Linux in Education: Concepts Not Applications

One of the biggest arguments used against Linux in grade school level education is that we aren't teaching kids to use the applications they'll use in the "real world". As the Technology Director for a K-12 school district, I've heard that argument many times. After all these years, I still don't buy it.

Truthfully, to really give kids a well rounded education, we should expose them to as many different types of technology as we can. Children should be comfortable using whatever tool is at their disposal to accomplish a given task. This isn't a new concept by any stretch of the imagination. For some reason, when it comes to computers however, the "Microsoft Mantra" is all too prevalent.

Think about some other subject areas:


Teachers begin at an early age teaching grammar. They start with the simple concepts, like differentiating between nouns and verbs, and move on to the tougher things. By the time a student is finished in high school, they've likely been given many different types of writing assignments. The concepts they've learned allow them to write well as they continue in life. Guess what though? I never once was taught to blog in school. It just didn't exist. Thankfully, because I was taught the concepts of writing and grammar, I'm able to pull off the crazy world of blogging as if I were specifically trained for it.


Just like with language, mathematics are taught with fundamentals. There are specific problems that are assigned (remember story problems?), but it's very clear that everything we learned in school was meant to be extrapolated upon.


I didn't go to the most prestigious school in the country. Heck, I didn't even go to the best school in the area. I am very certain, however, that no school assigns every book ever written to their students. Even if they did, more books are published every day. Again, it's the concept of reading that we learn, not specific books.

Driver's Ed:

My first car was a 1978 Volkswagen Diesel Rabbit. It was a 4 speed manual transmission, and had the touchiest clutch I've ever driven. In driver's ed, however, I drove a cute little Dodge with an automatic. Sure, when I finally got a car, I had to learn a few new things -- but my driver's education, and driver's license, prepared me perfectly fine. The rules, procedures, and yes, concepts were all the same.

So Why are Computers Different?

I think there are a few valid arguments for specific applications being taught in schools. For vocational programs, especially if they are computer related, a firm grasp of the specific applications that will be used is slightly advantageous. Even with that, however, it's important to teach concepts, because programs change all the time.

Higher level education (college, etc) is certainly the time to begin specializing in specific areas. Some of those areas require specific applications and/or operating systems. Accountants, for example, might be expected to know how to use Quickbooks. Graphic designers would be expected to know Adobe Photoshop inside and out.

At the grade school level though, we need to teach children not only how to use technology, but how to learn to use technology too. If we can offer students the use of Windows, Linux, and Macintosh, and be versed in Web 2.0, handheld computing, and application concepts -- we prepare them to succeed. Isn't that what we ultimately want for kids? For them to succeed in whatever they do?

Linux is the PERFECT tool for education. It plays well with other operating systems, and offers such a wide variety of applications, that it's silly not to expose children to its usage. Oh, and there's also that little thing called cost. For many schools, that alone can seal the deal. Linux offers more, costs less, and can even fit well with existing tools. Why in the world wouldn't schools want Linux!?!?


Shawn is Associate Editor here at Linux Journal, and has been around Linux since the beginning. He has a passion for open source, and he loves to teach. He also drinks too much coffee, which often shows in his writing.


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References, articles, etc.

Anonymous's picture

Need examples of businesses, countries, governments, schools, etc. using linux to convince others? Find all kinds of articles, references, etc. at:

MS Sells Ignorance

FredR's picture

Really, what are they selling besides ignorance? I mean, most people are really intimidated by computers and technology. Microsoft sells the warm fuzzies to these people. They sell the idea of "it's ok, we can help you cope with your non-knowledge of this field". I understand it. I don't know anything about automobiles. I understand the concept of the combustible engine, but really have had no interest in learning about cars. I feel a little intimidated when I bring my car in to get fixed. Is this guy going to pull a fast one on me? I don't know.

So I'm sure educators in many areas of the country are not concerned with real, solid learning. They're looking for the blanket, the umbrella solution. The idea of the computer nerd is still considered a niche, maybe only 5-10% of the entire population (at best). Let's face it, technology still isn't that pervasive.

Now technology is my life. I thought I worked for a technology company (and they've admitted they're not, and I've admitted I'm getting a new job). But to be honest, most people still treat me like I have two heads because I'm geeky. Sometimes I feel like I'm stuck in the stone age. I look forward to the day that it's second nature. And we're heading that way.

Oddly enough, I think the kids who take to this like fish to water will find out about Linux anyhow. They'll be the youngest of the revolution. It won't take much to convince them of the quality and honest efficiency of Linux (and open-source). In other words, future generations will take the engineering point of view for granted more than those of us who really had to specialize in it. It will become more commonplace and so called "technology" companies who want to pull the wool over everyone's eyes (and charge them for it) will be called out for exactly what they are ... glorified conmen.

-- FLR or flrichar is a superfan of Linux Journal, and goofs around in the LJ IRC Channel

I use Linux in a public school. Tough road, but worth it.

Anonymous's picture

I have converted two of my middle school's computer labs so that they dual-boot Linux/XP.
In my class, the seventh grade students use Linux exclusively.

Here are a couple of links:

School districts simply don't recognize the cost effectiveness.
As a taxpayer with a son in the public schools, I find it hard to believe that
the district in which he attends school finds it necessary to spend $1500 dollars per seat
in his computer labs. It limits access. Our kids deserve better!

Real Word Productivity Software

Sherry McVay's picture

From a school district that is now finishing their first year using Open Office instead of MS Office, I have heard the "real world" argument quite a bit this year. However for productivity software the answer is a little more complicated by recent ISO standards adoptions. At the very least training students for the real world will involve their need to be familiar with a variety of file formats. And at the most, it is possible that the MS formats won't even be around for these children. So I did a grid of the current software and what supported which standards. Open Office comes out on top, supporting the widest variety of file formats well. So I don't fight the real world argument anymore, I just explain how the software we use actually will prepare students for the real world better than propitiatory closed source software.

Lock in Catch 22

Anonymous's picture

Linux users are saying "get out of the 'lock in' and enjoy more freedom"

The current administrators are saying "we're locked in, and getting out is too difficult", cos we have already bought into the MS way.

Linux developers need to open up the educational market. Provide interesting and competative resources that can be run on Linux.

A huge number of educational publications are little more than Html and/or Flash information packs, wrapped up in an MS front end, typically the only restriction to running it on Linux.

Surely these can be usable on both systems, and still allow the producers to get a return for their time and effort.

Even better, would be for educational districts to identify educational needs and lead the market, rather than wait for the market to come to them. What better platform could be utilized than a FREE one?

I often wonder what could be achieved with some of the budgets, if the left hand spoke to the right hand, and district A agreed with district B to fund the creation of two seperate applications, and then share the results.... Hmmm?

Just now the only winner is MS. No one ever got fired for buying MS.

Doesn't mean its a good choice.

Concepts, not buttons

Manuel Montoya's picture

I think the "real world" argument is a wrong argument. Teach to anyone how to use a computer in the right way is about concepts and no about memorize mechanically specific sequences of buttons wich the children click on one situation. A person wich understand the text editor principals, (class styles and styles management mainly), will be confortable with Word, Write or WordPerfect. The same applies to spreadsheet or presentations or even vectorial and bitmap design. So you can get an excellent level on OSX or Linux or Windows. Of course internet is an advantage, but that is beer from other can.

Concepts & Data

groovemaneuver's picture

Hi Shawn,

I totally agree with your point that schools should be focusing on computer concepts and NOT specific applications. I think another oft-overlooked issue is that of data formats. The users where I work are routinely tripped up by ".doc" vs. ".docx" vs. ".odt" vs. whatever else. People never stop to think about data formats, and now both Mac OS and Windows do their best to hide file extensions from their users, further compounding the issue.

My office has launched a campaign within our organization to spur adoption of ODF and to educate the users about file formats. It's an uphill battle, as no one wants to go to a workshop about file formats, but without document standards, it's impossible to ensure the longevity of our organization's data.

However difficult the process of educating users may be, the long term benefit of standardizing on open data formats is a level playing field that allows users to stick with the OS and applications they are most comfortable using, as long as they can manipulate the data correctly. Our standardization on ODF means that students entering our college can use Mac OS, Windows, Linux, or any other platform that can deal with ODF.

My daughter is in her second

Anonymous's picture

My daughter is in her second year of school. Her class has just started using Vista machines with the latest MS Office installed. I asked why, and I got the same answer: it's what she'll be using when she gets a job.

That's ten years away folks. I seriously doubt it.

Not Teach, But Buy

Anonymous's picture

My wife reported to me several years ago that the elementary school technology school coordinator at the the school she taught at wanted to make sure all of the kids knew how to use M$ PowerPoint, starting at about 1st grade. Why?

Now, my mom is telling me that a higher up at her school want's to toss out the Apple laptops after 1 year's use -- because he doesn't like Mac. "Businesses use Windows," he says. So? Doesn't Mac run M$ Office? Aren't the laptops already paid for?

Anyone wonder why the cost of education keeps going up? Last I heard, it costs about $9,000 per student per year here -- other states are even higher. I know we need to application diversity in higher grade levels, but at the primary and elementary school levels, shouldn't we be satisfied with a good teacher and some computers that allow the kids to experiment?

1% home market share

Diego's picture

Give that about 1% of the market primarily uses Linux, while nearly 90% of the home market uses Windows, it's difficult to convince a school that it's necessary to teach kids to use Linux, command prompt, etc.. I don't think it's too complicated.

I began using a computer with DOS/command prompt when I was 3. Only for the last 10 years has Microsoft really moved away from the command prompt, and even then there are many valuable operations/tasks which must be done in the command prompt.

Still I don't expect a child of any age, nor adult in any non IT field to neccesarily need nor care for anything but Windows. I mean lets be honest, the vast majority of people do little else than use the Microsoft Office suite, browse the web, check e-mail, and send instant messages.

I believe that Linux courses should be offered in middle school and high schools elective courses. Then again how many 11-17 year old kids know what Linux is when they are registering for classes in school?

Much like you said, certain applications should be taught beyond the grade school level, well Linux will continue to regarded as a special skill until it becomes more mainstream. I mean if we require schools to teach Linux, then what? FreeBSD?

Re: 1% home market share

jhansonxi's picture

That's why my school only taught on Apple II systems. I didn't let that restrict my technology choices however.

If the schools are all teaching Microsoft Office then they are doing a really poor job of it. The capabilities of most users I deal with barely exceed Wordpad and Paint. Their documents exhibit the mastery of tab-and-space formatting, character-level styling, and graphics that cover the entire spectrum of 75ppi facsimile to gigabyte bitmaps - taking full advantage of their economy printers.

Re: 1% home market share

Galactic-ac's picture

I think you're missing the point though. Shawn isn't suggesting they start to teach the Linux command line (though I would have enjoyed some serious sed/awk action in high school), but rather that it shouldn't matter which applications they teach, as long as core fundamentals like how to operate a mouse, save a file, or press the spacebar are taught. It happens that open source applications present a highly cost-effective solution to this for highly budgeting-ineffective school districts.

Not Teach, but Use

Shawn Powers's picture

Heck, I don't even think schools need to teach kids to use Linux specifically at all. Just to use computers. A student that can use Gnome, KDE, OSX, etc, will be just fine on whatever computer they need to use in college and/or career.

I think we're past the point where we need to teach much that is specific to any operating system. Teach computer usage, and the tools (Linux, Windows, etc) are just details.

Shawn is Associate Editor here at Linux Journal, and has been around Linux since the beginning. He has a passion for open source, and he loves to teach. He also drinks too much coffee, which often shows in his writing.

educators in general are not even close to computer literate

Anonymous's picture

in San Diego, high school grads get little to no general computer skills training. They get training for "the Word" and or "the Excel". Yes that is how two different recent HS grads described it. I also know a number of college trained educators and they too were given no computer skills classes in college while getting the teaching certificate. They are very naive when it comes to anything outside of a couple of applications. I know one didn't even know what a print spooler was. That cost her a lot of paper.

It is no surprise such naive responses like, "it's what they'll use in business" and the like. These people have so little skill to begin with, putting something different in front of them is just going to make them look like a fool. They are protecting their own face/image so it'll take more than logic to win them over and you'll be very hard pressed to do this.

But, if you educate the educators, you will probably get much much further with the idea of teaching general computer skills instead of memorization of application clicking.

Teaching Concepts

Intrepid's picture

As a high school computer science teacher, I am often teaching 2 versions of an application at once. We alternate between Microsoft Word and Writer when I'm teaching word processing in Computer Applications class.

When teaching Computer Programming, I teach Ruby and Java under both MS-Windows, and Linux. For Ruby (Computer Programming 1) we use the Crimson text editor, and under Linux, we use KDE's Kate text editor. We've setup macros to execute the Ruby program within each editor.

For web page design, we use the same editors. Filezilla, under both Windows and Linux works great for FTP transfers.

I would like to teach database with something besides MS-Access. Will be evaluating Base this coming Summer.

Sometimes I trip myself up with this versatility, but concepts are more important than application specifics--and giving students broad experience will better serve them in the long run.

Not just Computer Science...

Ken Hansen's picture

I recently took a part-time job working at the local School District, and one of the things I found is that our district doesn't teach computer programming - there's no interest in it *here*. The local high school has a couple "Computer Labs" where an entire class can sit at computers, and each classroom has between 1 and 4 computers in it, including one for the teacher.

We are a "Microsoft/Apple" district, we pay about $64K/year for our MS licenses, and support about 1,600 end user computers, both in classrooms and in the various offices. We also have about 20-25 Windows Server 2003 machines running in the background for various activities. Our MS licenses give us all the MS applications, including server, SQL, and WinXP on the desktops across the district. We don't plan on going to linux/open source software anytime soon. Why? Because of the applications we run.

Many of our textbooks have on-line components that only run on Apple/Microsoft OS. Teachers see shiny new applications they want in their classrooms, but they only run on Apple/Microsoft OS. We'd like to reduce our MS license fees, but we'd have to completely revamp our classes to support a different suite of applications.

The big, no way it's ever gonna change application is our newly installed Student Information System - it handles all the records and filings our school district needs to generate, and it also only runs on Windows.

Computers in education is really much more than computer science classes and teaching concepts. That has it's place, but I think many districts are like mine, and they have applications embedded in the classes that will prevent us ever from switching platforms in the forseeable future.

Also, in the big scheme of things, $64K/yr for a district our size (over 4,000 students currently enrolled) isn't that much money - it is less than one fully-loaded head-count for a Linux administrator (fully-loaded means including benefits, etc.), and we could never fully realize those savings... The MS tax (if you will) per-student is about $16/yr, or about $45/machine, including OS, applications (MS Office, etc), and server software...

We're happy to explore/pilot Open Source options, but the teachers/administrators aren't pushing/asking for it (at least here). You want Linux to invade the education market in a big way, start writing/porting educational software applications to the platform and we'll see...


just because MS-Windows is entrenched doesn't preclude...

Arthur Marsh's picture

...alternatives, such as GNU/Linux, Solaris on the desktop.

I get that argument from the South Australian education system, but have seen healthier attitudes at the University of Adelaide and Flinders University. Although some back-end software may be MS-Windows hosted, effort is made (from the requirements that go out to vendors to in-house customisation) to enable client access from other platforms. At a student lab at Flinders, we used MS-Office from Sun terminals, and learned Java using JGRASP (see my home page for the link) which ran on a variety of platforms. At Adelaide, programming assignments for applied mathematics could be submitted in a variety of languages, limited only by why students had access to and what staff knew.

For the K-12 sector I would hope that concepts rule and that students are exposed to a variety of platforms and the importance of standards for storage, programming and interchange of data.

K-12 not just about concepts or platforms

Ken Hansen's picture

Fair enough, but shoving a technology onto a situation for the sake of using that technology doesn't really make sense. We have a group at our district that is fairly small (IMHO) for a district (two on-site techs that each cover two 400 student elementary schools, another on-site technician that covers the high school and middle school with nearly 2,500 total students, then we have a Windows "Server Guy", a Mac "Server Guy" both at the head office (admins of their respective platforms across the district), one fellow in charge of special projects/DBA (Student Information System, essentially all MIS functions of the district) then a department head that is also our "Network Guy".

Given our application suite, we can't/won't be dropping either Mac or PC platforms anytime soon, so to inject an open platform into our environment would require adding at least another head to the group, since neither the Mac not the PC admins would likely lose enough work to "pick up" the new platform in their spare time.

If we were to eliminate either platform (Mac or PC) and switch to, say, Linux, we could "re-use" the admin headcount from the displaced platform, but we would be shifting the burden of integrating the new platform into the coursework on to the teachers, which would raise costs as teachers don't create new courses on top of their full workload.

I like lots of platforms, I've owned and worked with all kinds of platforms in my career (from MVS down to the TRS-80, Apple ][ and most everything in-between), but these two platforms (PC and Mac) satisfy the end-user needs and the admin costs are reasonable (6 full time employees supporting over 4,000 users with over 1,500 desktops). If a teacher had a need for a different platform, it would be considered - but that has *never* happened. Ever.

If we offered computer science classes (concepts, programming, networking) then we could easily drop a room full of, say, linux desktops and install a linux server very easily - assuming the faculty didn't mind helping with the admin load, but that isn't the case.

A student that progresses through our entire program (K -> 12) will work with Macs from K -> 5th grade, then at 6th grade thru 12th they work on PCs. Our students know about platform choice (Mac and PC) already.

In our district, our computers support the educational goals of the schools, they are not the object of study themselves. From the majority of cases I've seen, when Linux is rolled into a district, it is becuase of an extreme issue in the environment - Zero dollars for IT, no mney for new hardware, software license costs are exhobitant, IT department left and need to start from scratch, etc. Happily, our district can afford to support/supply the tools our teachers demand, and that doesn't include open source OS - yet.

Ken Hansen

Was that tools or fools, Ken?

Graeme Harrison's picture

Ken said:
"our district can afford to support/supply the tools our teachers demand"
But I'm not sure if there was a typo, was that "tools" or "fools".

I think the maintenance of a large number of workstations could be decreased SIGNIFICANTLY by using the latest Ubuntu 8.04 with updates. Linux can now finally be handled entirely by GUI - ie without a single (necessary) reversion to command prompt/terminal session. Linux offers far greater security, ability to restrict users from 'upsetting' the install, and ability to reset to how PC was prior to mis-treatment. People tied up in M$ environments tend to forget just how much time they spend on individually managing each workstation! It tends to make you sound foolish, by saying you can afford that expense going forward.

IMHO, the One Laptop Per Child at US$200ea with OS and all apps and wireless auto updating will change things. While designed rugged for African villages, the low-cost rollout (no cables, no install, no nothing) will make the OECD countries reconsider why they spend $1k/yr per workstation (including licensing and maintenance).

But the biggest argument is that by exposing kids to the OS of the future, one without a support-ends date, you will be doing them a service. The M$ & Apple regimes survive on the mantra that software must be allowed to go 'stale' and cease to be supported, 'cause only then can you sell them the new version, and the business plan requires such built-in redundancy. It is so crazy as to give you things like Vista - bloatware beyond your wildest dreams - that you never wanted... and only the termination of support for XP this month will encourage users to switch. M$ OS usage would have been far lower this past decade if it were not for the 'forced bundling' of OS with new hardware, even though those users already had a valid OS licence. In many jurisdictions it was illegal, but it continued.

I think every school or educational organisation should plan on 10-20 OLPCs or Asus EE PCs (low cost Linux workstations) this coming year, and see how it progresses from there. Separately, every Dept of Education should issue a plan as to how to get schools, like all of government onto OSI document standards, which implies OpenOffice rather than M$ Office, no matter how 'bundled' the licensing.
Graeme Harrison (prof at-symbol

Love It!

Shawn Powers's picture

I love hearing teachers talk that way. You're awesome, FYI. :)

Shawn is Associate Editor here at Linux Journal, and has been around Linux since the beginning. He has a passion for open source, and he loves to teach. He also drinks too much coffee, which often shows in his writing.

IT in Education

Robert Pogson's picture

I have been a teacher for 12 years. I have used computers in education for 10. I have been a computer geek for 40 years.

We educate our children for the future, not the present. The argument about using "what's out there" fails immediately when Vista/Office 2007 are concerned. M$ is intent on maintaining its monopoly and raking in money, not educating children. Any attention they pay to education is just about making employees available to them and locking-in our children. It is akin to allowing a drug dealer to have an office on campus.

I have been using GNU/Linux almost exclusively in schools for 8 years. Young students have no problem picking it up. Older students find there are more tools in a distro than in what M$ pushes. I can have students work in the open-source manner in the lab, build servers, copy and distribute software simply and easily. M$'s stuff is a bureaucratic nightmare and not worth the trouble of getting a purchase order requisition. In addition, after acquiring the software from M$, you bear the burden of proving you have a licence for it as long as the stuff is contaminating hard drives. With GNU/Linux, we can easily incorporate donations, build our own machines, and , of course get better use out of them.

I use GNU/Linux terminal servers. I maintain one file-system and I can run a whole school of thin clients. M$ can do that too, but it takes many times as much RAM, and CPU to do that. That other OS is just not designed to be efficient in schools. For example, I have a lab of 24 seats at the moment. All the processes of all the users can run on one single-core Xeon with 2gB RAM. It would take 4gB to come close with that other OS. 4 gB is not a big deal but twice the seats on a server is. Last year, I set up a new school with GNU/Linux thin clients. We had twice the seats we could have had with M$'s stuff. GNU/Linux is made for education, although inadvertently. A multi-user OS with shared memory applications works well in education. All the arguments of the nay-sayers are irrelevant if you have not enough seats in the system. GNU/Linux and thin clients work very well. The clients last twice as long and require very little maintenance.

what educational software can be run on Linux?

Gary Phillips's picture


I've just taken responsibility for computer policy at a school in Northern India ( This school has no reliable electricity (solar panels are being installed this summer), no internet connection (ADSL expected soon).

Currently several hundred students share fewer than 10 computers running pirated copies of Windows/XP and MS-Office. My intention is to create thin client infrastructure for reasons of cost, ease of management and reduced power requirements.

Naturally this will be a Linux project but we will allow remote Windows Desktop sessions if there is a specific requirement (wanting to run MS Word doesn't count!).

My main concern at present is the apparent lack of educational software for Linux.
Please prove me wrong!

School Forge

Anonymous's picture

Educational software

Antonio De Luna's picture

Hi, try Edubuntu, You can easily set up a LTSP using it, it has a lot of educational software, and it's well documented.