Schools should use free software because it enables further education, and critical thinking.

This article is about the pros and cons of free software, such as GNU/Linux, and how this software should be used or at least supported in education.


As noted in the about page, I go to the L&N STEM Academy, but not previously noted is the fact that we are a “1 to 1” technology school.

What this means is that each student has a laptop. More specifically, we each have a MacBook Air.

While I do appreciate the gift of the computer, they have restricted the installation and usage of programs, and most notably FOSS programs. This means they have given a free of price computer, but not a free speech computer. (If you aren’t sure what I mean, please see Gratis vs. Libre and What is Free Software?).

While free software is ideal, the best solution for educational institutes is that users be able to choose from a large number of supported system.

First, I will give some of the positives of an environment of free software, and then some complaints with free software.

During the complaints, I will offer solutions or explanations.


Positives

Free software sets an industry standard

There’s a reason so many companies use GNU/Linux.

It’s because GNU/Linux is so extensible, fast, and performant compared to other systems.

Almost all distributions of GNU work with each other. For example, if a student writes a word processing program, other students can use it quite easily.


It works better with education

There exist many distributions specifically tailored to education which schools can use.

However, students don’t need to all use the same distribution. Most programs are available to all distributions (as in all but a very few programs).

It’s also extremely easy to install programs (yes, even easier than macOS), because of package managers.

On Ubuntu and its derivatives, you open Ubuntu Software Center, and search for your program. From there, click install and it’s done!

Programs here are reviewed by developers who contribute to Canonical and go through a rigorous process to be accepted.

However, if you’d like to install a new program that hasn’t been accepted, you simply download .deb files, and double click them, and it opens the software center to install this file. School administrators can block these non-official sources.

Other distributions often have very similar software centers. For example, RedHat, Fedora, and the like have .rpm files instead of .deb files.


Users can customize parts of their installation

Users can customize their installation to become more productive, install custom programs, and even write their own easily.

Enabling students to be more efficient gives them experience which will help them in the “real world”



Complaints

We think that macOS is just better than GNU/Linux

Thats fine, and I would say it is arguably one of the best operating systems. However, schools should support any operating system and program choice in education. My personal computing needs tailor better to a GNU/Linux system which is more baremetal (I make software), but there are GNU/Linux distributions for lots of other use cases. Someone else’s use case, such as browsing the web, might fit all platforms equally well, and others, such as playing video games, may favor Windows and macOS over GNU/Linux.

However, for education, GNU/Linux has plenty of support for educational use cases. And lots of programs, such as Google Chrome, Spotify, VSCode, and many others are available on Linux.

I would like for schools to support all operating systems so students may find the one best suited for their use case. This was, students learn about computers and increase their computer literacy.


Some programs are not available which are in macOS/windows

This is one of the biggest problems people have with free systems like GNU/Linux.

However, there are always alternatives in the free market, lots of which are actually better, or at least a decent alternative.

For example, typical proprietary software dealing with 3D modeling would be Cinema4D, or Autodesk. Instead, we can substitute Blender, which is free, runos on macOS, Windows, and GNU/Linux distributions. Additionally, it has more support, and more active forums, and has been along much longer.

Also, Adobe’s suite of programs, such as Photoshop, Flash, etc.

Photoshop can be substituted with GIMP, which is a decent alternative. In an article comparing the two, the author makes quite a few points which validly support Photoshop. Our school, like many, get a subsidized package from Adobe so that we get the program at a discount. However, for what students do, GIMP is quite sufficient. We have to remember, school is for kids to learn, not be “professionals” (see note at bottom of article).

Flash should not be taught as a new skill. I know some educators even at my own school will start saying I don’t know what I’m talking about. But actually, they just don’t stay informed on Flash. Even Adobe says it’s time to move on. After this announcement, it is clear that no new content should be created in Flash. Instead, Adobe and others believe we should be working towards HTML5, which you can develop on all platforms. In some cases, it’s easier to develop using GNU/Linux (using packaging systems such as npm).

I’m not going to say that every alternative on Linux is just as good as the one from Adobe, or Apple, because some just aren’t. There are plenty that are better than proprietary versions, and plenty that are worse. We don’t need the absolute best tools in every case, especially when we can get just as good results from free software which runs on all platforms.

Result: While some programs are not availabe on some operating systems, classes should be, in general, concept based rather than software based. The concept should be taught, while the program employed should be the user’s choice, and most classes should not require a specific operating system.


GNU/Linux has a learning curve | Kids won’t know how to use it

While this used a lot, it’s just not true. The truth is, Linux has been getting easier and easier as the years go on. I recommend reading that article to soothe your fears about linux and usage. With EdUbuntu, or Ubuntu, using GNU/Linux is actually very easy.

However, a suggestion I could make is that students who are truly more comfortable with macOS or Windows could be able to use their operating system in whatever class, and that an IT professional could help them the same as users of other systems.


Linux? Isn’t that what hackers use?

Well sure, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t teach it.

Also, watch out of Lunix! (Satire).


What is so bad about getting free laptops?

And that in and of itself is not a bad thing!

Getting something for both gratis and libre is fine, or even one or the other. Or neither.

But, where I have a conflict is that this is used in public education. We are requiring students to sign up for Apple/Itunes accounts in order to receive an education. We could be using free systems, and enabling students to do all the things they do now, an even more. By allowing students to download extra applications, and customize their computer, we allow them to go further than the classroom. Alternatively, we could support multiple operating systems which students could choose from.

Also, Apple’s computers are “locked down” so to speak. For example, my school disallows downloading all applications except a very select few (known as “self service”), and this restricts users of these computers. For example, I would not have been able to write almost all the software which comes from Chemical Development, including the website, or even this site. Sure, macOS works fine for sending emails and browsing the web, GNU/Linux can do that as well. It’s what you do beyond that that’s important. And GNU/Linux lets you program, design websites, and more, and lets you do it easier than macOS.

Also, macOS does not help computer literacy nearly as much as GNU and Linux systems. Computer literacy is an important skill in today’s market, as knowing how to learn new programs makes you adaptive to changing circumstances in jobs which require new programs to be learned. All the while, the Apple CEO isn’t sure why anyone would need a PC. That’s the big difference, Apple and large companies are in it to make money, whereas free software promotes education over profits.


We’re already using computers with macOS/Windows, so why change?

If your school is already running with macOS on MacBooks, then you may want to stick with them. You can, however, install GNU/Linux on macbooks, and they work quite well.

Any computers running Windows can also run GNU/Linux, and they only need to be installed. Any IT professional worth their salt could do this, and ours is a Linux user himself. In my school, if we were to adopt this path with our MacBooks, I would donate my time to helping set them up, if only for a few students.

What I might suggest to schools already with macOS setups is that they make GNU/Linux another option. For example, they would not make it mandatory, and that students could choose between macOS and GNU/Linux, and if they’d like GNU/Linux, the IT professional would help them set it up, and the more experienced students could also help as well. This way, kids are free to stick with something they know, or try something new. This, I think, is the ideal scenario: students can choose macOS or GNU/Linux or Windows, and are not forced into picking anything, and the school supports all choices (within reason, of course), by making the IT staff available to help students, and classes that don’t require any specific program.

For example, a logo design course would no longer require “Adobe Photoshop”, but rather an editor of your choice. The class should focus on the priciples of design, rather than using a specific program, and a computer science course would not mandate the language used, or the IDE used, but rather just require source code that can be built on any platform the school supports. There could be classes which specialize in a single program or language, such as “C Programming Course”, or “How to use Adobe Photoshop”, but these would be outnumbered by generic classes on subjects rather than programs.



Resolution

While free software is the ideal choice for education, I believe that schools may also support all kinds of operating systems in order to create a system where learning is easy, and students are not limited by a single operating system or single program. By hiring extremely competent IT professionals (Our main IT guy is great: Shoutout to Mr. Colby), and having an open environment where students can choose their operating system and programs, we can further both computer literacy and what the student is using their computer to learn about.


Thank you for reading,

    Cade Brown


Any questions, comments or concerns about this article can be sent to:

cade@cade.site


Any questions about the use of GNU/Linux or other free software in education can be sent to:

education@gnu.org


Notes

I made a mention in the article about being a professional as a student

Being a professional

Lots of schools, mine included, love to say that students are “professionals” in order to seem like we are teaching them skills. This is misleading for a few reasons.

  • Kids rarely actually get industry jobs in High School.
  • Kids should be learning, not selling

Schools should be a place for education, not jobs.

While a few kids will get jobs (as some of my friends have), the primary goal should be learning.