Linus On GNU/Linux And Computers In Education

As part of an interview, Linus Torvalds mentioned some of his observations/opinions on GNU/Linux and computers in education.“It has been interesting to see how the fact that they are using Linux on their laptops at school really hasn’t been a problem. OpenOffice and various webby things just work fine, and I was worried there would be some situation where it would cause big problems.

I may be a huge computer nerd, but even so I don’t think education should be about computers. Not as a subject, and not as a classroom resource either.”
As so often, I both agree and disagree with him, almost in the same paragraph… 😉

It is good to know that his local school used GNU/Linux and OpenOffice before they moved to that community and that his children have no real problem using GNU/Linux at school. That squares with my experience over much of northern Canada. GNU/Linux just works really well for students and teachers. It’s fast, efficient and reliable so folks can get on with teaching/learning and not fighting software. The key thing is that GNU/Linux is affordable and schools can have about twice as much IT for the same cost as with that other OS.

Then he bursts my bubble by opining that computers aren’t a great resource in the classroom! Look at the alternatives, Linus: paper and talk/actions. Everyone loves talk and activities in a classroom. Those are the experiences that last a lifetime and pass on a lot of personal knowledge to students and among students. There’s no downside except that it’s a synchronous process. If activity X is happening and every student is expected to be involved then something else, Y, can’t happen even though Y may be more valuable to some particular student than X at the instant in time. Think snail-mail versus e-mail… Computers can do the synchronous thing or the asynchronous thing and at the speed the student can handle not the speed of the slowest student. Further, for a subset of tasks in the classroom, nothing beats a computer. Think finding, modifying, creating or presenting information to any size audience. There’s a reason computers are popular on the web. There’s a reason computers belong in the classroom. Of course, it takes good planning and thought for teachers to include IT but when well done, it pays huge dividends.

One thing that Linus seems to emphasize in this is the personal relationship between teachers and students, teaching students to be people, that sort of thing. There is a flip-side to that. Some teachers and students just don’t get along. Who knows why? Sometimes it’s a lasting first impression or one encounter that got out of control. Whatever. Sometimes a student and a teacher just don’t connect well. I had that several times. In one case, I sought advice from parents and a vice-principal and it was suggested that the student might be more productive using a computer instead of the usual classroom activities with talk/chalk and paper. Voila! The inhibitions of the student vanished and an amazing torrent of productivity ensued. At one point I thought she could not even read. She ended up with top marks.

For me there are two key reasons to use IT in the classroom. One, networks and hard drives are just so much faster than paper. Why waste time finding paper when a search engine can find information in a second? I think half my education was wasted just looking for paper. Think scanning tables of contents and indices at the back of a book v pressing “enter”. Imagine a student in a library with >1K books. Two, students have varied interests and abilities. Rather than learning at the speed of the teacher or other students, a student can learn at the speed of light with computers. In turn this allows a teacher to concentrate energy on slower students rather than doing Q&A with students who need lots of bandwidth and service. I first started using computers in the classroom up north where I often had multigrade/multilevel classrooms and needed 4 or 5 teachers in the room. Computers can fill the gaps very well. All it takes is a good plan to make sure everyone is on task rather than playing games.

There is always this difference between parents and teachers. Teachers are faced with 15-40 demanding or indifferent students in a room and must do his best by all of them. A parent often has 2-3 children and the older one helps out… It’s a different world with different problems and different solutions. How would Linus deal with 24 students in a high school classroom when only one or two could read half decently? I found the kids were mostly deficient in vocabulary so I broke them up into several groups and had them cycle through a vocabulary-building exercise on a cluster of computers over in the corner (my first GNU/Linux cluster served this role). In a few weeks students went from reading at a Grade 4 level to a proper high school level. All this from just learning 10-20 new words every day. While one group was doing that, I had the other groups working on other subjects/activities. It was a massively parallel processing classroom and it worked.

For actually teaching about IT there are two paths in our curriculum: specialized instruction/learning about hardware, software, programming, networking, databasery, etc. and general instruction where students learn to use IT in all their educational activity, the 3 R’s, physed, cooking, whatever. In both paths a lot of computers is better than few. For the specialized instruction one needs at least one computer for every one or two students. The usual ratio is 1:1, or a bit more so teachers can demonstrate on one PC or students can practice on others. I often had students actually disassemble the lab’s PCs clean and reassemble them. I also had a few additional PCs for students to learn about changing parts, networking or installing software. If a computer lab has the space there is a use for more PCs and servers. The more you have the fewer limitations there are. Now even virtual machines are a useful option. For the general instruction one or two PCs per classroom are not enough. There’s too much waiting happening. In the real world, every worker likely has access to IT. That is an ideal goal for regular classrooms. Some schools have 1:1 as a policy. That could be too much in an art classroom where most of the work is not done digitally but considering that the lab(s) should be included in the inventory, it’s not an unreasonable goal for most schools of size. A small school should definitely have a 1:1 ratio because it leverages IT to equalize most deficits in resources.

I cannot emphasize too much that resources on the web should be brought, carefully, into the classroom. Even a moderately large school may only have a few K books in its library but it’s easy to have many more on a server, fully indexed and ready to be found/read/used by students and teachers. Web services I often set up in schools included a search engine for documents and other data, an image database, a bulletin-board and/or Wiki, and a course management system. Who could not see these as valuable resources brought into the classroom at very low costs compared to having sets of books in each classroom? Better than paper, these can be interactive resources with students sharing and collaborating and building a body of knowledge reflective of the community of the school and the surroundings. For example, I was in one community where students and teachers had interviewed every senior in the community to document their knowledge/lives. Audio tapes were filed away never to be used again. Imagine those tapes transcribed and indexed on a server with images and video… Talk about warm and fuzzy aspects of education.

The bottom line is that schools should have as much IT as they can afford to get the job done the best way possible and thanks to GNU/Linux that is much more attainable than with that other OS.

See Torvalds says he has no strong opinions on systemd.

About Robert Pogson

I am a retired teacher in Canada. I taught in the subject areas where I have worked for almost forty years: maths, physics, chemistry and computers. I love hunting, fishing, picking berries and mushrooms, too.
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