How About Linux?

When schools buy into a particular product en masse, they also buy into a particular business model. It's easy to see this with the textbook companies (a misnomer, because they are a huge educational industry conglomerate). These companies have influenced policy at the Federal level, run many of the content-based companies, own small tutoring companies, create the materials we use for intervention and own software for progress monitoring.

It would be easy to assume that tech companies are different. Just move out of that system and buy devices instead. However, both Apple and Google have a specific business model.

Apple is a high-end content-selling company. True, their content often enables users to be creative. However, they run a mostly closed platform designed for individual consumers. Syncing and sharing are often a mess with iPods and iPads. The lack of freedom can lead to a logistical nightmare. But that's the model: a pricey, individualized, high-quality, content-delivery company. 

Google is a massive advertising company. They provide cheap, often free, content in exchange for data mining and advertising. Unlike the Apple products, synching a Chromebook or an Android is a cinch. And unlike Apple, their systems are almost entirely open and easy to customize. However, in the process, students learn to depend upon a system designed for data-mining and advertising. 

When schools choose Apple or Google, they are choosing systems with social and economic implications. Do we want freedom and open access? Or do we want high-quality content in a safe and secure system? Do we want data-mining and advertising in exchange for cheaper hardware and free software?

*     *     *

My first journey toward one-to-one began about eight years ago. We didn't have iPods or smart phones. The notion of bring your own device was laughable. So, I found twenty-five "obsolete" Apple computers along with some old PCs that people gave me. I experimented with different versions of Linux and, in the process, certain students began fixing their old computers at home. 

We ran a mixed, hacked, hodgepodge system.  However, students were able to blog, create presentations, record podcasts and edit videos. True, we faced frustrating barriers (getting Flash to work on Power PC, for example) but we also learned to research, experiment and problem solve. 

Linux had its own value system: free, democratic, collaborative, geeky, independent. So, it has me thinking about the future of schools and educational technology. Visit a tech conference or spend some time on techie blogs and you'll notice people advocating for iPads, Chromebooks or bring your own (consumer) devices. 

I'm not against that. However, I'm wondering if the values and the system that we want is closer to that of Linux. I'm thinking open access, connective thinking, the hacking culture, democracy, collaboration and problem-solving should be a part of systems we adopt. 

Why not choose a system that reflects the values we want in education?

I have a class set of Chromebooks right now and I might just dual-boot them on Linux. Next year, I want to play around with Raspberry Pi and see just how far we can customize it for our own learning. I want to recycle old laptops. I want to rig mobile devices. I want to go back to the hodgepodge mess of Linux systems, because ultimately that's the model that most closely aligns with what I believe about education.
John Spencer

Professor. Maker. Speaker.
I want to see schools unleash the creative potential in all teachers to transform classrooms into bastions of creativity and wonder. Read more →
Email me at john@educationrethink.com for speaking inquiries on design thinking and creativity.


  1. In general, I think Linux offers much better opportunities for students, but a pre-packaged, locked-down system is an easier sell to tech-hesitant grownups. In an environment that gives students so much freedom, you need adults who can go there with them. The more limits there are on what the student can do, the easier it is for the school staff to control what is done.

    Besides, Linux and DRM don't play nicely together, and you know the "textbook industry" won't want to sell anything without it.

    1. I think that's part of it. The political and economic pressure are pretty powerful. The fear of freedom drives so many policy decisions.

  2. In my edtech utopia, I'd definitely go for the Linux option. I would love it if people in my district called me the 'Linux guy' rather than 'Royan Jobs'. Our systems' aversion to this kind if tech, I think, is more a reflection of the fact that they actually don't reflect the values. OK, it's me the bitter and twisted cynic here speaking, but I really don't think our systems are set up right now for open, democratic, distributive, collaborative learning. Our systems, in action, are far more in line with consumerist, hierarchical epistemology.

    Have a nice day:)

    1. I'm with you on this. A major part of it comes from the values we have and the need to manage things from an IT side of it.

  3. John, I've been thinking about ed tech a lot this year and how it fits into my classroom. How did you learn about Linux? Not necessarily what it is, but how to work with it?

    1. I learned through experimenting a little and through trial and error. But more than that, I learned by asking ridiculously easy questions on the various Linux forums and by checking out blog posts. The Linux community is great!

    2. I agree with John: when you start, you definitely want a version with a supportive community. I can't recommend Ubuntu (and its cousins) enough for this. There's almost nothing I can't get a relevant answer to by adding "ubuntu" to my Google search.

      I also can't give enough praise to Zed Shaw's command line course, which will get you very comfortable working in a terminal, which is like taking the training wheels off your computer.


Contact Form


Email *

Message *