Linux in the Classroom: a Look Back
I don't have a whole lot to report here. The biggest drawback in any teaching assignment is grading. That certainly was the case here. For instance, I gave them an assignment on services in which they examined the services controlled by chkconfig. The students had to write a brief paragraph detailing the purpose of each service and then determine if the service is needed if one is running a Linux box as the desktop. In other words, what services do we need if we are a regular user and not running any servers. The main purposes were for the students to be able to know which services are available and then determine which services actually are needed. With this information, they should be able to improve the performance of their workstations.
Although this seems like a good idea, I think it might have been a little much for them. I knew it would be a lot of work, so I decided to let the students work in pairs on this assignment. This cut down on the work of the individual student, but it still was a daunting task. Each student still had to investigate and write a brief review of over twenty services. While this was a lot of work for the students, it was even more work for me! Most students turned in around ten pages for me to read. This is tough to get graded during a regular semester, but our shortened semester made it even worse. I still think this is a worthwhile assignment, but it needs to be thought out a little more on the implementation side.
The only other aspect that I have reservations about is the issue of a textbook. I decided to go with the book How Linux Works (No Starch Press, Brian Ward). I like this book for a lot of reasons (see my previous article), but it still is not what I would call a textbook. Most Linux books seem to tell you how to do something but do not necessarily explain why that something works. I am reminded of the old saying about giving someone a fish as opposed to teaching them to fish. If you tell someone to type something without explaining why it works, there is no depth to he knowledge. Yes, someone could remember how to solve the exact same problem if it arises again, but if a small variant of the problem comes up, they may not know how to solve that problem. Answering the "Why" question along with the "How" question would go a long way toward teaching people about the ins-and-outs of the operating system. As you can tell from the list of topics, we spent a lot of time talking about foundational issues--boot process, filesystems--as well as the practical issues--SSH, commands, upgrading.
Wow! I had a great time with this class. I had the opportunity to dig deeper into Linux than ever before. The students all commented that they got a lot out of the course as well. They even asked if we could make this a regular offering. Some people are thinking about starting a LUG. Since our school is named Transylvania, they thought of calling the group TLUG with a vampire penguin as the mascot. Opportunities abound!
Finally, I get to make a presentation in the fall to our faculty, and I have decided to talk about this experience. This will be my chance to introduce my colleagues to the realm of open source. Perhaps when they see some of the opportunities they are missing, I can convince them of the joy that is open-source software.
Class dismissed. Have a good summer. I'll see you in class this fall.
Dr. Mike LeVan is a professor at Transylvania University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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