Linux in Higher Education: Open Source, Open Minds, Social Justice
Let's turn from professors to students and examine another area in which the use of commercial, closed-source software is rapidly growing: the computer literacy curriculum. Even if it is admitted that open-source software is needed at the research level, skeptics will counter that colleges and universities do not exist in a vacuum. Whether we like Microsoft or not, they will argue, we still need to teach students how to use the software they will encounter after they graduate--and that means Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office. Among those pushing for this type of computer literacy instruction are local businesses, which hope to avoid paying the enormous costs needed to train their employees to use such software effectively. Increasingly, computer literacy instruction looks like a Windows and Office training seminar. Not surprisingly, Microsoft is taking advantage of this situation by cutting deals with colleges and universities that provide every enrolled student with licensed copies of Microsoft software. In response to this assertion, I argue that a focus on Windows and Office skills is the wrong type of computer literacy instruction at the college and university level. In addition, I argue, it fails to serve the needs of business.
Is a focus on Microsoft Windows and Office skills the right kind of computer literacy instruction at the college and university level? If you accept the conclusions of a major national report that reflects a growing consensus among computer literacy educators, the answer is "No." The report, titled Being Fluent with Information Technology(National Research Council 1999), is the report of the U.S. National Research Council's Committee on Information Technology Literacy and represents the best thinking of the leading experts in the field. In brief, the report rejects a narrow focus on skills-based training for the following reasons:
Employers may indeed realize reduced training costs if college graduates know how to use Windows and Microsoft Office, but these gains are short-lived; for example, Microsoft frequently introduces new versions with additional features and altered procedures. An education that focuses on version-specific software skills will produce graduates who may very well be able to use Office 97, but these same graduates may lack the deeper conceptual knowledge that would enable them to move smoothly to Office 2000 or some other office software suite.
Given that the practice of democracy depends on an informed citizenry, colleges and universities possess a positive obligation to acquaint students with a conceptual understanding of information technology (IT), one that goes beyond "which button to press" in Microsoft Office. Graduates should know enough about IT to form opinions on the compelling IT-driven issues of our day, including the growing threat to privacy rights, the risks posed by the software industry's campaign to rewrite intellectual property law and much more.
The pace of technological innovation in the software industry is so rapid that the "which-button-to-press" training today's first-year students receive will be laughably obsolete by the time they graduate. Colleges and universities should equip students not only with computer usage skills, but what is more, the conceptual knowledge and understanding that will enable them to learn how to apply new technologies in short order.
Recognizing these facts, the authors of Being Fluent with Information Technology conclude that a computer literacy curriculum focusing on skills alone is insufficient. The ideal curriculum, they argue, would equip students with computer fluency, a "robust understanding of what is needed to use information technology effectively across a range of applications" (14). In addition to possessing the essential skills of software usage, computer-fluent individuals can apply information technology in novel situations--and what is more, they can understand the consequences of doing so. As the authors observe, "these capabilities transcend particular software and hardware applications" (17). Equally essential to computer fluency is the mastering of fundamental computer concepts, such as the difference between absolute and relative cell references in an electronic spreadsheet program.
If computer fluency is indeed a desirable goal, then it follows that colleges and universities can and should base their curricula on products other than Microsoft's. A student who learns the fundamental concepts of spreadsheet usage from Gnumeric, admittedly, may not know which key to press when confronted with Microsoft Office. However, computer literacy instruction should not focus on which key to press, but rather on the concepts that underlie the use of computer software. A student who fully understands the concepts of absolute and relative cell references will experience little difficulty learning Microsoft Excel; she will quickly learn which key to press. Indeed, asking students to move to a different vendors' spreadsheet application may well be the best way to test whether students have acquired the desired computer fluency. In contrast, a student whose computer literacy instruction emphasized Excel skills rather than the transcendent concepts of software usage may require a round of costly retraining when the next version of Excel is released.
From the foregoing argument, one can conclude that colleges and universities can well serve the goals of computer literacy education by moving to a Linux standard. We should teach the concepts of operating system and office software usage, and there is no reason to use expensive, commercial products for this purpose. At higher curricular levels, colleges and universities are arguably under a positive obligation to move away from closed source software and proprietary computing infrastructures (Vermeer 1998). Increasingly, it is not only scientists who must understand the details of operating systems and computing networks; advanced research in virtually every field of scholarship inevitably requires the type of intermediate to advanced understanding of information technology that was formerly possessed only by computer science graduates. In this context, open-source operating systems and networking infrastructures offer a significant advantage: they are open to dissection, analysis, and scrutiny in ways not possible with closed-source architectures.