Bryant Patten on open source education (LinuxCon session recap) |

Bryant Patten on open source education (LinuxCon session recap)

Posted 09 Aug 2010 by 

Ruth Suehle (Red Hat)
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In LinuxCon's education mini-summit, Bryant Patten of the National Center for Open Source and Education gave a presentation titled "Can open source save the world?" He noted a quote from Mary Lange, Educational Technology Resource Teacher at San Diego Unified School District. She says that we often assume students know how to use computers and that they are really good at it. But the truth is, they know how to use technology for personal reasons but not necessarily for education. They will say "I know how to do that," but when it comes to reality, they don't.

It doesn't help that we don't teach technology. We take a whole year--or even two--to teach physics or chemistry. Let's look at 2016 employment projections:

  • 18,000 physics jobs
  • 91,000 chemistry jobs
  • 4,006,000 technology jobs

Perhaps teaching technology has some merit, after all.

The good news for both technology and open source is that the myths that have kept open source out of schools--that it's hard to use, can't be good if it's free--are going away. Schools are discovering the amazing options that are available now. OpenOfice. Audacity. Scratch. Stellarium. Firefox. They're all state-of-the-art.

Patten also commented on and recommended the following open source/education books and movies:

  • Waiting for Superman is a movie by the team that did An Inconvenient Truth. It covers educational issues, particularly under-resourced urban schools, which are of course a perpetual problem. But the concern is that those schools are less than a fifth of the education space. (This is a failing of No Child Left Behind as well.) So a lot of people see it and think, "Oh that's bad, but it's not my school."
  • Two Million Minutes is named for the amount of time you spend in high school. A venture capitalist followed high school students in the US, India, and China, recording how they each spent their two million minutes. It gives a good overview of the problem, but does not focus on under-resourced schools. In fact, the US story is a fairly well-off school in the midwest.
  • The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don't Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need--And What We Can Do About It is a book written by Tony Wagner, who talked to Fortune 100 companies and universities about what they're looking for in K-12 students. The book explains seven survival skills, from critical thinking and initiative to curiosity and imagination--none of which are being fundamentally taught today.
  • Related to this book, Patten commented on the constant tug-of-war between content and skills that has been taking place for decades. He offered the following as a meme for adoption:

                                            &&  !   | |

    To translate, "and, not or." Let's not talk about content or skills. It's about both.

  • Nicholas Carr wrote a popularly discussed story for Atlantic Monthly called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” He followed it with a book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains in which he talks about how we're losing our ability to concentrate on long-term projects because of the way our focusing skills are changing because of Internet usage.

Slides from the LinuxCon education talks will soon be available at


Community Member

I agree that students computing skills are often overestimated. Years ago I was in an intro programming course that was rather held back because half the class didn't know how to use a unix text editor. Most faculty don't want to give course credit for learning to use vi or emacs. Perhaps there should be remedial noncredit courses in CS like there are currently for mathematics ?

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Open Source Evangelist

I think that it's a great idea to offer opportunities to learn these sorts of tools, and to become comfortable exploring, tinkering on, and experimenting with the sort of unbridled playfulness computing on an open source software stack can offer.

However, I wouldn't call these courses "remedial" - that implies the expectation that, say, emacs knowledge is a prerequisite and that if you didn't recompile your kernel in high school you're somehow deficient - which is certainly not the case. Students, especially pre-college students, have had different opportunities to be exposed to - and interested in pursuing - these sorts of things. (Some of us got yelled at by our parents for dual-booting the only computer in the house with Fedora Core 1. This tends to stifle exploration somewhat.)

And I'd emphasize the mindset just as much as the specific "can use software package X" skills. I can rote-train a monkey to use vim, but encouraging someone to ask questions about what's out there, explore repositories, crawl websites, ask friends what sorts of tools they use, ask upstreams for those tools how to tweak them... that's a different skill and mindset entirely, and given how rapidly the software landscape changes, it's the mindset students will need to keep their toolboxes sharp.

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Open Sourcerer

Remedial may be the wrong word, but I think the idea is right. I endured a similar torture--I mean class--my first year in business school. It was to teach freshmen how to use MS Office. Two other students and I made an agreement with the professor not to have to show up anymore after demonstrating that we didn't need to be there in the first place.But like that, many majors offer introductory courses. Why not comp sci? Maybe the right model is the one that schools often use in foreign language departments--a testing/placement system. It's illogical for someone who's studied French since middle school to start in college with "je suis, tu es, il est." So we accomodate that with testing and appropriate level placement. In the same way, a longtime hacker could skip Intro to Text Editors and go straight to learning new things.

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Patrick Vernon
Open Enthusiast

The good news for both technology and open source is that the myths that have kept open source out of schools--that it's hard to use, can't be good if it's free--are going away. Schools are discovering the amazing options that are available now. OpenOfice. Audacity. Scratch. Stellarium. Firefox. gifts for wife

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Ruth Suehle leads community marketing for Red Hat's Open Source and Standards team, including the Fedora Project and is the moderator of the Life channel here on She's co-author of Raspberry Pi Hacks