Wednesday, June 13, 2007

In praise of open source

Thanks to a post over at Kairosnews, I learned about an article in Linux Insider about the use of open source software. As a computer user running Ubuntu Linux, using Firefox, OpenOffice, Abiword, Audacity, and many other open source programs, there wasn't a lot that was new to me. But it was an interesting read.

The first part of the article discusses myths about open source. One of them that I have heard over and over is
Myth: Students need to learn the standard applications.
When you look at the job ads out there, this would seem to be true. I have really been looking at job ads lately, and it is amazing to me the number that want you to be able to use specific Microsoft programs -- even down to Outlook. There is seldom a discussion of what one needs to be able to do with these programs, merely the requirement that you know how to use them.

My son was recently enrolled in a college level IT class where he had to use Microsoft Office products. I tried to convince him that he could do it all in OpenOffice; after all, how could the professor tell what program he had used to prepare a document? He did most of it that way. Some assignments, though, required a discussion of the process of doing something in Word, for instance. He had to borrow a computer for those assignments.

The article addresses this myth, saying:
Schools have a responsibility to give students the skills they need to succeed. By the time high school students get to the job market, today's applications will be antiquated. Students need to know how to use word processors to communicate and spreadsheets to explore numbers and graphs. Their technical skills should transcend the particular idiosyncrasies of the applications
I wonder, though, if it isn't our fear as older adults that keeps students using "standard" applications. For many of us, this is all we know about computers. We are still, some of us, a little afraid of the machines. So we stick with what we know. Until we break out of the mold, we can't really help our students do it.

While we can't expect schools to all immediately switch to open source, do you think it would be possible to introduce it slowly? Could teachers get permission to download OpenOffice, for instance, and use it with their students?

This brings me to another myth:
Myth: Moving to F/OSS will require retraining and relearning.
The author's response was:
People are often reluctant to try new computer programs, though most users find only subtle differences between one program and another. In the course of giving conference presentations about F/OSS, two computer coordinators shared stories of upgrading some users' Microsoft Office suite with, leaving Microsoft Office icons as the means to start In both cases, most users failed to notice that they were no longer using Microsoft Office.
So my challenge to you, if you are not using open source already, is to go out there and give it a try. Download a program and use it exclusively for two weeks. See if you don't like it.
It may take some getting used to, but it won't be any more difficult to adjust to than a Microsoft upgrade.

And if you aren't willing to do that, at least read the article.


Lesley said...

I'm seriously thinking about moving over to Open Office. Has your experience with it been all positive or are there any downsides I should know about? (I use M.soft Word a lot to correct students' work for example and I do that with the "track changes" function. I'd hate not to be able to do that any more).

Anonymous said...

I think that the author's aand your points about the older teacher's reluctance to try something new are well taken. Even though I'm a computer geek of the point and click generation, I still get nervous every now and then. But our students are learning new technology outside of class, so I'm not too worried--at least about most of them. I do worry about older, returning students who haven't got the means to afford their own computer.