Linux in education: a genuine alternative

People who have made free software work and pay in education

Using free software in education is not just about saving money. It's also about preserving choice, not locking a student's experience into a certain way of doing something.

With Linux, there's no vendor lock-in. Free software is more likely to be open-standards compliant, and it's going to be more open to different languages, localities and curricula.

It also removes what can sometimes be a barrier to learning; using the same software on your own machine at home. And because there's usually more than one piece of open source software for a job, free software makes it easier to broaden your experience and look at a variety of methods for completing that job.

All of which is essential in a world where technology is turned on its head every five years and where training needs are so unpredictable. It's also never too early to start training in IT skills, and in the UK at least, computer training starts for many at primary school level.

For some, this will be their first experience of a computer. It's also likely to be the first time they've had any kind of formal training on how to use one, and these first impressions are going to last. So there's a strong argument that teaching should be as unbiased as possible.

Yet for a variety of reasons most schools favour Microsoft. There's nothing wrong with this, as experience with Microsoft's ubiquitous products is never going to be wasted, but as Linux users, we all know there might be a better option.

Linux and open source offers a genuine alternative, with many advantages over proprietary training that aren't costrelated, although there's no reason why this can't be part of the overall solution.

Early starter

The best thing about Linux training in education is that there are already people doing it. There are establishments up and down the UK that have decided to include Linux on their syllabus and make a concerted effort to provide their students with the choice.

So if you're a parent frustrated with the lack of options for your child, or you're maybe a student who wants to learn Linux skills from the outset, there are places to go and people to speak to. They may be able to help you make the difference. But even if you can't influence the training regime at your local establishment, Linux can still play a part.

Unlike in schools, Linux and open source software isn't badly served by professional training. It's this kind of training that pits Linux against Microsoft's certification, and it's the kind that prepares IT people for the real tasks they face while dealing with Linux systems.

The Linux Professional Institute, for example, has been dishing out qualifications for over 10 years, and its LPI certification levels have become something of a standard for Linux system administrators.

LPIC-1, for instance, covers all the basics of running and maintaining a simple Linux system, from dealing with the command line and helping new users to installing, configuring and connecting a workstation to the network. But more importantly, you don't need any prior experience before starting on the course, and this has made it a great entry point for some of the more adventurous schools in the UK.

Case study 1

Barnfield College in Luton, Bedfordshire, is an establishment that offers plenty of further education opportunities for students to take on to a university or workplace. The college has a well-established computing curriculum, including all the common Microsoft applications, web design and data management.

Barnfield

But more interestingly for us, it also offers a comprehensive range of Linux courses, including an Introduction to the desktop, and uses Linux as the basis for some of its web development programmes.