Friday, February 17, 2006

Technology in Schools (Soapbox Alert)

Some background: I helped organize the Open Source Pavilion at the NECC show in Philadelphia last summer, and expect that I may have a similar role this summer in San Diego. NECC (National Educational Computing
Conference) is run by ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education). In March I'm running an 80-computer Open Source Pavilion for CUE.org, the California branch of ISTE. All with used computers--48 in Linux thin client, and 32 as standalone "WebStations" (see www.LiveKiosk.com). We've made some progress in showcasing Free and Open Source software, and you can see the speakers I've arranged for that at http://www.cue.org/conference/opensource/. You can also see a map I started of thin-client Linux installations at www.k12ltsp.com, and in the past few months I've had a couple of articles published about Linux thin client.

What's fascinating to me about all of this is that for all the good publicity that we have gotten, for the great presence at these shows, there feels like there is much less momentum for Open Source software in schools that there should be. With some limited exceptions, our clients tend to be private or charter schools with so little tech funding that they try our Linux solutions (www.technologyrescue.com) out of sheer desperation--and then discover that they have found something worthwhile.

There's a bigger story here--a la "The Emperor Has No Clothes"--because US schools have spent incredible amounts of money on technology and then we find that business leaders are lamenting the fact that few come out of high school with any real technical skills. I don't know how we could expect to get any other result when we spend prime dollars on cutting edge computers and software, but a program like Apache, which runs 70% of the world's web servers, is virtually untaught in schools. A student who has learned Photoshop or Publisher on a P4 computer may have had fun doing so, but the student who has learned to set up a network and run Apache on an old P2 will likely have a job right out of school.

Now, this isn't just the fault of the companies marketing to schools, it's also the fact that in the US we shirk from teaching the basics and like to believe that we can solve our problems in one fell swoop with some technology advance. Give every child a laptop, we cry, and all our problems will be solved. But use our old computers to learn MySQL, or PHP, or Samba, or Apache, or Python--well, that's a hard sell. And there aren't many teachers who could teach these programs. And to be fair, most parents don't know enough about real computer technical skills to know what to ask the schools for--and so, the standard measure of success becomes the "newness" of the technology.

If this sounds like a soapbox speech, it is. Do I have a good answer? I don't. I think that our kids here in the US are going to lose jobs to kids who are learning real skills in other countries with used hardware and open source software. I look with fascination at South Africa, Chile, and Spain, where Linux is being adopted in schools in large ways--and I think of students who will be exposed to Linux and open source and have the chance to really learn how computers, and networks, and the internet work. Just look at the list of sponsors for the Ed Tech shows--are they going promote the free software that might also really benefit students? No, because in a selling environment, they are going to promote the solutions that they have, and it's hard to blame them for that. Unfortunately, as long as schools have large amounts of money to devote to technology purchases, I think we'll keep operating on the assumption that newer technology equals a better education.
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