X is far and away the most successful desktop Unix - and the iOS variant is the most successful mobile Unix, which is itself bigger than desktop Linux, which says something about the importance of interface and fitness for purpose).
    Simon Bisson and Mary Branscombe
  • @Jake Rayson
    > To be honest, most people *don't know* about Linux. They buy a
    > computer, not the OS. There's no choice without knowledge.

    Most consumers nowadays have used a variety of operating systems, usually not including Linux, but they quite definitely have a preference for Windows. Market research shows they also have a high opinion of Microsoft.

    The mistake geeks often make is to think people should choose an operating system (or anything else) on its technical merits, which are frequently a small and not very important factor in the final decision. Other factors include hardware choice, price, ease of use, software availability, peripheral and other industry support, easthetics, product image, continuity (belief in the future availability of improved versions), what their friends use, what they already use (familiarity, current investment in software and experience), and many other things I can't be bothered to think about now.

    The argument from technical merit lacks knowledge and perception, and people who take that view are almost always going to be frustrated by reality. I think this accounts for some of the childish spite I see from quite a few Linux users.
    Jack Schofield
  • @Mary

    Indeed, I've used exactly the same argument myself. However, CE currently isn't as successful as a mobile phone OS or as a Windows replacement than either iOS or Android, and I'm sure Microsoft has noticed that too ;-)
    Jack Schofield