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An Educational Crap Shoot With Linux As A Player

300px-CrapsA few months ago, Brian Conner approached me and asked if I would be interested in talking to him about what we do at Reglue. He wanted to write an interview/story for Linux Journal.

I was not only surprised, I was honored to think that what we do might be of interest to the greater Linux/FOSS community. The article was published in the June issue of Linux Journal. Friends from all over the world are still emailing me, asking if I have seen the article.

Indeed I have, thank you.

What amazed me more was the conversation the story generated on Reddit and Slashdot. I don’t think it made the front page on either site, but there was a good number of comments and feedback, which we are going to talk about now.

I learned a long time ago not to feed the trolls, especially if their purview derives from administration positions in and around education…teachers in the trenches, so to speak.

It would appear that a good number of the people commenting were exactly that, people who worked in and around academia, not as teachers but as administrators or workers. Others justified their opinions based on, “Well my wife-husband-brother-sister-cousin-neighbor is/was a teacher and they told me…”

A lot of statistical analysis was offered to defend a unified stance. What stance? A mini consensus formed around a theory that having a computer at home does not necessarily mean a better student or a more productive member of society.

Here’s a big surprise…I fully agree. More than likely, that’s correct…except when it’s not.

You can shuffle, bend, shape and manipulate the statistics all you want. There is no way to gauge or even identify the one single moment when having a computer changes the course of a young life. For that to happen, however, there needs to have been an “aha!” moment. A moment when the light illuminates the child’s awareness. A moment when the kid realizes that (s)he is in control of what her computer does. The moment when she understands that all she needs to do is learn how to speak to her computer in a language it understands.

This past year there are easily two dozen kids I’ve tutored who want to go in that direction. Each child who receives a Reglue computer is told about free open source software and how it empowers them. They are, of course, our Linux kids. Currently, five of our former kids are in graduate school, everyone of them studying engineering, physics or computer sciences Did the computer we gave them as a kids have anything to do with where these students are today? I can’t prove it did any more than you can prove it didn’t.

Upping the odds with Linux

Some kids turn the odds in their favor when they realize that a computer can be a tool for success.

Yeah, I know…statistics, statistics, statistics.

We have emails from families we’ve helped over the years, telling us that Benjamin’s or Susanne’s reading level has jumped two grade levels since they gained access to a home computer. Over the phone, people share with us about how their daughter discovered her graphic art talent and is now attending college to pursue a career in that field. They tell us how Ricky is now out of college and runs a computer camp at the YMCA over the summer. We hear about how Jenny used the computer to learn to type and ten key.

All of these contacts combined only measure up to 8-10 percent of the kids we’ve assisted. The other kids are doing what kids do, using the computer for Facebook, entertainment and possibly for doing their homework. I’m OK with that. If I have to place 100 computers in order to bring aha moments to only two kids, then I’ve done my job and I will continue to do that job.

What I do or what I achieve is just a game of numbers, maybe even a roll of the dice. To those who want to stand on the sidelines and criticize me for wasting time and resources by giving computers to those who won’t use them academically…fine.

Come work with me for a week and I will show you just how wrong you are.

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Ken Starks writes and publishes The Blog of Helios, a finalist in our Best FOSS or Linux Blog competition. In addition, he's the person behind the Reglue project that refurbishes older computers and gives them to disadvantaged school kids in the Austin, Texas area.

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4 comments to An Educational Crap Shoot With Linux As A Player

  • Abdel

    Excellent reply!

  • Uncle Ed

    I spent roughly 1974-2010 in academia so automatically I’m an expert. However, I’ve been tainted by knowing Ken for several years, so my opinions may not be trustworthy.

    My last 30 or so years were at the university level, so I saw a lot of students after they were through with the high school level. After the mid-90s one of the things I did was teach classes in the skills we felt were useful for the students’ academic work and, we hoped, would be useful into the future. These included word processing and spreadsheets, how to search for information on the web and how to figure out what was trustworthy and what wasn’t (NOT just WikiPedia), how to be safe on the Internet, and a few other things. Yes, once in a while the buzzword of the era–e.g., “personal finances”–would come down from on high and we’d show that we were giving it proper attention. (I taught’em how to do an ongoing monthly personal budget and how to calculate the payment and total interest on an installment loan, among other things. Even had one older student come in and tell me he used the latter when he and his wife bought a truck. Count’em–that was ONE!)

    But I retired and I hear that they’ve (who? it’s always “they”) decided that incoming students are “computer savvy” or “literate” or something, so the course requirement has been dropped. Listening to the descriptions of the decision process, it’s evident it was partly (1) a SWAG based on seeing students use computers and phones and tablets to play games, update social networking site pages the observer, and send texts and pictures of people in embarrassing poses–none of which the middle-aged observer could do–and partly (2) a power/resources issue–look at the money and space we can free up if we don’t have to pay all those teachers and support all those computer labs.

    What did I see among the students entering the university? In the last few years, a large number of them had the game, social networking, and similiar skills. A few had the skills to write coherent, intelligent documents and do some of the numeric tasks they were doing to do in their science and economics classes.

    Hmmph! Sounds like incoming students in general over thirty years. A large number of them have tremendous social interactions of various sorts and many had the money to do all sorts of things. A small number come in with writing, numeric, and other “academic” skills. That’s why the university has “placement” tests, but any more it’s not PC to use “remedial” in the description of the largest number of sections.

    The temptation is to conclude the answer is there are differences among students. But in reality, it isn’t. It just brings up the question of “what makes the differences between these two groups?” (Or among these several groups, because I’m not sure that only two describes them very well.) I’d agree that mere computer possession/ownership, alone, certainly isn’t the end of the story.

    Off the top of my head: What are the economic differences? Do the highest have nicer computers and great Internet speed but only use them for the games and social sites? Do the lowest have the poorest computers and are mowing lawns and doing odd jobs so they don’t have any time to use them? What subjects did the students pick in school and did their parents provide input? How involved are the parents in the lives of the students, particularly their academic lives? What are the parents’ computer skills? What are the parents’ expectations of the computer usage? What else do the children do? Do they have daily responsibilities in the home? Is the computer (or are the computers) in an open part of the house, where anyone can see it when passing through or is it in a child’s room, where computer use is a solitary activity?

    Write the answers to these questions on the back of a hundred dollar bill and mail it to Ken. Use more hundred dollar bills if you need to–but I’ll bet you won’t. My guess is the question boils down to what the parents are doing in the lives of their children.

  • Of course giving a Computer to a child can and will change the life of that child!… whether it will be used academically or not!

    To simply learn how to “use the computer” is learning, and it will be endlessly useful on any future career or even became the career itself (IT)!
    To have an access to all the information as possible on the web can and will shape the child for better!
    Not everyone that learns how to read/write becomes a writer!

    It would be fair to compare computing to reading: it is good for, no matter what you read (compute)…. ; )

    It would be also fair to say that somebody that criticizes Ken for giving PCs are people that believe PCs should not be GIVEN to children, that PCs should be SOLD to them!

    It would be absolutely fair to say that some people are simply plain dumb too!… and since they own a PC they learned how to type dumbness on the comments… so…. are they really the best people to say how others should use a computer? I don’t think so! ; )

    It would also be more than fair to say that Reglue changes/improves the lives of not only 8-10% of the kids but 100%!

    Keep up the good work Ken!

  • willgrimes

    Execellent article.