For some reason, Linux and education seem to go hand-in-hand. Some of the benefits of Linux make the association between the two very natural. First, it’s feature-rich – there are even several distributions targeted specifically toward education. Second, of course, it’s free – educational resources are not cheap, regardless if the school is public or private, and any price break is welcome. There is, however, the ever-present argument that the real world uses Microsoft products, therefore Microsoft products are what children should be taught in school. As the good people at The Linux Journal point out, it’s much more important to teach the concepts, than to teach just the applications.
The article points out several examples, but math is the most striking one to me. Math concepts can be applied to solve many different kinds of problems, sometimes in very creative ways. But if someone is only trained in a few specific applications of math, then his or her effectiveness is limited. Moreover, math is a building block to mastering other fields such as science, engineering, business and even music. I like studying statistics and economics, but my teammate at work who happens to have a degree in mathematics will quickly point out that these applications are subordinate to the greater discipline of Calculus from which many of their formulae are derived.
The difference between learning how to use a new tool and learning a new concept is the same difference between receiving training and gaining an education. How many times have you heard (or said) that algebra and history are not “useful” in “real life”? I can understand when such a claim is made by a sixth-grade student who has much time left to decide on a career, but I’ve even heard college students complain that their programs of study should focus on what they will “do for a living” and that all of the basic curricula should be dropped. “I’ve already taken that in high school!” they cry. What many students never come to understand is that by teaching you the same old things in new, more complex ways forces your mind to think differently, to grow.
I remember my Computer Networking class in the university. We spent much time learning the OSI model , differences between hubs and switches, the purpose of Mail Transfer Agents and the like. Many students in the class complained (some to the department head) that they were not going to end the semester with any hands-on skills, which is what they all expected. I was a help desk technician at the time and already knew how to network computers, but my network troubleshooting skills increased dramatically because I could visualize the models! I don’t do networking as a job anymore, but I can still “talk the talk” with the techies at work because the concepts haven’t really changed.
Personally, I think the *Office scenario is a weak one. If a young student in a Computer Literacy class (I suppose they still call it that) learns how to type, create spreadsheets and databases, and compile slideshow presentations using OpenOffice, how difficult will it really be to transfer those concepts to Microsoft Office products? Fundamentals that were once taught in these classes included BASIC programming and DOS usage. Forget the boss’s administrative assistant, where will the next generations of technologists come from?