Frequently, in online discussions of the putting of Linux and/or open source in schools, the idea of preparing children for the Windows-dominated workplace comes up. The idea is that most workplaces use Windows and Microsoft Office and will sometimes even require proficiency in certain Windows applications, so how would putting Linux and open source software in schools prepare children for using Windows software in the future?
In “Should students learn Windows? Or Mac? Or What?” Scott Granneman points out rightly that technology changes quickly. Most of his examples have to do with changes in interface (Mac OS 9 is not like Mac OS X), but technology changes are far more drastic than mere changes in interface. I grew up in the 1980s using all sorts of computers that are out of fashion now (the colors were green and black or yellow and black on monitors), and finished my pre-university schooling before Windows 1995 was popular. Never was I taught to use Microsoft Office or any modern Windows interface. In high school, I took one computer science course, which trained me in Pascal, a programming language almost no one uses now.
Somehow, though, I’ve managed to actually get jobs and function in them, sometimes even excel in them. Now, more than two decades after my first exposure to computers, I use Windows XP and Microsoft Office five days out of the week and also use FileMaker Pro and Mozilla Firefox, two programs I’d never used in college or high school. In fact, in college, I could barely find anything on the web, because I had dial-up, and Google didn’t exist. Now, I can do mail merges, create pivot tables, and find information quickly on the web.
Technology changes quickly. It surely does. It really doesn’t matter, from the standpoint of preparation for the future, what operating system or software you use with children in schools. Do you think I’m still using turtles to draw colorful lines all over a tiny black screen now? No. Did all the F-keys I learned to use in my mouseless word processor in high school (I used a program called T3) help me with Microsoft Word later? Well, not directly.
What’s important to teach children is curiosity, not to be afraid of tinkering with things, the playfulness that computer software allows. You have to teach kids to be resourceful and get to know different tricks with whatever software you put in front of them. Do not have them memorize steps (click on this menu, then this menu, then this menu). Have them learn concepts. Really, this is what more schooling (not just from a technology standpoint) should be about.
If you stuck me in front of a program I’d never used before, it wouldn’t take me long to figure out its basic functionality and even how to get things done quickly with it. So putting Linux in schools shouldn’t hurt children’s chances in the workplace if you teach them concepts instead of memorization and exploration instead of rote instructions. And, who knows? Maybe they’ll be using Linux in the workplace twenty years from now anyway. Or maybe desktop/laptop computers as we know it won’t even exist at that point. We’ll have some new technology that’s even better, even more intuitive.