Linux in Italian Schools, Part 2: ITC F.Besta, Ragusa
The 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 on-line. 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org), 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 section of 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 "Software Libero 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 on-line.
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 software!"
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, Italy.