Using Open Source in the Classroom Every Single Day

Jon Roberts (Davis School District)
Location: F151
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Slides:   1-ODP 

Open source is an ideal match with the needs of public education. However, while open source may pervade the information technology landscape there are barriers to its use in the context of the high school classroom. Advocacy and adoption involves compelling arguments that need to be made to policy makers, school administrators, district technology staff, and (less frequently) students to assure them of increased learning at a lower cost. In the case of using Linux computers, it is important to establish consistent installations of a stable platform that will likely include elements of both the Gnome and KDE windowing environments. Daily and asynchronous use of open source resources can be fostered by rich processes for developing assessment and presentation materials, from randomized tests to screencasts, and making them available over the web.

Packaged Linux installations also provide a wealth of applications that can support educational objectives. Although commercial offerings (particularly Geometer’s Sketchpad) can be central to effective secondary math teaching, other essential skills are addressed by robust apps like those distributed with the KDE educational package. Distributions include more unique programs for exploring esoteric and advanced math concepts like graph theory, fractal geometry, or chaos theory. Lesson plans can tie math objectives to other disciplines with demonstrations in chemistry, astronomy or geography. Other lessons can be crafted to develop or exhibit deductive or inductive reasoning skills, central to the new national common core standards, through the cerebrally-slanted and well-designed games and puzzles available on Linux. Of course, open source goes even further to support teaching computer programming itself. Students can see the active internals of the computer with optimum clarity through the shell or from GUI administrative packages. They can explore the fundamentals of computer representations, with clarifying applications for Unicode, RGB color values, image files, raw audio, MIDI, and video. The novel KTurtle provides a rich first experience with all the basic elements of procedural programming and even an interactive development environment without the overhead of platform dependencies, libraries, compiling. Students can even explore the history of computers (in the alluring context of video games) with hands-on experiences from emulators of 8-bit systems forward. Finally, the young people of today demand insight into the inner workings of the mobile applications ubiquitous in their lives, where Android is steadily becoming a dominant force with an achievable barrier to entry.

While many of the same opportunities can be had through commercial applications or Internet resources not all of them can be duplicated, even at cost. The modern student is more receptive to open source software than ever before, even while the education establishment may remain mired in the paradigm of proprietary solutions. For the savvy educator a Linux installation in a classroom, particularly when attached to an overhead monitor, can harness the depth and breadth of the open source bonanza for the most noble goal of educating the citizens of tomorrow.

Jon Roberts

Davis School District

After completing a dual major in mathematics and computer science at Northwestern University in Chicago, I spent four years in the US Air Force developing software in support of military intelligence at Wright Patterson AFB in Ohio. I then worked as an administrator and web developer for Penn State Medical Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania. I founded my own open source software development company, Mentata Systems, after moving to Fort Walton Beach, Florida in 2001. Although this sole proprietorship has remained profitable for each of its 11 years, I have refocused on education, becoming certified to teach math and computer programming in high school. I have been the mathematics department head for the Davis School District alternative education system for close to 6 years now in my new home of Kaysville, Utah.

I am a single father, sharing my home with a son, a daughter, a dog, and a cat. I also produce, record, write, and play music with a wide circle of friends, hosting an open mic night twice a month.


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