Pi in the sky?

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The founder of TLM, Ian Lynch, had a vision that I share that all students should be aware of the potential and democratising nature of open source.  We don't push open source, though we do have a funded qualification based entirely on its use and deployment, but we do support and offer guidance around its use and encourage using it before other systems.  Now that Google docs exists, and other free online alternatives, it is perhaps not quite such an issue with schools, but schools still spend a significant amount of their increasingly tight budgets on software licenses which seems wasteful and unnecessary.  As an IT teacher, I had a number of debates with head teachers in my career around the nature of office based skills.  I would insist my students learned on something like Open Office as they could have a legitimate piece of the same software at home and needed to understand and transfer basic skills.  The head would argue that students would need to learn on expensive proprietary office software as, "that's what they use in the real world".  My argument was two-fold.  First, that I can learn to drive in an old banger, and still drive an expensive car without issue.  The point being that generic office skills should be transferable and it doesn't matter what students learn on.  I was not prepared to act as a marketing department for some branded software.  Secondly, I argued (this was circa 1998 – 2007) that a desktop based office application would be a thing of the past with the emergence and expansion of the Internet.  Many companies use web based office systems and even branded ones are now slimed down in functions compared to their bloated desktop variants (as well as free in most instances).

Now to the title (finally).  It is related, I promise.  I am wondering how much of an impact the uptake of Raspberry Pi systems will have in student's embracing open systems.  I know that you can get Windows versions of the OS, but most of them (I assume) will be used with the recommended Debian version called Raspbian.  I spent a day teaching my local primary school how to control some Pi-Stop traffic lights last week and not once did the students make any comments about the OS.  It was just there doing the job required.  They picked it up and made it work intuitively as they have transferable skills on using a GUI, not that they are skilled in any one OS.  Many of these students probably use expensive computers or iThings at home where a £25 Pi would do the job and teach them wider skills about community and development.  They would have full control over it.  They could even go retro like I do with my Pi and dream of the days when the UK led the world in software systems.


I feel justified in my intransigence of sticking with open source alternatives in my teaching.  Ian and I met at an inaugural FOSIE (Free and Open Source in Education) conference at my (then) school in Salisbury in 2001.  We both agreed that students should be taught the skills they need on open source software as it is the same as the proprietary alternatives and we need to teach skills, not brands.  The cost savings from licenses can be used for additional equipment and support staff.  Ian made that a reality by making an awarding organisation with an emphasis on supporting and encouraging open source ideas and practices.  Many students now go through our systems arguing that they should not pay for expensive software, but support and get involved in communities offering free or low cost alternatives.  That sounds like a better world to me.

It is worth holding on to so called "Pi(e) in the Sky" notions, as sometimes people's vision will make them a reality.  Gawd bless you Ian, you are sorely missed.

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About the Author
Started work for TLM in August 2014, having known Ian Lynch for many years and collaborated on a number of open source projects and initiatives. Working with Moodle for a number of years after teaching IT to A Level for 10 years.

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