As schools move forward with 1:1 rollouts of iPads and notebook computers for personal and academic use, the computer lab is no longer the epicenter of digital education. Students today are growing up with computers that are easier than ever to use, and navigating Windows or OS X has become second nature.
Ubuntu (pronounced oo-bun-too) is a version, or “distribution,” of Linux, a free and open source operating system that underpins a vast array of operating systems used throughout the world. Ubuntu, created and maintained by Canonical Ltd., is one of the most popular distributions due to its strong support, completeness out-of-the-box, and ease of use.
Linux’s presence in the consumer space is minuscule compared to its commercial competitors. It functions differently from Windows or Mac OS X, requiring new conventions to be understood. Due to its open source nature and “geek friendly” design, many problems are solved using the command line and coding languages, which are not as easy to understand as the user interface-driven interactions most consumers are comfortable with.
In spite of this, there are several reasons more schools should not immediately dismiss Linux.
1. It is extremely cost-effective.
The most obvious reason is cost. Linux distributions like Ubuntu start and end at $0, regardless of the volume of purchase – a price Microsoft and Apple cannot match. Linux operates under the tenet of providing software for free, and often comes preloaded with many free and open source alternatives to popular commercial software like Microsoft Office.
2. It runs effectively on older machines, giving it a longer lifecycle.
Linux is also known for compatibility and stability. Linux software works on nearly every desktop distribution, and future updates rarely break that interoperability. Distributions can be specially modified to run smoothly on older hardware than Windows or OS X because of its far less demanding requirements. This means hardware purchased by schools can last longer on Ubuntu – a detail that should come as welcome news considering some schools are now spending upwards of $20,000 a year on computer hardware. Why not get as much mileage out of that investment as possible?
3. It gives students the opportunity to learn high-demand coding skills.
Beyond cost, however, using Linux is a new opportunity for students who want to learn to code and create content with their computers. Linux is used overwhelmingly in data-intensive industries. It is the OS of choice for special effects and animation studios like Pixar and Dreamworks. As of 2013, 83% of enterprise applications rely on Linux. Additionally, most websites run on servers running Linux or its forefather, Unix.
Why does this matter to schools? In recent years, there has been a major call for schools to make coding a core part of the curriculum. This has been reiterated by the Obama Administration and also led to the Hour of Code in December, with several organizations challenging students to develop software in an hour. If we are to encourage students to learn to code and flourish in the digital economy, their first introduction to an important software tool and skillset should be before college.
The open nature of Ubuntu gives users the ability to look “under the hood” and start to understand how the software is built and modifiable. Any part of the software can be changed by the user, encouraging them to explore and experiment. Ubuntu is both ready to go out-of-the-box and modifiable with hundreds of extensions and packages.
There are also challenges in finding instructors who can understand and teach Linux, but introducing students to the software — and breaking them out of the walled gardens of OS X and Windows — can help educators demonstrate the wide array of computer science possibilities to pupils. While it isn’t the only way to encourage coding, its potential classroom impact should not be underestimated.
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