first article in
this series about Linux in Italian schools introduced ITC De
Sterlich, where, even though a lot remains to be done, free software is
a site-wide reality. This time we visit a Linux-friendly school in the
smallest, youngest and southern-most province of Italy,
Ragusa, which is
located in sunny Sicily. The school is the Istituto Tecnico Commerciale
(ITC, Commercial-Technical Institute) "F. Besta". Linux is not yet an
officially endorsed reality for the whole institute, which makes it an
interesting case to study.
ITCs are senior high schools that prepare accountants for future work
and offer several specializations. At ITC F. Besta, Linux is used in
two of the courses mandated by the state curriculum for this sector.
The first course is Trattamento Testi e Dati (TTD), or Text and Data Entry and
Processing. This subject, taught in the first two years, replaced
the previous topics of machine typing and shorthand writing with word
processing, spreadsheets and HTML/multimedia authoring. Nothing is wrong
with that offering in theory, but in practice, what many Italian students actually
learn is the bare minimum of Microsoft Word and Excel.
The last three years of ITC curriculum offers programming courses
called "Mercurio". Their exact goals, definitions, official content and
so on, if you read Italian, are available
In a nutshell, as far as we are concerned, the curriculum formally
states that an accountant must have more than basic IT skills and must be
able to process data with a computer, dynamic Web sites and
databases. Mercurio courses have become the norm for this category of Italian schools.
The resident Penguin ambassador at the school is Professor Nunzio
Brugaletta (email@example.com), who teaches Information
Technology in the B section. For Nunzio, the Mercurio regulations didn't change much
because, nothing prior formally had forbidden him or any other
professor from covering this same content and techniques in his lessons.
To this end, he's been using Linux and other free software in his classes for
three years now.
Nunzio's motivations for using FOSS aren't merely technical. When I first contacted
him for this article, we immediately discovered that we share a common
concern that inspires all of his FOSS evangelism at the school. We both
believe that basic IT education, at least in public schools, should be about
understanding durable concepts, not merely memorizing long, meaningless
sequences of mouse clicks to use without knowing why.
According to Nunzio, the situation from this point of view is becoming
worse over time and needs urgent fixing. To stress the point, he
quoted one of his fellow teachers, who some time before had told him
"[IT teachers] risk becom[ing] mere mouse-clicker trainers!". Nunzio
always remembers that comment, which was meant as a joke, because he
sees it happening all too often. Every year, he says, kids come to school
with less real knowledge of technology and its implications. So
teachers have a greater responsibility if they don't want to produce
simple "mouse-clicking monkeys".
Practically speaking, Nunzio teaches both C++ programming and basic
Web technologies exclusively using FOSS software. In the first case,
his toolbox contains good old Emacs, GCC, GDB and Make. Web classes
are based on
Quanta for HTML design
and LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP/Python/Perl) for the backend.
Even the IT theoretical concepts included in the state-approved
program are explained using FOSS examples. When operating systems and
their administration are covered in the fifth year, Linux is
obviously at the center of the stage.
Nunzio's course material is available on-line, in the computer science
his personal Web page. The
material there is listed in Italian, but even a simple scan of titles gives you an
idea of the kind of projects you could co-develop with
him. For the record, as of July 2005, the covered topics range from
Cobol to KDE and from OpenOffice.org Writer to compiler principles.
Every year, Nunzio packs all the didactic content of the Web site on a
CD-ROM together with free documentation from other sources and
distributes it to his new students. This is another example all teachers
should follow, wherever they live: don't rely only on already-available,
one-size-fits-all Linux material. Go the extra mile and
burn a collection of all the software and information that your
students actually need.
Nunzio's CD-ROM also includes Windows versions of all the FOSS programs
used in his classes, including Emacs, GCC and
EasyPHP. The last one is a
bundle for Windows that automatically installs Apache, PHP, MySQL and
PhpMyAdmin. This allows all of his students to become familiar with FOSS
in the easiest, quickest and least painful way.
In a small number of cases, kids could not run the FOSS programs at
home, because Dad forbade them from installing "unknown, untrusted
stuff" on the family PC. To prevent this reaction, Nunzio always
points out something that surely is a good selling point for FOSS on
Windows: Emacs, GCC and friends are non-invasive programs that can be
removed at any moment. Specifically, translating Nunzio's exact words,
"they are not like all those impolite, bad-mannered Windows programs
that install tons of DLLs which never go away!"
Nunzio also teaches Linux in an afternoon course specifically devoted
to how to install Linux and solve any related issues, such as partitioning,
boot loader configuration and so on. Initially, Nunzio used to
distribute the current version of
Mandrake Linux in this
course, because in his experience, it was the easiest distribution to install. This year,
however, he discovered Mepis and became an
enthusiast supporter of this distribution, because "installation is
surprisingly mindless: I immediately showed it to my students, and it
was a great success." The only minor problems came from some
monitors in the school lab; they're so old that the graphic server
had to be switched manually to a lower resolution.
So much for Linux being difficult to use. It's good when people see
for themselves that Windows is easier only because they don't need to
install it themselves. Before Mepis, students switching to
Linux, at least as a secondary but permanently installed OS, were few
and far between. Since Nunzio started proposing Mepis, however, the average
number has raised to three or four per class.
Nunzio also is grateful for the availability of live Linux
distributions, and he thinks their importance often is
underestimated by long-time Linux users. He notes that a lot
of things that look trivial to experts actually are quite hard to
figure out for anyone who hasn't used non-Windows software before. In
this context, the possibility of testing a complete distribution
and then, if you want, installing it by running a single program that
"just does it" is a wonderful advancement. You don't even have to
choose applications, because all those already tested and appreciated
ones on the CD-ROM are available.
It is in this way that, slowly but constantly, Linux has become a
stable presence at F. Besta, at least in Nunzio's section. Of course, this doesn't
mean that free software has won the battle at ITC F. Besta. Far from
it; it still is necessary to work hard every day to make a permanent
impression on as many students as possible. As proof of this, Nunzio
cited the fact that one of the FOSS applications most important and
useful for everybody, OpenOffice.org, is on the CD-ROM he distributes but
normally is the least installed application once the CD-ROM goes home
with students. The reason? The simple fact is, because Nunzio doesn't
formally teach word processing and such, many students install only
the bare minimum tools needed to complete the homework he assigns, the programming tools.
As far as his coworkers are concerned, Nunzio faces the same
obstacles facing many other FOSS-friendly teachers worldwide. For
example, basic applications such as OpenOffice.org could be installed
and used in all classes, but this hasn't happened yet at F. Besta. The cost of
software licenses comes up every year, but so far it hasn't been
critical enough to start a switch. Thre's nothing special here; the reasons
are the same at most high schools worldwide and often have nothing
to do with proprietary versus free software.
In general, most teachers still look at software as a screwdriver, that is
a tool that should make you waste as little time as possible. In this
context, sometimes even the switch from one version of Word to the
next one is perceived as a radical one, so why bother with unknown
applications? It takes time to change such a mentality. In conjunction
with working on the school front, Nunzio and his friends have organized
Ragusa", a yearly event devoted to free software and
related IT topics, including networking, security and cryptography.
I mentioned to Nunzio that my hope and one of my goals in writing
these articles is to facilitate and stimulate contacts and
partnerships among Italian and foreign classes. I want people to share
and create together more and more FOSS applications and documentation. Besides
saving money and being an excellent way to learn, it would be gratifying for
students to see that FOSS can make they and their work immediately known
Nunzio admitted that he had never thought of this side of the game
before. He immediately took to the idea, however, and now he is
waiting for partners and evaluating what could be the best kind of
projects for such a cooperation. We agreed that the most useful and
interesting ones probably would be localizing in Italian some extant
FOSS programs that accountants need in their daily
work. This would make the whole concept much more appealing to almost
all the F. Besta students, as one could say, "See? This is how you could
start and run your own business tomorrow, without spending money on
As a matter of fact, Nunzio already was planning to suggest, in one of
his senior classes, the development of an accounting application written in
PHP. That would have been merely a toy project before, but now, Nunzio
says, if he and his students could find partners on-line, nothing
would prevent the creation of a real tool that actually could be used
in the workplace.
Suggestions are welcome, too, because the whole idea easily could be ported
to other kinds of professional high schools. In the meantime, thanks to Nunzio
for his work.
Marco Fioretti is a hardware systems engineer interested in free
software both as an EDA platform and, as the current leader of the RULE
Project, as an efficient desktop. Marco lives with his family in Rome,
Articles about Digital Rights and more at http://stop.zona-m.net
CV, talks and bio at http://mfioretti.com
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