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.
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.
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.
John O'Neill, deputy head of Computing and IT at Barnfield, told us a little about how Linux training became part of the prospectus,
"Barnfield College has been offering Linux training courses since 2004. Back then it was an in house-devised course running Red Hat 5.2. Over time we have evolved our provision to include a range of distributions including Damn Small Linux, SLAX, Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora and OpenSUSE.
"Barnfield College has always prided itself on offering courses at the forefront of technologies. In the early part of the decade the college was an established Novell house using Netware 5. Students were given the opportunity to build and manage Netware servers as part of their coursework. Novell's acquisition of OpenSUSE inspired the teaching staff to investigate this new contender to Network Operating Systems," he told us.
When we asked him what the biggest challenge had been in supporting Linux alongside more mainstream operating systems, his answer was a logistical one, rather than a philosophical one:
"The biggest problem to the teaching team has been the need for maintaining adequate Network Security on our corporate network, while gaining access to Linux repositories. This has been resolved by the introduction of a dedicated teaching LAN with its own access to the internet."
The breadth of Linux training offered at Barnfield is also significant, covering both user and administrator roles.
"Linux is integrated into the majority of our course provision and is used to teach students ranging from Level 2 user qualifications through to foundation degree and, of course, the vendor qualifications," O'Neill explained. "Interest in these courses remains high due to the tutor's passion and the ability for students to create their own distributions. The Barnix live CD being one such incarnation. This was developed by two of our 18-year-old BTEC National Diploma students back in 2004," he added proudly.
The Barnix distribution can still be found on Distrowatch, and despite being around six years old, still looks in good shape for a distribution built around a technology that's no longer available, in an attempt to ape an operating system that's no longer supported.
But it's the potential to access new technology without having to jump through software acquisition hoops that also makes Linux a good choice. As O'Neill put it:
"Linux gives our students unparalleled access to technologies ranging from VoIP through to in-depth security testing along with traditional desktop usage." This is why the college has extended its Linux courses to integrate LPI-based certification alongside the CompTIA accreditation the college has offered for sometime, as O'Neill explained:
"Following the inclusion of LPI with CompTIA, Linux+, which the college has traditionally delivered, now simplifies vendor certification for students, and not only meets the requirements of industry partners, but also gives a clear pathway to certification."
Which leaves the most important question. If you want your child to study Linux at their local institution, how should parents and interested parties make it happen?
"Colleges can use Linux across the range of their curriculum. It gives learners access to both GUI and command line interfaces, and even Microsoft is revisiting the command line with their Power Shell interface," he states.
"Tutors need to be aware that Awarding Bodies will accept evidence obtained from many different operating systems as part of their coursework. Students and parents can be assured that skills learnt through the use of open source operating systems and applications only serve to better demonstrate the breadth of knowledge they have of cutting-edge technologies used in all business sectors."
Case study 2
Another college that's taken Linux to its heart, and one that's making it a vital part of its curriculum, is Forth Valley College in Falkirk, Scotland. Like Barnfield, Forth Valley is another further education college that positions itself for school leavers, adult learning and employers, and offers a similar range of subjects to the Bedfordshire establishment.
We asked Tony Dyer, a lecturer at the college's Department of Applied Science and Computing, how Linux had made its way into the curriculum.
"We have always had a version of Unix to allow students to enhance their skill set." he told us. "In the last 15 years we have used Linux, starting with Red Hat to SUSE to Ubuntu and Fedora. We continue to believe that our students benefit from being exposed to environments other than Microsoft, as the workplace tends to have a heterogeneous rather than a homogeneous setup. The opportunity to offer our students a vendor neutral, internationally recognised qualification on top of their HNC/HND and other vendor qualification was too good to ignore."
Tony also believes that the current trend for cost-cutting could result in increased demand for Linux skills:
"In the current climate of austerity, we also believe that Open Source in general could prove attractive to businesses, and we can contribute by having trained and certified people available to meet business needs and the requirements they have to retrain staff."
Like Barnfield, Forth Valley has taken the decision to integrate the widely adopted LPI certification system into its training and qualification, and also cover a wide range of Linux skills and abilities. Dyer gave us an overview of what's on offer,
"Within our existing full-time computing courses, we are covering a large percentage of the LPIC-1 syllabus. And for students who complete their year successfully, we offer the chance to do a one-week intensive add-on course to cover the additional material to meet LPIC-1 requirements. We also offer the option to take the exams at our on-site test centre. In addition, there is an ongoing project at the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) to map the LPIC-1 onto a Professional Development Award (PDA) that would be standalone and part of the HNC/HND framework. We are also currently running an 18-week evening programme to deliver the material for LPI-101 and LPI-102 exams that together gives the student LPIC-1 certification."
Tony also had some strong ideas on whether there were any advantages that Linux might have over its competitors.
"We don't feel that it's a contest between Linux and Microsoft or others," Dyer told us. "The broader and more detailed the knowledge and skills our students have, the better placed they are to gain a good job."
It also appears that Linux training of the sort offered by Forth Valley will easily slot into existing established qualifications, such as an HND. This could be a definite advantage if your child is interested in pursuing a career in Linux, but can't find a course locally, or is worried that the eventual qualification might not be recognised by universities or employers.As Dyer told us:
"The existing HNC/HND framework covers about 80 per cent of the content of LPIC-1. It is hoped in the emerging new framework that all of LPIC-1 will be covered and will have its own PDA."
We then asked whether a student's Linux experience was more likely to be used for further study, or within the workplace.
"Industry is using Linux extensively as a server platform, and Google and others are putting Linux into mobile devices and smartphones." he said. "This gives further opportunities for our students to access employment. Students can use their development skills to program Linuxbased devices and their administration skills to configure and run Linux servers."
This means that Linux students are leaving college with a cutting-edge education that hasn't made any compromises. Or as Dyer puts it:
"Our students will have more opportunities to gain meaningful employment through having a broader skill set and a more comprehensive understanding of computing. We are committed to enhancing all our students's employability."
"So far, the students have been really enthusiastic and excited about what the training can offer them."
If you can't find a college or school close to you that takes Linux seriously, it might be time to get in touch with the people who make the decisions. If other colleges are making a success of their Linux courses, and integrating them into wider IT qualifications, then there's no reason why the same can't be done elsewhere.
You only have to prove there's enough demand, and without getting in touch and letting them know, many institutions won't be aware that there is.
Many of the colleges that we've spoken to are more than happy to help people who want the same level of coverage for their local college, and it's likely you'll find a great deal of support in local user groups and parent associations.
Many schools, for example, are happy to use the experience and services of professional parents to help improve the provision of technology and training to pupils.
And even if parents can't get directly involved with the education, there's still a great deal they can do to source, install and run PC hardware, and hopefully, Linux.
First published in Linux Format Issue 139
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