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Mark Taylor

Written by staff at Sirius Corporation, the Open Source services group, this blog seeks to dispel any FUD around the use of Open Source software in the Enterprise and provide perspectives on business, economics, politics, philosophy and the environment.

Linux fights Creationism in UK schools

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It hurts to say this, but in the early 2000s you knew where you were when it came to school PCs. We all used Windows 2000 Pro.

It worked OK and countless children and their teachers based their understanding of ICT on it. It was also at this time that Exam boards and accredited agencies created numerous schemes of work and certificates to prove how ICT as taught in schools was in tune with the real world.

Schools like their computers to be predictable. Many teachers, administrators and students who obtained their ICT 'competence' certificates between 2001 and 2006 felt secure in their 'learn-once, use-forever' skills acquired on what appeared to be a 'final' version of the PC.

Sysadmins for their part loved Win 2000 and proudly bearing their MSCE certs were slowly rolling out the XP upgrade (after all XP is not too different to Win 2000).

But in 2007 XP was ruthlessly deprecated by Bill and Steve in favour of Windows Vista. Or so it seemed.

The trouble was no one in charge of schools actually wanted Vista or could use it on their hardware. At much the same time super cheap Linux sub-notebooks aimed squarely at the education sector exploded onto the scene. These devices are already springing up in the very middle of the mainstream and can be found not only in PC World but also at Toys 'R Us. You can even get one from Tesco's through their link with RM plc!

The Tower of Babel

I do love Linux, it's so..., well..., so not-boring. The laptop I am writing on is using Fedora 9 and KDE 4, my big laptop is using Ubuntu's Hardy Heron with all the 3D twirly bits on a Gnome desktop, my Asus EeePC sometimes uses Xandros' Easy interface and sometimes good old Puppy Linux (soooo fast) and I'm not sure what my Elonex One is running. I nearly forgot, my Mac-book, it's running an OS named after a large cat.

To cap it all, this month's Linux mag shows yet another small laptop, this one from Gdium is booting Mandriva Linux from a USB-stick and so doesn't even have an OS installed, embedded or otherwise: I need one of these sticks.

You will soon get where this is headed. I love this rapid spurt in PC evolution, but to a school or any big institution such diversification looks like the Tower of Babel; they'll not be happy.

Creationist vs. Evolutionists

I would posit, with some 30 years experience as a school teacher, that schools are by and large 'ICT Creationists' by disposition. 'ICT Evolutionism' with its fits and starts and sheer pointlessness is unlikely to have any real appeal.

A Creationist-deity approach to ICT: on the day (late in the week) God-Bill created Windows 2000/XP he saw that it was good and would no doubt have rested there with his finished work. Unfortunately, because of not really being God and therefore not omniscient, he forgot that he had already created the upgrade cycle on the very first day and so after a day of rest, reluctantly and against his better judgment made to start over again. I think this twist on the creation story would have had interesting consequences if applied to humanity but we should digress no further.

Evolutionary-Atheist ICT: Note how the changes in ICT happen - sometimes rapid, sometimes slow; sometimes you think you can see a purpose and a direction then it veers away or even goes extinct; suddenly new species pop out of unpromising beginnings; sometimes even mighty, unchallengeable dinosaurs die quite suddenly. No doubt Darwin would recognise this pattern well.

If you were an ICT user in a school for the stable period mentioned at the start of this article you could not tell (during the dominance of Win 2000/XP) whether the stable status quo existed in a regime of creation or evolution, to all intent they would appear the same.

Well now we all know which it is. The 'Creator' has retired and the dinosaur is dying. All sorts of odd creatures are evolving pretty fast. Real world computing in education is becoming highly diverse after a period of relative stability, not least as my own eclectic collection of OSes illustrates.

Such a situation though will not do in education. The emphasis in this sector is on delivering standard products measured against fixed criteria. It comes as no surprise then that the usual response from pedagogia when faced with the messy diversity of the real world is to develop a parallel but more controlled world.

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