Linux in Italian Schools, Part 7: Teaching Free SW to Adults in Bari
In each of the previous parts of this series (see Resources), I presented a single Italian school, whether it be a high school or an elementary school, in which one or two teachers are using Free Software in their work with adolescent students. In the final part of this series, I instead describe how a group of GNU/Linux fans in Bari (the capital of Puglia) teach free and open-source software (FOSS) ethics and technology to adults.
Some time ago, the Commercial Technical Institute "D. Romanazzi" decided to produce a documentary that discussed the potential offered by new forms of teaching that involve students more than previous methods. The documentary will be distributed both on DVD and on-line. The project, whose total cost is estimated to be around 5000 Euro, originated from the participation of the Institute in the European Network of Innovative Schools (ENIS). After defining the video production environment, small groups of students will edit and assemble, with the assistance of both their teachers and external experts, all the selected multimedia content. The video also will include "backstage" sequences documenting how the students worked.
As stated, the documentary must show how new technologies make possible new forms of collaborative work, from teaching to production of didactic materials. This project has given Francesco Lovergine (firstname.lastname@example.org) and his friends of LUG Bari the occasion to offer an informative course on free software. (Let's hope that all of the DVD's content will be usable on GNU/Linux systems).
Another outcome should be the promotion of eTwinning, which is the main part of the European Union's eLearning program, as well as the general exchange of information and educational material. Institute Romanazzi also is involved in other activities in the areas of integrating pedagogy and information and communication technologies (ICT). To know more, contact Lovergine directly.
Teachers may not all be computer enthusiasts, but by definition, they have a job and an adequate general education. Other adults are not as lucky. Long-time unemployed people, people on welfare, illegal workers, inmates, immigrants, everybody who couldn't attend grade school at the right age--nowadays, without a basic degree and at least basic ICT skills, many of them could work only illegally if at all.
In Italy the guidelines for Education for Adults are defined in a State Plan that grants extra funds to the evening State Schools that implement projects centered on teaching new technologies. Scuola Media Statale, "G. Verga", is one of these schools, located in the southern outskirts of Bari. The school, essentially an Italian middle school, has a lot of adults students who are receiving basic education and training. Luckily, G. Verga has been equipped since 2002 with 10 computers, a Mandrake-based IT lab and, above all, teacher Francesco Loseto (email@example.com), himself a Linux user since 1999.
In 2001 Loseto and his friend Professor Vitantonio Tanzi (firstname.lastname@example.org) of Technical Industrial Institute "G. Marconi" presented a joint project that became the first course in Italy to receive the European Computer Driver's License (ECDL) for using free software. The proposal was approved as part of the Operative National Plans and was financed with European Union funds. (We discussed this plan in Part 5 of this series). The overall budget for the 60-hour course is around 11,000 Euros and includes tutoring during the course, advertising, baby sitting for single mothers and the initial counseling and capability assessment. When the first course was held in the spring of 2002, it had 15 students (about half of them women), but only 11 completed the course.
Following the initial course, Loseto and others have organized and held three more levels of courses for adult students. They have finalized four different ECDL levels and have no intention of stopping. In several cases, the final degree can be recorded in the certificate officially approved last spring by the Italian Government for this kind of data, the "Citizen's Personal Training and Education Diary" (approximate translation of "Libretto Formativo del Cittadino"). The same degrees also can be used as learning credits in high schools for adults.
Course durations range from 20 to 60 hours, depending on the context, but the basic formative goals are much more concrete than anything you'd find in an MBA curriculum. The bottom line is to develop the basic cognitive skills essentials to find, understand and produce digital documents, to communicate through computers, to pass the ECDL exams and/or to find a job.
The first module of the 2002 program, for example, ranged from teaching the definition of ICT and its influence on society and daily life to ergonomics and legal implications of computer security. The next module explained in detail how to create folders, what home directories and file permissions are and why, on Linux, disks have to be mounted. Immediately after this, students would learn what a graphical user interface is and how to choose one from GNOME, KDE and the others.
Another part of the course was devoted to how to read e-mail, send messages with or without attachments and organize them in separate mailboxes. The Text Processing and Spreadsheet modules explained things such as how to insert tables and graphics into text, perform a mail merge, use formulas in a spreadsheet and generate diagrams. Internet coverage was centered on finding information with search engines, navigating through Web pages and printing them.
For the first course, Tanzi prepared a small manual tailored to the actual needs and skills of the students. On another of his Web pages, Tanzi describes how he modified Knoppix so his students could have "a useful work and documentation tool for their school activities".
With such a particular audience, success or failure depends greatly on the students' first impression of the teacher and course and the capability of the teacher to meet the actual needs of each participant. All the adult classes at the G. Verga and G. Marconi schools include an initial phase of an individual customized welcome, during which each student may ask any question necessary to understand the actual nature, purpose and benefits of the course. The student also can use this time to negotiate with the tutors about how to adapt the program to his or her individual skills and needs. After this initial stage, almost all of the teaching has a practical orientation, using exercises at the keyboard to allow the participants to learn by doing.
Another aspect of these classes is the need to be realistic. In order to offer courses whose final minimum level is appreciated by employers, the selection process gives priority to those who already have some familiarity with computers. This is not left to chance, however. Separate short classes are organized at the course's entry level specifically for the purpose of introducing students to computers and teaching basic computing skills.
As obvious as it may be, the program cannot rely on the Internet to reach potential students. In Bari, they placed classified ads in community newspapers, put up posters in the town and sent direct invitations to people on unemployment lists.
Almost all of the teachers involved with the documentary project had no previous familiarity with computers. However, because the seminars were informative and not particularly technical, it was possible to involve most of them in the discussions. This was especially true when dealing with specific issues, such as free standards, proprietary formats, DRM and TCPA. As Lovergine put it:
for most teachers, just like all other users I deal with every day, even operating a mouse is problem, and in any case they won't read any SW manual or How-To if you point a gun to their head... No matter how much effort one puts in it, the first and most common reaction remains the sole equation free = free as in beer"
A more worrisome phenomenon that Lovergine sees regularly, although less frequently, is some teachers seem to be snobs about free software, although it appears that their snobbery stems from a genuine wish to give the best to their students. Why, these teachers ask him, should we relegate our students to some useless FOSS ghetto, when the mainstream and future of IT obviously is Microsoft Office, Visual Basic, Access and nothing else?
As I already pointed out, adults without a job or a decent education curriculum have particular needs and attitudes where ICT is concerned. Loseto's approach to counseling them is based on two kinds of answers. First of all, whenever somebody who comes to enroll in a computer class asks "Linux what?", he gives the student all of the necessary information but then invites them to follow the Windows-based classes instead. He does so because he finds it counterproductive to "follow a course on something you know nothing about only because it's free and you have the spare time". He also points out that some students, because he discourages requests without real motivations, end up learning more about the subject on their own and come back determined to follow the free software classes.
Those who eventually do participate in Linux training sooner or later ask some variant of "what is the real usefulness of Linux, since [for example] it doesn't support as much hardware as Windows?" Loseto's answer is that Linux won't be the solution to their employment problems. But, "if they can affirm during an interview that they know how to use an operating system that can reduce the risks and increase the competitivity of a business, they'll have more opportunities".
Lovergine, Loseto and their colleagues have been able to help many adults to understand free software and get the most out of it. They themselves have gained a lot of experience in the process. Don't hesitate to ask them how to launch and handle similar projects.
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.