Linux Is Ready for Education, But Education Isn’t Ready for Linux

Over the years I have been an on-again, off-again user of Linux. I find Linux so interesting, but in my mind it has been hard to embrace it as an operating systems for mainstream users. Of particular problem has been installing or making any changes to software configurations and making Linux work with available hardware.

We have an older 3+ year old Toshiba laptop that was low-end even when we bought it ($350  new–we had purchased it just before the netbooks started appearing). I threw a version of Ubuntu on it, and it was somewhat functional but a little frustrating–you needed to know certain command lines for some tasks, especially updating or installing software. I had to spend a lot of reading time to get the wireless to work, and even then it was not always consistent. My kids never really did become serious users. Later we bought Acer netbooks and they lost interest in using the Linux laptop.

Recently I had been reading such positive reviews about Ubuntu 10, that I decided this weekend to try it out. I used http://unetbootin.sourceforge.net/ to install from a USB stick which worked quickly and easily.  I must admit,  I am quite impressed with how well this version of Ubuntu handles common tasks compared to the older version. I was particularly impressed with wireless connections–it automatically transitions between wired and wireless connections seamlessly. I also got it set to print to my networked laser printer very quickly. What a difference compared to the older version! It also connected immediately to my Windows home server, and I was able to access files easily.

With a significant core of software immediately available from the moment of  installation–like Firefox as a browser, Open Office for productivity, a variety of tools for a variety of media– I think Linux has evolved to become a compelling option for educators. I haven’t used it on a variety of hardware, and I really haven’t used it long enough for a full review. But based on this first impression, Linux may finally be ready for the mainstream user.

Besides the improved user interface, there are several compelling reasons for education to look at Linux. As all schools will eventually move to some kind of one-to-one setting, lower cost options on many machines can multiply the  savings dramatically. Many netbooks have lower powered processors which is where Linux shines, especially compared to Windows. As more and more web 2.0 tools become mainstream in education, the most important feature of an operating system is a viable browser. With the savings on the OEM cost of MS Windows and Microsoft Office, it seems such a no-brainer for schools strapped for money to take another serious look at Linux.

But even with the ease-of-use issues disappearing as a barrier,  I question whether schools will seriously consider it as a viable option on a widespread basis. It has been my experience that too many tech people are willing to stick with the tried and true–only a handful actually make the effort to look for new alternative options. That seems counter intuitive–you would expect a higher percentage of techies being mavens, wanting to push the envelope more than general population, but that has not bee my experience. It also takes a shift in your whole approach–Microsoft’s entire approach is around permission management and control. Even in situations where non-Microsoft options win easily on usability and function, many it people still choose Microsoft (have you ever used Sharepoint wiki against any other web-based wikis? It sacrifices a a simple user interface for permissions management).

I am not saying everyone should embrace Linux, but this hesitance to explore viable low cost solutions represents a bigger problem with the educational system: lack of flexibility withholds powerful learning tools (and learning opportunities) from students.

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