June 4, 2004

Linux is inching into college curriculums

Author: Jay Lyman

American colleges and universities are often on the cutting edge of Linux and open source use -- collaborating across campuses, enabling student and faculty open source projects, and providing unique experimentation and testing environments -- but when it comes to teaching Linux and open source development, administration, or other knowhow, it appears higher education has just been accepted for early admission.

"For most courses, open source is not a big issue," said University of California Berkeley computer science professor Robert Wilensky. "There isn't really a coherent policy with regard to [Linux and open source]. We use Linux on some machines, Windows on others, and I think we may buy some Macs. It is mostly a question of what software runs where."

Although he indicated a need to teach about open source in an operating system course, Wilensky referred to Linux and open source development and administration as "trade-school-type courses."

Fellow Berkeley computer science lecturer Brian Harvey agreed, adding that the institution that has produced some of the most well known open source software -- the FreeBSD operating system chief among it -- does not offer courses about specific software projects, "open or otherwise."

"We tell our students that the software they'll use throughout most of their career hasn't been written yet, so they'd better learn the general principles and learn how to learn details as they go along, not feeling that they're limited to the tools they use in our courses," he said.

That doesn't hold the university -- which also produced the educational Nachos instructional operating system, WISE online learning environment, and other free and open source software created through research projects -- from leveraging open source in its educational mission.

"We use a lot of GNU and other free software in our teaching and research," Harvey said. "Our students use the Emacs/GCC/GDB development environment,
the STk interpreter for Scheme (that one isn't from FSF, but from Erick Gallesio), the putty SSH client
from Simon Tatham, and the SPIM simulator for the MIPS microprocessor from James Larus at the University of Wisconsin, among others."

However, Harvey said Berkeley was not the place to find out about the state of Linux and open source education and preparation for the real world.

"Universities, especially the top-notch research ones like Berkeley, MIT, Stanford, etc., are probably all going to give you the same answer I'm giving you," he said. "You'd do better to ask at technical schools, the places that advertise in the subway, and in the job section of the newspaper."

Harvey's predicted response from MIT and Stanford had to do for this article because the two schools did not respond for comment. However, ITT Technical Institute's corporate curriculum manager Wen Liu said Linux has been a key curriculum at the "career college" since it was first offered in 1998.

While he indicated open source is "not really a concern" since the college is not focused on back-end development, Liu said Linux tends to win the hearts and minds of students who, even if they initially resist the non-proprietary approach, come to appreciate it.

"By and by, they start to see why we include it," he said.

Linux training and education is now offered in two classes at ITT, while another three to four offer mostly Windows instruction, according to Liu, who added the school does not promise certifications, but rather the knowledge base to get them, as well as hands-on skills on setup, configuration, and server use and functions.

The demand for such skills is growing rapidly, according to Blue Star Learning's Casey Boyles, whose San Diego-based company delivers corporate and government IT education. Boyles said there are more and more requests for Linux and open source training coming from both corporations and government agencies and entities, including the U.S. Navy. While he admits that Blue Star's instructors have been pushing for more, "deeper" Linux in the lineup, the demand is now coming from corporate customers as well, particularly with more major Linux and open source strategies such as Novell's.

Recalling his days teaching at San Diego State University, Boyles said there were "allusions to Linux," but added he was still teaching Unix "almost exclusively." The university saw an opportunity in what he saw then as a hole in IT education.

"There's almost a vacuum in Linux education in terms of software development, driver development, and that kind of thing; it's almost bereft," he said.

Boyles said his IT degree was dominated by Basic and Cobol, but nowadays, it's "more aggressive, much more progressive, and it's very forward."

"A lot of universities, I think you're going to see them make the switch," he said. "Even if academia isn't keeping up, it's going to have to with the corporate demand."

That demand, and the void that he saw while teaching at the University of Southern California, led Norman McEntire, founder and president of Servin, a training company focused solely on Linux technology, to focus on teaching Linux.

"I realized there was an opportunity, a business opportunity to do corporate training," McEntire said. "Linux is just exploding."

While boasting of full Linux bookings, McEntire said academia is coming around and is also feeling pressure to offer more in the way of Linux and open source from its students because Linux and open source are catching on at the high school level too.

"Young people just eat this up," he said. "They're enthusiastic and it's the new thing to do.

While it may be not soaking in as deeply at Ivy League or Pac-10 institutions, Linux and open source are a growing part of the curriculum at Marist College in New York. The 4,800-student school, with more than a decade of Linux leanings thanks primarily to the interest of school president Dennis Murray, has partnered with IBM, the Library of Congress, and most recently, Open Source Development Labs.

"I'm a strong believer that any systems or science that lock you into a particular technology limit the human capacity to achieve," Murray said. "It seems to me as an educator and a researcher that Linux and software like Linux stimulates research, innovation, and competitiveness."

Marist has embraced new approaches, such as Java and evolving open source models, through its Linux Research Development Lab and other efforts.

"When we first did it, a lot of people didn't get it," Murray recalled. "A lot of people said we were nuts and we weren't going anywhere."

How things change. Now, Murray boasted of Marist's open source track record, and its duty.

"We have an obligation to turn out individuals in IT that understand and can work with it," Murray said. "As educators, we have to help turn out individuals familiar with those technologies."

Murray said his sense is that the top schools in computer science and information systems around the country have solid Unix programs that are helping them teach individuals about Linux, too.

"The degree to which it's been adopted for their own applications varies, but because of the use, most schools are having to start to work on things like Linux and understanding the need to bring it into their curriculum," Murray said. "Many people don't believe it, but colleges are responsive to industry changes. We have to be the institutions to produce a workforce to meet the needs of those systems."

Marist is expanding its Linux curriculum and will be offering a new class in "open source development methodology," according to Marist School of Computer Science dean Roger Norton. He explained the school was expanding the Linux and open source offerings because, "as an academic institution, it makes a whole lot of sense and removes a concern of proprietariness."

As for students and schools, Murray said, they are increasingly interested in Linux and open source because they see it as an important thing to their future.

"The open source nature of Linux is, I think, attractive to students and those running colleges and universities because it's participatory," Murray said. "It's really fascinating. There are few examples of something getting as embraced as much as Linux has been."

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