Linux education: A lesson to be learned

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It's over now. The first adult continuing education course in Linux, part of a series of courses offered by a partnership between the CTTC (Community Technology & Training Center) and CATF (the Capital Area Training Foundation) in Austin, Texas, has been completed.

The class met twice a week, Mondays and Wednesdays, from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. at Travis High School. It was taught by a group of volunteers recruited from the Austin LUG and, by all accounts, it was a huge success. But the road to the finish wasn't all that smooth. There were a few bumps along the way and lessons for everyone.

I wrote about the beginnings of this class a couple of months ago, and a brief history follows. At the urging of several members of the Austin LUG and especially as a result of Dr. Phil Carinhas's offer to use his professional curriculum as a starting point, the CATF decided to offer a Linux class. The students are newbies but have completed other CATF classes that have introduced them to keyboard, mouse, monitor, and Windows. Other advanced courses cover topics such as word processing, HTML coding, and the Linux introduction. The wily Ms. Gress (aka Ms. G), gathered up a handful of volunteers to teach the course in a visit to one of the LUG's weekly meetings. That got the ball rolling and the first class was held Oct. 16 and the last on Nov. 15. Five weeks, two nights a week, three hours a night -- not a trivial commitment for students or teachers.

To CLI or not to CLI

The curriculum was ambitious. It also provided the major bone of contention that arose among the LUG volunteers during the class. Should a CLI environment, including some shell programming, be included, or should the whole class be taught from within the training-wheel-like security of a (almost) familiar GUI? There was no bloodshed, but there was considerable heat in the debates over that issue. Some felt it would be too difficult and drive the students away. Others felt that teaching Linux without an introduction to its CLI would be like teaching history without covering anything prior to 1999.

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Linux forums In my mind, the debate was actually over a lower-level argument that people weren't consciously raising: Is Linux too difficult for normal users to grasp and learn to use productively? My dweebs, I am most happy to report, based not only on my own feelings on the subject but on the success of the initial class, that that was not the case. Next issue, please! What were some of the topics we did cover when we weren't arguing? Good question. The class covered the nature of a multiuser operating system, logging in, command structure, the

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utility, redirection, pipes, the Bash shell, paths, groups, permissions, foreground and background processing, editors, mail, grep, and even regular expressions and a little bit of shell programming. But it wasn't all CLI.

The classroom machines were set up to dual-boot. LILO's default OS was set to Windows and given a very short fuse. That allowed high school school students to use the same machines during the day in their normal (!?) environment in an almost transparent manner. The volunteers decided on Mandrake as the distribution we would use. There were minilectures on Netscape, Lynx, Internet resources, the history of GNU/Linux, and the philosophy of free software and open source. Volunteers whose sysadmin skills are not as sharp as some of the other volunteers (in other words, volunteers like me), could participate by doing a demo or giving a minilecture during the evening. Those not actually teaching on a particular night often came to class to give one-on-one support during the class exercises.

Class, we have a special visitor tonight

We even had visitors in the classroom. One evening a group of federales from the Department of Education peeked in the door. They were doing a tour of all the computer literacy classes being offered by CATF-Austin. I heard one of them explaining to his cohorts that Linux was an "alternative operating system" that was very reliable but very difficult to use. It's a pity he couldn't have stayed around for a few more minutes. Perhaps the students could have disabused him of one of those notions. But they weren't our only guests.

In a fit of madness, I had invited Linus Torvalds to drop by and visit the class. Poor Linus is so overburdened with requests such as mine that I doubt he ever saw my note. It's not easy being a legend in your own time, especially while you're trying to do other things such as raise a family, earn a living, and get another release of the Linux kernel out the door. That's a shame, too, because I think he would have thoroughly enjoyed the visit had he been able to stop by. But through a bit of really good luck and the graciousness of another Linux luminary, I did surprise the class one night by showing up with Jon "maddog" Hall.

Mister Dawg was in Austin to give the keynote at a local high-tech show, and I happened to bump into him there at the LUG's booth. I mentioned the class that night and asked if he would like to stop by. To my amazement, he said that he would. I promised to pick him up at his hotel and deliver him to his dinner engagement immediately afterward.

The class -- there were perhaps seven or eight students that night -- adored him. He sat down with them in the classroom and joined in a delightful conversation that ran about half an hour longer than he had planned. They (OK, it wasn't just the students, it was the volunteers as well) just wouldn't let him go. To tell the truth, I think he enjoyed it as much as everyone else. Ms. G (I told you she was a wily one) took advantage of his presence to ask the big question. Should we or should we not include CLI work in a class at this level? He agreed that we were definitely doing the right thing by including it.

Figure 1. Jon "maddog" Hall listens to a question from one of the students

Some attrition occurred during the class, but Ms. G told us that no one dropped out because they didn't like it or found it too difficult. All those who didn't complete the class were unable to do so because of jobs or personal issues that didn't allow them the time for the class. My unofficial count is that of the ten original students, seven completed the class.

On the last night, those students provided good feedback to all of us involved in the project. One of the things they suggested to improve the course was a Linux glossary so that the next bunch of newbies wouldn't be overwhelmed by the language alone. I then asked the students if they found the class or Linux to be too hard. One student, who seemed to speak for most of her classmates, told me:

I thoroughly enjoyed the class. I came into it without knowing anything about programming, without knowing anything about Linux, other than it was -- to me -- a new operating system. Even though it has been difficult, I've gotten a lot of the philosophy behind Linux, and I now have a general understanding of how it works and why we use it. I'm very excited, and I plan on installing Linux and using it.

Another comment I heard that night from one of the students, Gustavo Soto, really made the whole thing more than worthwhile from my point of view:

I think it is revolutionary, totally mind-boggling, the possibilities of open source. Because I've been dominated by that monopoly, I'm tired of it. It crashes, and you have to pay, and you have to constantly upgrade your system. And you're always behind the curve. With that, I see the possibility of creative programming, and the digital divide can even come down.

Tell it, penguinista!

Phil Carinhas, Michael Collins, James Money, Chuck Zelade, Shannon Eckols, and the LUG's very own GNurse, Tami Friedman, as well as a few other anonymous individuals, all deserve kudos for the job they've done. But if you asked any of them, they would probably tell you they got more out of it than the students.

That's the story about how the Austin LUG got involved in Linux adult education. What about the rest of you Luggites out there? Is your LUG doing or planning anything similar? I'd like to hear from those who are or from those who want to do something similar and would like more information about what we have done.

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This story, "Linux education: A lesson to be learned" was originally published by ITworld.

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