[Fsf-friends] Help: Introducing students to OSS

Harish Narayanan harish@gamebox.net
Sun Dec 14 19:08:51 IST 2003


 Firstly, it's nice to hear teachers at colleges taking the initiative. 
When I was in school/college (and still am for that matter), we weren't 
explicitly told about the ideals and goals of these projects, but we 
were exposed to a good deal of them since there were (and are) labs 
running these software, and we were using them often.

 But, (I don't quite know whether to refer to you as Balachandran or 
Sir, so I am going with neither) I am sure once you talk to your 
students you will be pleasantly surprised how much they have already 
been exposed to GNU Linux and other Free Software, and how much they 
have figured out on their own and from other people. From personal 
experience, anybody who I've known to be curious or read any magazine 
related to computers or technology has popped in a distribution install 
disc and tried playing with it at home. This has been, again in my 
experience, in high school, when they have finally decided they are 
brave enough to partition their hard disk. Many of them have gone on to 
be full time users.

 I think what I am trying to say is, a fair portion of the people, by 
second year in college have tried it, are using it or have friends who 
do. It would be nice if you could identify these people, and help them 
influence people they know to try it, or help them with installation or 
in other ways. This, I have seen is the easiest way to get people 
comfortable with it. My parents, for instance, don't have an issue now 
with using Mandrake GNU Linux (granted their usual realm of usage 
doesn't propagate too much beyond Galeon, gaim, OpenOffice.org and 
Ximian Evolution on a fairly standard GNOME desktop). But they wouldn't 
have made an attempt to get it installed on a machine themselves. Once 
that is done and everything is set up to "just work", they are 
comfortable without proprietary software. Anyway, enough of my personal 
experiences and to attempt to answer your question in a college setting.

 My suggestions include (not all are necessarily feasible, I know):

* First, on the same note as above, organise a local user group for 
people who use these software, at a college or larger level, so that 
they can meet once a month or so and help/influence other people. (This 
is also a sort of social event for the geeky types. We need to get out 
more. At least this way it's with like minded people to an extent.)
* If the primary work environment in labs is Windows based (which I am 
assuming it is) have the lab administrator install a fairly recent GNU 
Linux distribution on a separate partition and indicate to the students 
they can boot to it if they want. (Again, I am assuming you do not wish 
to remove the windows partition just yet). There is usually a rather 
common misconception that free software is harder to use, because it is 
free and used only by hackers. Once people try it, they could realize 
they were not entirely right. Plus there is usually a lot of cool stuff, 
the GIMP for instance, that can catch people's fancy. I'd have to say, 
superficial as it may be, programs like the GIMP and eye-candy in 
environments such as Enlightenment (no "real" updates in ages) made it 
cool and fun to use. Which is actually quite important when you are in 
* As a step leading to what I said above, replace (or install along 
side) standard windows software (such as MS Office, IE, Outlook Express 
...) and other proprietary software, with free equivalents 
(OpenOffice.org, Firebird, Thunderbird ...). If people get used to, say 
OpenOffice.org on windows, and they realize it runs just the same or 
even better on GNU Linux, they will find it easier, and hence be more 
willing to make the shift. (Again, in my experience, environments such 
as Cygwin are generally of very different quality, so please don't make 
it a users first experience. They will tend to assume all software on an 
"actual" GNU Linux environment performs that way.)
* Please don't force the coursework, in your case (I am assuming 
programming) to depend on the nuances of a particular compiler or 
platform (graphics programming for instance). Teach them standard 
programming practices based on rigorous standards, so people can use the 
compilers and build chains of their choice. Again hoping this will allow 
people to delve into GNU software, such as gcc, gdb and make. It will be 
hard to say, yes, GNU Linux can do this and that, but please code in MS 
Visual C++ because your assignment requires some win32 specific headers. 
The same goes for using, say Word to type out reports. Introduce them to 
Latex or a similar program, which may be harder initially, but once they 
get the hang of it, the quality of their work will be higher. ( I am not 
a student in the field of computer science, so am not entirely sure what 
really goes into the curriculum. The same logic also applies to say, 
HTML/XHTML, SQL and whatever else the curriculum might contain.)
* As a practice, in general, following the same vein of the previous 
point, don't use proprietary or patented formats as far as possible for 
anything and set an example. If you want to play them, say an audio clip 
of a talk, use an Ogg Vorbis file and not an MP3. Someone will 
definitely notice this, and ask you why. Then you can use that as an 
opportunity to explain the ideals, which I have reiterated as my next 
* In classes, indicate the ideals and goals behind such projects. They 
will realize for themselves the technical superiority (or where it is 
lacking) of these tools in comparison with their proprietary 
counterparts. Once people understand the ideology, they will appreciate 
it a lot more. The ones so inclined will also contribute code, 
financially, bug reports etc.. to help these projects grow.
* And please don't call it OSS.

I could come up with a few more if I really thought about it, but I will 
wait to see how people feel about this existing set before I do.

Just another student and FSF associate member from the month he started 
Harish Narayanan

balachandran c wrote:

>Hi friends,
>I have an opportunity to teach a few courses to computer science students at Engg. college tvm. I would like to know your opinions/ideas on introducing the students to OSS. Though I havent had much interaction with the students yet, i believe that most of the 2nd year guys are not familiar with Gnu/Linux.
>PS: Im new here
>Balachandran Chandrasekharan
>Fsf-friends mailing list

More information about the Fsf-friends mailing list