Linux and Education

The statements are often made, even by some of its best-known proponents, that "Linux is not ready for the desktop" and that "Linux is still just suitable mainly for niche markets." Regardless of the extent to which these statements are true in general, there are several major categories of applications for which Linux is clearly ready right now -- and, moreover, is by far the best choice.

One of these is educational institutions, a category for which Linux and other open source software are particularly well suited. In fact, education could become one the biggest beneficiaries of such software. At the same time, the widespread use of Linux in education could add further momentum to the development of open source software and to its adoption over the entire spectrum of applications.

The Role of Computers in Education

Before looking at the pros and cons of using Linux and other open source software in education, it is instructive to briefly consider the broader question of the extent to which computers themselves belong in schools.

Over the past several decades computers have come to play a virtually indispensible role in businesses and other organizations of nearly every type and size because of their ability to cut costs and increase productivity. Educational organizations are clearly no exception, and computers have repeatedly demonstrated that they have immense value in administrative tasks such as accounting, scheduling, printing and communication. In addition, they have also been shown to be very useful for instructors in preparing their classroom materials, including research and printing.

Moreover, computers also can have a beneficial role in classroom use by students. The issue has rarely been whether computers belong in the classroom at all, but rather how they should be used by students and to what extent. Such use can be broadly classified into four categories:

(1) studying about computer technology itself, which is commonly referred to as computer science and information technology (IT),

(2) using computers as a research tool,

(3) using computers to study specific subjects which can easily or efficiently be taught by computer and

(4) learning how to use specific application programs.

Computer science and information technology are closely related fields of study, and there is much overlap between them. The difference is that the former emphasizes the theoretical aspects of computer software, hardware, communications, etc., while the latter focusses more on their practical aspects, such as programming, setting up networks, implementing security measures, developing web sites and designing and operating databases.

Both are very legitimate and important areas of education. This is because computer technology is becoming pervasive throughout our society and is playing a crucial role in the unprecedented and accelerating technology and industrial revolution that we are now witnessing. It is at the core of the rapid advances that are occurring in almost every field of human endeavor, including the sciences, medicine, engineering, manufacturing, communications, defense and even the arts.

Computer science/information technology should thus be included as one component of the science and engineering curriculum, along with such related topics as electronics, mathematics, physics and materials science. Such study is appropriate in some form for all levels of education, ranging from elementary to post-graduate.

One of the most important types of use for computers is research, which can mean two rather different things. One is gathering information from the Internet, which should be taught as a complement to traditional library research techniques (but not as a replacement for them). The other is using the calculating and control capabilities of computers for scientific and engineering experiments (e.g., the control of experimental robots). This is also a valuable skill that should be taught as part of the science and engineering curriculum.

Computers are also proving to be increasingly useful as a supplementary, or in some cases even an alternative, means of instruction for a wide range of academic and vocational subjects, including foreign languages, spelling, mathematics, science, law enforcement and even pilot training. This is a result of their ability to provide instant feedback and a very high degree of interactivity at an extremely low cost (far lower than that of an individual instructor). It is also related to their almost infinite ability to be customized at minimal cost according to the specific requirements of the subject being studied, the level of the student, etc.

Learning how to use specific application programs (such as word processors, spread sheets, slide making programs and graphics programs) is probably the most common use for computers in the schools. One reason is, of course, that the ability to utilize such programs is important for effective computer use. Another is that this category is the easiest for most teachers to teach, as relatively little understanding of computers is required to be able to instruct students on how to use a word processor or surf the web.

Fortunately, it is relatively easy to attain adequate skill levels with many of the commonly used application programs. Such skills should not be an end in themselves, except perhaps in vocational courses, because individual computer programs, especially proprietary ones (for which there is often planned obsolescence), tend to become obsolete in a few years. Rather, the emphasis should be more on understanding the fundamentals of how computers work so that the students will be able to quickly learn any programs or techniques that might be available when they need them in the future.

Computers can thus be seen to be an extremely important tool for academic institutions, although they are certainly not a panacea for all that ails the classroom. They definitely complement traditional education techniques, but they are a long way away from replacing instructors with outstanding in-person teaching skills. Moreover, it will be a long time, if ever, before computers will be able to eliminate the need to practice and develop such ancient skills as writing (on paper), library research, human-to-human interaction and variegated physical activity. Not only are these skills important goals in themselves, but they are often still very important for studying a wide range of other subjects.

Advantages of Linux for Use in Schools

There are numerous factors that make Linux preferable to proprietary operating systems (e.g., Microsoft Windows) for use in educational institutions:

(1) Undoubtedly the most important of these is the fact that there is a zero cost of software acquisition. Proprietary software for use in schools can be obtained only with per-seat licenses or site licenses, both of which become very expensive for schools that desire to have more than just a few computers. In fact, proprietary software can easily cost more than the hardware on which it operates, and far more when the cost of license renewals and upgrades is factored in.

There are no licensing fees for Linux based on the number of users or the number of computers on which it is installed. Thus a school, school district or university can install any number of Linux systems from just a single set of CDROMs (usually two disks), which can be purchased for only a few dollars or borrowed from a faculty member or from another school. Linux can even be downloaded from the Internet for free!

The zero cost of acquisition applies not only to the basic operating system, but also to the large and growing number of high quality application programs, many of which are included in major Linux distributions and are installed automatically when Linux is installed. These applications include a full-fledged office suite that is equivalent to, and compatible with, the costly Microsoft Office suite, advanced graphics programs and a web browser that is easier to use and more technologically advanced than Internet Explorer. See Major Linux Applications for more information about some of these free applications.

When the costs of both the operating system and the application software are taken into consideration, the savings from free software can be enormous. However, there are yet additional costs to using proprietary software, as discussed below, that make the savings even greater.

(2) Linux and other open source software do not impose any complex license management requirements on their users. In fact, there is generally no need for any license management at all! This is in sharp contrast to the requirement that educational institutions devote considerable effort to making certain that each computer has the proper licenses for (a) proprietary software, such as Microsoft Windows, (b) any upgrades to it and (c) application programs such as Microsoft Office as well as to monitoring licenses for (d) each Windows server to which the individual computers are connected. This is necessary in order to be able to prove that an institution is not violating the devilishly complex mandatory license agreements in the event of a Business Software Alliance (BSA) audit. The Microsoft-funded BSA routinely audits educational institutions and frequently collects very substantial fines when it determines that they are not in compliance.

(3) Students can be provided with legal copies of Linux and other open source software for use at home at no cost to the students or the schools. Schools often require that students use certain proprietary software for their assignments without providing free copies for them to use on their home machines. This frequently results in "software piracy" by students.

(4) Linux allows older and less expensive hardware to be used than is possible with Microsoft Windows, and it thus helps extend the life of old computers. In fact, many schools employ used computers at a fraction of the cost of new computers and find that they work just fine. One reason for this is that Linux is written much more compactly and thus requires less disk space and memory than does Microsoft Windows. Also, it is much easier to configure Linux to the capabilities of the particular computer on which it is being installed in order to obtain maximum performance from an older computer.

An additional feature of Linux that enables it to perform very well even on older computers is its use of the X Window System. This is an automatic technique that separates where an application runs from where it is displayed. This allows inexpensive, older computers (with limited memory and slow processors) used by individual students to appear to be running a large application program (such as graphics processing software). However, the program is actually running on a newer, more powerful computer that is connected to the older computers via a standard computer network.

It is generally necessary to purchase new computers every time an upgrade is made to the newest version of Microsoft Windows. This is because each new version requires so much more disk space and memory than the previous one due to what is often referred to as "code bloat." When upgrading Linux, however, it is very often possible to continue to use the same computers.

(5) Administration and maintenance costs can be reduced to very low levels for Linux systems after system administrators and other staff members attain a certain degree of expertise. One reason for this is the inherent stability of Linux, i.e., it rarely crashes or needs rebooting. Also, with proper configuration, Linux is highly resistant to viruses, worms, trojans and other types of malicious code, thus very little time and effort needs to be devoted to applying security patches. Security patching is a very time consuming and annoying task for Microsoft Windows administrators, both because it is required so frequently (monthly or even more often) and because the patches themselves are often less than perfect and can cause other problems.

Another reason is that the X Window System allows a single workstation to be used together with a number of simpler computers instead of requiring that each computer used by students be a high performance (and costly) workstation. This reduces both the amount of technician time spent maintaining workstations. It also makes it more difficult for students to intentionally or unintentionally alter the system's configuration and easier for a technician to restore the configuration.

(6) Linux can mitigate or eliminate the cost and disruption of frequent retraining of faculty and other staff members for new versions of the operating system and other software. This is because there are no "forced upgrades." Also, although new versions of Linux and other open source software are frequently introduced, existing and even older versions usually have more than sufficient power and functionality for most academic applications. Moreover, even if open source software is upgraded, the new versions are usually very similar to, and backwards compatible with, earlier versions, and thus little or no additional training is usually necessary.

(7) Linux can also help reduce school administrative costs by being used for administration purposes in addition to classroom use. The skills are transferrable between these two categories of applications, and in some cases the same servers can be used.

(8) The internal workings of Linux are completely open and available for inspection, modification and experimentation. The reasons are that source code is freely available and that Linux is designed to be highly configurable even without modification of the source code. This is in sharp contrast to proprietary software, for which the internal workings of the programs are hidden from users and the source code is usually not made available.

The analogy is sometimes made with the difference between purchasing an automobile for which the engine compartment can be freely opened and one for which the engine compartment has been welded shut. The former provides a much better education experience (and can be cheaper to repair) and will encourage a fraction of the owners of such cars to tinker and eventually become expert mechanics.

Its complete transparency to the curious makes Linux an ideal medium for learning about how computers really work. Inquisitive users have a tendency to turn into developers, providing a new generation of creative talent that will help keep the technology revolution on track. Sometimes they also make good teachers.

(9) The use of Linux in the classroom will encourage (or compel) teachers to learn about Linux. This will help them to understand and teach more effectively about computers. It will also give them a better foundation for understanding other aspects of technology, which, in turn, can be transmitted to students.

(10) Acquiring Linux skills has already begun to facilitate and encourage collaboration among educators and others to develop new, high quality software specifically for educational use. This is because Linux itself, as well as other open source software, was developed by a group of widely scattered, but highly skilled and motivated individuals communicating via the Internet. This development model has proved itself to be very efficient and far lower in cost than the traditional closed source approach.

(11) Linux can help prepare students for the real world in which there is a diversity of operating systems and platforms. Although most households still just use Microsoft Windows, major corporations generally employ a variety of operating systems, including Windows, various versions of Unix (Solaris, Aix, BSD, etc.), various mainframe operating systems and Linux.

Linux skills will also help prepare students for a world in which the dominance of Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office for small and medium sized businesses is increasingly challenged and Linux comes to play an increasingly important role. Just as is the case with schools, businesses and other organizations of all types and sizes are finding that there are numerous compelling reasons to convert to Linux.

(12) Linux provides much greater freedom of choice about operating systems than do proprietary operating systems. This is because Linux is not really a single operating system. Rather, there dozens of different versions (also referred to as "distributions") from which to choose, each with its own unique set of characteristics and its own advocates. All are similar in that they incorporate some version of the Linux kernel and contain the same core commands and functions which have been exhaustively battle tested in the more than 30 years of Unix history. They are also similar in that they are all highly configurable by users, far more so than Microsoft Windows.

Furthermore, it should be kept in mind that the choice of free, open source operating systems is even greater than the large number in the Linux family. It also includes the BSD family of Unix operating systems, the most popular of which is FreeBSD. For general classroom purposes, however, Linux is probably preferable to any of the BSDs because it is easier to administer and because there is a greater number of readily available application programs.

There are still more choices, although like BSD, they should probably be reserved for the more advanced classes in computer science. Of particular interest is MINIX, which was developed specifically for studying the internal workings of operating systems and which led to the development of Linux.

(13) Open source software tends to be compliant with industry standards and thus protects school data from becoming locked into proprietary file formats which the schools do not own and which may become unsupported, obsolete and even inaccessable in the future.

Obstacles to Linux in the Classroom

There are still considerable obstacles to using of Linux in the classroom. They include:

(1) The lack of awareness on the part of many educators and administrators of the full advantages of Linux. There is anecdotal evidence that the advantages are so great, in fact, that they are in some cases met with incredulity.

(2) The lack of both Linux skills and general computer skills among educators, even among those who are aware of the advantages of Linux. Moreover, when computer skills do exist, they usually consist of just the ability to use simple application programs rather than the ability to construct or maintain the networks that are necessary for classrooms (much less the ability to teach even the most elementary concepts of computer science).

(3) Strong pressure from vested interests to keep using proprietary software. This pressure occurs on a variety of levels, from local school districts and universities to state governments. Considerable resources are devoted to producing slick presentations and maintaining armies of salespeople and lobbyists whose sole task is to convince educators that the latest upgrade is the greatest and to pressure politicians to oppose any measures that would make it easier to use free software in the schools. These vested interests include the developers and distributors of the proprietary software, manufacturers and suppliers of hardware (who benefit from the need for users to purchase new computers every time the Windows operating system is upgraded) and firms that maintain and upgrade computers.

Why Linux is Penetrating Schools

In spite of these obstacles, Linux is making steady inroads into the classroom, and this trend can only continue. There are several reasons for this:

(1) There is a rapidly growing awareness among educators of the advantages that Linux can provide. This parallels the rapidly increasing awareness of Linux on the part of the public in general. Indeed, the word "Linux" was virtually unknown to all but computer specialists just a few years ago but now has become almost a household term and is the subject of frequent articles in newspapers and other media.

(2) Linux is becoming increasingly easy to install and use. This is a result of the continued effort by the developers of the numerous individual programs that constitute a Linux distribution to make it suitable not only for technology-oriented users but also for ordinary people with little or no technical background. Although Linux may still be a little "rough around the edges" and present some challenges for ordinary consumers with absolutely no interest in or understanding of computers, it is actually quite easy to set up and maintain for educators who undertake even a modest amount of computer study. After proper setup, it is as easy for students to use as is Microsoft Windows.

(3) Although Linux skills are still relatively rare among educators, they are becoming more common as educators become more aware of Linux and its numerous advantages.

(4) There is a growing disenchantment with proprietary software on the part of educators. Among the areas of dissatisfaction are the high initial costs, pressure for costly upgrades, onerous license tracking requirements, difficulty of customization and the nuisance and expense of having to deal with frequent security problems and system crashes.

(5) Increasingly tight budgets are forcing educational institutions at all levels to pay more attention to the alternatives to costly proprietary software.

Ideal Role for Proprietary Software in Education

In all fairness, it should be pointed out that proprietary software is not all bad and that it should still continue to have a role in educational institutions despite the overwhelming advantages that Linux offers for use as the main operating system. Situations in which proprietary software are appropriate for classroom use include:

(1) Computer science classes that acquaint students with the diverse types of software in use, such as classes which compare the structure and performance of various operating systems.

(2) Vocational classes which need to teach the use of proprietary operating systems and specific proprietary programs that might be required by businesses or professions. Microsoft Windows is still used in the vast majority of computers in businesses and other organizations, and thus learning to use it can be an important part of vocational training. Likewise, there are still many industry-specific and profession-specific programs that are available only for use on Microsoft Windows.

(3) Running the still numerous specialized classroom learning programs that were written for use on Microsoft Windows and for which good open source alternatives do not yet exist. Although it is becoming increasingly practical for Windows programs to run on Linux, usually it is still much easier to run them on Windows.

It should also be kept in mind that not all proprietary software is equal, and some is certainly better suited to classroom use than others. For example, Macintosh computers have long been considered "classroom-friendly," and they have become much more suitable for use in studying computer technology with their switch to the OS X operating system. This is because OS X is actually a Unix operating system, and thus such computers share many of the advantages of Linux, including the ability to run many free Linux programs and the ability for students to study the workings of the underlying operating system.

Online Linux Resources for Educators

There is a huge amount of free information available on the Internet about Linux and other open source software that could be useful to both educators and students. It includes tutorials, articles, FAQs, magazines, discussion groups and even full books. See Linux Resources for Educators for links to sites mainly about the use of Linux in educational institutions. A good starting point for investigating the broader range of online Linux resources is Selected Online Resources.

Created March 21, 2004. Copyright © 2004. All Rights Reserved.