At an ICT4Edu conference in Kyrgyzstan, I was treated to a yelling match between technologists and educators on the brilliance or foolishness of installing Linux-based computers in the Mega Билим project. All the usual arguments for and against Open Source came up.
Ubuntu Linux is free, virus resistant, and Open Source, which means volunteers could translate the user interface into Kyrgyz language. Yet teachers were trained on Microsoft Windows and students need to know Microsoft Office to get a job.
It doesn’t matter
Typically, the hard-core software developers demanded that schools should use Open Source so that students could learn how the software works and the developers could customize it, all without paying royalties to Microsoft or run afoul of intellectual property rights violations.
None of these reasons are worthy to choose Linux. If students are interested in software code, they can always go to the DOS prompt in Windows or run Scratch. The Kyrgyz Windows 7 Language Interface Pack was released over a year ago, and Windows 7 PC’s are competitively priced in the local computer stores.
No, it really doesn’t matter
Educators stressed that teachers already had extensive training on Windows software and would be confused, even lost, in the Linux environment. Students who learned Linux and LibreOffice would be at a disadvantage in the job marketplace as employers would only hire staff that are fluent in Microsoft applications.
Neither of these are valid reasons to choose Microsoft. All of the adults in the conference learned how to use computers back when Windows 98 was in vogue, some even started with Basic, yet no one complains they cannot use an iPhone, iPad, or even MacBook without training. By the time a elementary or middle school student graduates high school, there may not even be “computers” – iPads didn’t exist 3 years ago.
For students in high school, overall attitude and aptitude matters more than specific applications. No employer is going to turn away an energetic, motivated employee because they didn’t study Microsoft Windows 7 in school. In fact, a truly smart student would seek out experience with multiple software environments (operating systems and applications) regardless of the school’s computing infrastructure.
A better debate is…
Rather than wasting time in Microsoft vs. Linux, we should be focusing on what does matter and what is actually a harder question to answer: how can we create (and show) real educational outcomes with ICT? The big challenge is engaging teachers and students to learn math, language, history, etc, better and more efficiently using technology, not which code base we employ to do it.
So please stop debating proprietary or Open Source software. Let us start debating pedagogy, curriculum, and content, and the technology approaches that will help schools the most.