Linux in Government: Linux Lab at the University of South Florida Opens Eyes

Students find some refuge in Linux learning experience.

"We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." --Albert Einstein

Check the curriculum at the University of South Florida, and you find a campus offering mainly Microsoft technology courses. As with the vast majority of the nation's universities and schools of higher education, you can learn how to use the Excel spreadsheet program, but you cannot find much about Linux kernel internals. Although many schools claim to have embraced open source, don't you believe it.

One of the issues I consider when visiting a university campus is the loss of technology leadership. As a nation, the US had failed to continue the tradition of sparking innovation on the campus. Microsoft has succeeded in capturing the core curriculum of universities and has trained people to become dependent on Redmond's technology. We have become a nation of technologists who drag-and-drop icons rather than technologists who can create an interface between a heart-monitoring device and a monitoring system in a hospital network.

In 2003, I attended an open-source desktop conference at Boston University, invited as a speaker on Linux in Government. Although the conference seemed to be well attended, I learned from the organizer that we would not have another conference at Boston University's Corporate Training Center (BUTrain), because Microsoft--through various incentives--influenced the university to discontinue anything open source. I wrote about this occurrence on several mailing lists. One of my posts elicited this response:

I am the executive director of the group running the Desktop Linux Conference at Boston University.

I too have heard that Boston University took the "Gold Partnership" with Microsoft. I don't know the contract terms, and highly doubt that it says _on paper_ that they won't invite us again, even if that is understood between the parties.

This time, Boston U. put money _into_ the conference. We're going to have a conference to promote Free Software on the Desktop. _We_ set the program and invited the speakers, B.U. and Microsoft had nothing to do with that. Microsoft asked to have a speaker in the program, and I refused.

To create a boycott or bad publicity before the conference would just be playing into Microsoft's hands.

After the conference, I will issue an open letter to BU asking if the allegation that we won't be invited back due to a Microsoft partnership is true.

Thanks

Bruce Perens

Only the organizers at Boston University, the organizers of the conference and a few others know if the allegations have merit. I did notice, however, that a Linux Desktop Conference at Boston University was not held in 2004.

A New Opening for Linux

When I learned that the College of Business Administration at the University of South Florida was sponsoring a course called ISM 4220, Business Data Communications Hands-On Networking Lab, it peaked my interest. In preparation for the course, Dr. Manish Agrawal, the professor writing the curriculum and teaching the class, asked our community forum where he could find Linux packages he needed. Rather than point to links and offer directions on how to compile source code for the Linux distribution Dr. Agrawal wanted to use, Dave Southern, who builds RPMs for our community Web site, went into immediate action and built the actual application packages. I soon learned from Dave that Dr. Agrawa had finished the course curriculum, and I received a copy. Upon opening the file, I discovered one of the finest Linux courses I have ever seen offered at any University. You can find a copy of it here.

For any one wanting to teach this course, you can find Dr. Agrawal's contact information at his home page. For others, such as corporate and government training leads, this material provides outstanding information about Linux, servers and the Internet.

What We Learned

I had several opportunities to speak with Dr. Agrawal. Many of them resulted in me attempting to outline the course on our Web site. Eventually, he provided us with a PDF file of the syllabus and arranged for students to give their impressions of the course. This opportunity allowed students to explain what they got from the course. I presented a questionnaire to the students and arranged for follow-up interviews. Below are excerpts from their responses.

Three students provided answers--Melanie Macko, Hal Ledman and Vijayalakshmi Kadri. One of the common points I have heard from students in the past also applies to these students: the cost of higher education gets higher every day, and they would like more for their money. They would like to learn Linux as well as active directories.

______________________

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Boston University and Linux

Matthew Miller's picture

I know this article is a little old, but I want to state for the record that Boston University made no such anti-Linux deal. I wish someone from Linux Journal had done some fact-checking. Rather than the FUD-like statement implying that only a select few could know the truth, some basic review would have quickly made it clear that there's nothing to this allegation.

The BU Corporate Education Center, where the conference was held, is a functionally separate entity from the university as a whole. They're the ones with the Microsoft Gold Certified Partners for Learning Solutions thing -- but even then, they still offer quite a few Linux courses.

Meanwhile, over at the university itself, we're very active in open source / free software. We have our own mini-distribution, BU Linux, and last year, we hosted the Fedora Project's FUDCon1. Linux and other open source (we're a long-time Unix shop) is heavily used both in infrastructure and for academics.

In fact, just today, there's an article in Wired about our Scientific Computing & Visualization division's new supercomputer, controlled by Linux servers.

If anyone wants to know more, please visit the BU Linux web site, and send us a message. Thank you!

UK Universities

Andrew Hughes's picture

This is a little off-topic, but I thought, given the comments above, that this may be interesting to the readers of this article. I'm in the fourth year of a Computer Science course at the University of Sheffield, here in the UK.

My experience of this course runs quite differently to some of the experiences related here. There is no coverage of operating systems internals whatsoever (just hideous assumptions by most academics that their students all use the Windows platform), and the same goes for office and OS use. The modules just cover programming, both in theory (algorithms, complexity, etc.) and via the practical use of the languages, Java, Haskell and Prolog, and design/HCI techniques.
The sole guide to computer use is https://www.dcs.shef.ac.uk/wiki/bin/view/Guide, which is woefully inadequate.

When it comes to producing work, the students are expected to know how to write documents on the computer, etc. Other tools such as CVS are used, but barely introduced. We're currently doing a sort of 'pretend research' course (probably the best way to describe it -- they put you in a research setting, but focus more on documentation, team work and meeting minutes, than actual research produced). This began by giving a four week introduction to GNU/Linux, along with anything else the guy teaching it could think of (including emacs, LaTeX, Perl, Python and bash scripting -- fortunately, he decided to stop short of covering the entire GNU compiler set in the end... I jest not, see https://www.dcs.shef.ac.uk/wiki/bin/view/Guide/ResearchComputing).

As a fairly long-term GNU/Linux user, I knew all this stuff already, and still felt this was over the top for a period of about three weeks. Most of the students had a fairly basic knowledge of Windows, and no GNU/Linux or UNIX knowledge. In my opinion, this just made their views worse on this subject... suffice to say,that the members of our group who were new to this stuff were back on Windows by the start of the project work, and we've had to try and teach them this stuff ourselves, so they can actually do the work they need to.

The academics are a fair mix of views, with some being GNU/Linux users themselves, while others dripping in Windows. Quite a few times I've had to make a fuss to get hold of lecture notes or whatever that aren't in some retarded Microsoft Office format.

We are 'fortunate' to have GNU/Linux desktops in the Lab for CS students, but this is hardly promoted, and you wouldn't know from going in there, where you see rows of machines running Windows. To get GNU/Linux, we have to manually re-boot before we can start work. The main reason I guess this exists at all is to make it look like they're actually making an effort -- they aren't maintained, and are still running the defunct Redhat 9. The main servers are still proprietary UNIX-based (Solaris), so I guess some of this also comes from the members of the tech. support team who are familiar with UNIX.

As to Microsoft's influence, it can be seen all over the place. As some posts have already said, to say Microsoft doesn't try and get their paws into universities is just being naive. Our walls are littered with their posters, and they currently make a deal about offering for free (as in beer -- the thought of this as promotion made me laugh at first, but the naivety of most students means this will work well) their development platform. They know if they win the minds of the students now, these are the ones who will be running stuff in the years to come. Knowing some of the students here, the very thought scares me...

Is it a blacklist...or the price of liberty?

Phil Cobbin's picture

How ironic, desktop computing has the potential power to allow one to do the design work akin to the SR-71 work out of the skunk works circa 1958 except for the fact the scientific and management training at universities has relegated future generations to drag and drop addicts. But maybe....just maybe...the industriousness and creativity of the linux community may continue to grow to a point where those that can think and act independently will simply go cold turkey on microsloth.

Perhaps an age needs to come where the universities fall under the weight of there ever more expensive inbreeding.

University Linux curriculum in Florida

Ted Baker's picture

This article gives the impression that Florida universities do not teach students Linux. At least in the case of FSU, that is not the case. Computer Science students find themselves using Linux as the primary OS for instruction, and if we get complaints it is from people who think we don't do enough with Microsoft's OS's. Besides lower level courses which use Linux for application programming, we have courses in Unix/Linux system and network administration, and device driver development. For example, check out http://www.cs.fsu.edu/~baker/devices.

University Linux curriculum in Florida

tadelste's picture

If you believe the article gave the impression that universities in Florida do not teach students Linux, perhaps you might read it again -- or for the first time.

We made no mention of Flordia universities in general.

University Linux Curriculum in Florida

Dr. Rich Shepard's picture

You make a very good point. You are in a CS major program at FSU, the article described a MIS major program in the Business College as SFU. Two different markets and two different student types.

The business major is desktop-application oriented and, as a SysAdmin, focused more on supporting the cubicle dwellers. You and your cohort are more oriented toward operating systems, application development and the entire back end of the subject. Can't compare the two directly.

That said, I find it discouraging how universities sell out to Microsoft despite the conceptual idea of education being an expansion of knowledge by students and an exploration of many different ideas. Those folks who graduate from the business school with a degree in Windows may soon find themselves either flipping burgers or working for TSA as more companies move both back- and front-office applications to FOSS.

Rich

GRR... College may not be worth it any more

Anonymous's picture

Respectfully, if I had to spend $2000 for a course and the best thing I could say is that I learned about VirtualHost ... I'm really scared about the level of intelligence coming out of our colleges. I think that in some cases OS and DB certification are more valuable and more cost effective than a 4 year degree.

Sure, not everyone can have the tenacity and the ideaset of how important open source software is, especially going into college, and especially since the pretty boxes in retail glow with visions of music downloads dancing in our heads... But there are those of us who have the ideaset, the desire, the ability, and the longevity to stick with this *nix or *BSD because they realize that it just works. It works and the object of the sysadmin is to maintain security, not fight viruses. When one realizes that the barrier to entry to learn to be a good sysadmin or web guru or database admin is almost nothing in open source versus cost of software plus cost of college, to learn GUI and WYSIWYG... start 'em young and keep 'em strong!

correction, point of criticism

Anonymous's picture

"peaked my interest" should be "piqued my interest." This is a
French word adapted into English. Secondly, it makes no sense to say
courses in Linux kernel internals should be taught in place of
courses on Excel. These are two entirely different areas--office
productivity versus programming. People that are learning to be
office productivity workers are almost never going to write programs
or tweak a kernel. And people who tweak kernels or do kernel
development are not going to learn the fine points of using office
productivity software. The best we might hope for these latter is
that they would learn to spell the parts of the English vocabulary
they use :) The article would have been more effective had this
false comparison not been made, in my view

point of criticism

jim's picture

the criticism that Excel skills are not in the same domain as networking and system administration is well-taken.

It side-steps related, I think important, issues of teaching spreadsheet skills to include exposure to a variety of spreadsheet programs beyond Excel and of teaching network/sysadm skills to include exposure to a variety of OS platforms.

correction, point of criticism

Anonymous's picture

So what.

our curriculum

Richard's picture

Some of the people making comments seem to expect a Management Information Systems curriculum to look like a Computer Science curriculum. They are quite different.

At our computer science department (Eastern Washington University), the students are exposed to the 'traditional' concepts. Hardware is a core part of our curriculum. On the software side, both Microsoft and Linux are used. As a Linux example, our 3 quarter operating systems sequence starts with concepts in its first quarter. We use Tanenbaum's 'Modern Operating Systems' as the text - not the Minix based text. The examples and programming assignments are Linux-centric. The second quarter is mostly Linux internals, trying to exemplify the concepts from the first quarter, Material in the 3rd quarter is typically Linux device driver modules. We also have a course in embedded Linux development. I doubt that our CS program is that unique. Linux is alive and well in the universities.

Regards,
Richard

The article described an Information

our curriculum

Anonymous's picture

"Some of the people making comments seem to expect a Management Information Systems curriculum to look like a Computer Science curriculum."

Richard,

At many schools no difference exists.

In which case, these schools

Anonymous's picture

In which case, these schools have a bigger problem than the prevalence of MS products.

our curriculum

Anonymous's picture

You're lucky. Evidently, Microsoft doesn't see you as a big enough threat to go after you. To say Linux is alive and well at the nation's Universities is to live in denial - serious denial.

This author is right on when he says that Microsoft is pervasive. I help find research grants for US Universities and see many. We did a Library Sciences project at a large campus and needed matching funds. The grant came from New Zealand and required Linux. That was the only Linux anything at the winning University. The work was outsourced to a firm in Denmark. We could even count contributions of time and services to count as part of our matching funds.

If you think Linux is alive and well - try finding a University or private foundation to help fund it. Try including funding for Linux in your school's Annual Federal Omnibus funding request.

Comment

Anonymous's picture

It's a sad state of affairs when the use of system administration utilities constitutes a University course. These were the things new computer science students had to explore on their own while grappling with Concepts like hash functions, sorting strategies, spanning tree algorithms. Not to mention computer hardware design (and I don't mean the case) ! It seems that the dumbing down of the education system has no bottom.

these days you have to teach

Anonymous's picture

these days you have to teach the basics. The students come in with very little and are prepared to do even less on their own. They are after all the customer and if they are going to pay big bucks for this stuff, the professor had better hold their hand and spoon feed them, then turn them over and burp them. Or they will go someplace else.

I have taught courses in Microcomputer applications in a business school and the requirement was basic as basic can be. It was all microsoft, though I did introduce OpenOffice.org and have the students do a semester long project on Microsoft alternatives. But the course basically began with what is an office productivity suite and proceeded from there. This was a required objective for the course.

Most of this stuff was of course an utter waste of faculty time. The students could easily figure out how to set up some data and formulas in a spreadsheet on their own. But you still have to teach it to them.

The big schools have more latitude with what they can do, but there is a zone of cut throat competition among the smaller colleges where spoon feeding becomes the norm.

In my experience both attending and teaching in business schools in both large and small institutions; Microsoft rules the kingdom. U.S business schools will be the last bastion of Microsoft. There exists a disturbing depth of Microsoft worship within most faculty and administration in these places. The rise of Microsoft is viewd in these schools as the quintessential story of triumph, even nobility in American capitalism.

Gates is good and his money is even better.

...."These were the things ne

Chuck Gilkes's picture

...."These were the things new computer science students..." I would agree, however, this is a course geared for MIS students in the Business College, not CS or engineering folks

There are still some real colleges

Anonymous's picture

You have to check out the Computer Science program before you go. Sure. some are just stuff you should be able to pickup by RTFM, but others make you think.

You could start with the list of schools using Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs.

There are still some real colleges

Anonymous's picture

Did you put this link up to promote this junk? This is just spam.

To be correct...

Ewenement's picture

"This is just spam."

That's actually topic related, thus calling it spam is not really a good interpretation. Spam is something you don't want, but in this case you just don't click if you don't want to go to that specific website. However, putting link to website in a wrong place is a different matter...

Here is a excellent Linux course

Anonymous's picture

University of Centrail Queensland has a linux course, or at least they did a few years ago. Do a google on "cqu 85321". That will get you to their web page.

http://infocom.cqu.edu.au/Units/aut99/85321/

Well done Cqu - I learned a lot about sysadmin from you.

Sad state of affairs.

TX_Keyboard_Cowboy's picture

I will give you that it might very well be a sad state of affairs that the Universitys are teaching this as a course. On the other hand that just means that when the graduates get into the business world, they don't need to spend the time or at least not as much time looking up how to set up a network or firewall etc. The Universitys see that there is a need and are providing something...however little. I do agree, however, it is better to learn on your own because you do keep it with you for a longer time. I do not agree that we are dumbing down the education. In college, at least it was this way for me, I got out what I put in and let me tell you I put a lot in. Currently I have a BS in Business Admin with a concentration in MIS and a minor in Math. So yes I got a lot out of my studies. To me any bit of knowledge is worth the time...however little the amount of time or knowledge.

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