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.
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!?!?