Monday, September 29, 2008

Trying Out Free OSes & Giving Back

My high school computer class got a start trying out free OSes on the school's computer systems about two weeks ago. I brought in a stack of CDs and DVDs with free OSes on them like Linux, FreeBSD and OpenSolaris. I passed them out to teams of two or three students apiece and had them start testing them on our different systems.

Almost none of the students had never booted an operating system other than the one a computer came with. Few of them had ever worked on an OS other than Windows, except perhaps for a short session with Mac OS on one of the Macs we have in the lab. Likewise, almost none of them had ever interacted with the system BIOS.

This activity was a success on so many different levels:
  • We had a lot of fun. The classroom was in a state of productive chaos throughout.
  • The distinction between hardware and software was demonstrated. That is, that there is a division between the operating system and the hardware it runs on.
  • Students were able to see and interact with new operating systems.
  • Students discovered that a different operating system was not so alien. They were able to find the applications they wanted and do at least basic tasks.
  • Things don't always work, and that's OK. There are ways of dealing with it.
  • You don't have to rely on any one OS. If one isn't working out for you, try another.
  • Different OSes and different applications give you lots of options for doing things your way.
As a conclusion to the activity, we took the next step--giving back to the community. To start with, we discussed how all these OSes came to be, and why they are free. We reviewed the history of Linux and BSD in particular. How large things have happened as a result of the contributions of many, many people, each giving what they can, from detailed bug reports to programming. Then I let them know that they could make a contribution to the community by reporting their test results.

I had the class post their final results on the Linux Compatibility Database.

Afterward, I did a quick informal survey. About 80% of the class is interested in trying out some of our new OSes on their home systems to use as an alternative to what they have now. The holdouts are apparently not sure what their parents would think. We're going to have a future activity where we duplicate some disks for use in class and for the students to take home.

This activity turned out really well. It accomplished my goals for the class admirably. I wanted to give the students something in the way of a hands-on activity that would really make them feel a sense of control over the computer systems, and break through any remaining shyness. I also wanted to instill a sense of confidence beyond that, confidence that they can handle new programs and ways of doing things. Even experienced users have shown some resistance to trying something new to them at times. Further, I wanted to broaden their horizons a bit.

We've achieved all these things, and the fun that came with the activity has left the class hungry for more. It's a great base from which to continue our learning.

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