Linux ,schools and zeitgeist

There is a flurry of activity within the Open Source world at the moment as it is dawning on everyone that the fabled “level playing field” promised before the general election which would allow SMEs and Open Source companies to...

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There is a flurry of activity within the Open Source world at the moment as it is dawning on everyone that the fabled “level playing field” promised before the general election which would allow SMEs and Open Source companies to compete with the proprietary software big boys is not going to happen.

The Cabinet Office’s deputy CIO told OSS (in Mandarin-speak) to bugger-off last week and set a classical heat-generating exercise called “show me the evidence” to keep them busy for a while. This is all very sad and I think the Linux Desktop has something to do with it.

For example I agree with the Daily Telegraph and Linux Format’s editor Paul Hudson that Linux is for “experts” not Joe Public. Unfortunately, paradoxically Linux desktops are now good enough and common enough to be easily shown to non-experts (ie most people) which unfortunately include chaps like our Cabinet Office Deputy CIO.

Non-experts however have very finely tuned antennae for the “next thing” (that’s why the buzz is all about 3D TV... nothing much else, despite the glasses) and experts by and large do not. Lets call it Steve Jobs’ syndrome.

You know the company “I want one of those”, well the Linux desktop for the average non-expert Joe is “I don’t want one of those”.... i.e. it’s a turn off, or even a threat. This is why nobody in the public sector is even attempting to adopt Linux on the desktop and why leading open source consultants are advising they don’t!

The Linux desktop is excellent but not desirable. This problem is and always has been central to the problems of education. What students need (decided by experts) and what students desire (decided by students) sets up a perennial tension.

A perfect example of this is afforded by looking at the pitifully low numbers of home grown students choosing Computer Science at university. It’s a demanding course and leads to well paid rewarding careers, clearly it would be a good rational choice. Media and Film Studies degrees are conversely very popular but irrational choices for future employment.

Clearly what is desirable belongs to popular culture not expert knowledge.

I want one of those.com

You know when you see the future, it’s hard-wired... mostly boy-DNA stuff.
You just know somehow.

Great examples from the past include: video conferencing (eg “Brains” on screen in Thunderbirds c 1960s); drug and sex culture ( Huxley Brave New World 1930s); communicators (Star Trek late 1960s); e-books (Hitch Hikers’ Guide c 1970s) to name a few.

I honestly felt I saw the future when I first saw SuperCalc, Windows 95 and the i-pad.

I am pretty indifferent to these.com

I have just returned to teaching post-16 students ICT, in a new fangled Academy no less, so I was keen to test drive the above thoughts and and feel for the Zeitgeist.

What a shock, no one gives a damn about the gadgets and software..no frisson, nothing. Windows, v Mac v Linux..no reaction. Blackberry v i-Phone produced a glimmer but neither were “cool”. Software like the latest Office 2010...get rea!... absolutely no feelings whatsoever.

Conclusion? ICT or “techno” is so mainstream that it is all but shorn of the magic pixie dust that enchanted the previous generation. So now, perhaps counter-intuitively, is the time for education to subsume IT into its subjects. The logic is slightly perverse but essentially it rests on the notion that ICT has passed from being a motivational sexy addition to engage children in learning to worthy essential in modern life... i.e. boring enough for school.

Subject based IT

To a great extent this is already happening, CAD occurs in Design and Tech lessons; Graphics in Art and design lessons and Multimedia work in Music and Media Studies are good examples of technology embedded into craft work subjects.

To a lesser extent, but one which is ripe to be extended, is the embedding of ICT A level activities such as work flow modelling, business models, software design, document management and database use into Business Studies where at a lower level all the usual Office skills naturally reside too.

It is the academic subjects like sciences and economics that are dragging their technological feet and are leaving the intellectual gap between using computers and how they work unfilled.

I was inspired by BBC article on the Bletchely Park initiative to teach computing to students using the old BBC Master PC and even more venerable PDP 8. They chose these machines because they were slow enough and naked enough for it to be clear how they worked in principle. This should ring a bell for all science students who have used “school apparatus” which originate quite clearly from the 19th Century for exactly the same reasons.

So it looks like Physics is going to be the subject that should pick up the ball. So physicists scavenge some very old kit and introduce the principles of computing to your students. I think it is probably futile to attempt to adapt Biology and Chemistry to the joys of computing the poor fit only lends itself to the “new and motivating ICT initiative” type of inclusion which we have agreed is over.

Economics on the other hand is perfectly placed. If one subject rules the modern world through its mathematical computer models it’s economics. So please Economists, your supply and demand graphs could be augmented with a bit of full-on modelling.

Conclusion

By accepting that the Zeitgeist that propels the desirable is an unreliable indicator of worth and that as ICT moves outside this realm an opportunity is created for its dissection into its constituent parts and inclusion into the fabric of school subjects.

In other words computing is old and boring enough to have earned its place in the mainstream curriculum.