I am a big fan of the Ubuntu Podcast and on their last show (Possessive Open Chicken) they made a strong statement regarding the open source in education: you don’t need to do more to convince students to do adopt Open Source, as they will do it if more companies will do that.
I (surprisingly) disagree.
After writing a long e-mail to them, I decided to do the whole thing as an open letter. This is the result …
Students, with very few exceptions, are very malleable. Sometimes they require a little nudge into the right direction. If everybody is getting comfortable with Open Source in the early stages of their career, there will be bigger chances of them adopting these technologies afterwards. I think this should be standard practice in every university, but who am I to judge.
I come from a very applied computer science background. During my undergraduate studies, my university (let’s call it UBB) had an incredibly strong relationship with some great companies, mainly Microsoft and Oracle. Basically, I knew all the Linux people at my university and most them were considered hippies. We had our Linux courses for OS Architecture and Networking, but nobody bothered to install Linux on their laptop. Because it was weird. Everyone had a KNOPPIX CD which was booted for the 2h required to prepare the labs, once a week. Some of them were shocked to find out that Linux had a browser, even though everybody was using Firefox on Windows.
The conclusion of this story is that when these students went to the industry, their first choice for technology stacks was what they already knew. Most of them were not Open Source stacks.
After a while, I moved to France to do a PhD. At that time I had Ubuntu installed on my laptop. I was shocked to see that the new university had a very radical view on Open Source. Basically, at INSA de Rouen, if a software was not Open Source it was not allowed on the University equipment. I later found out that this was widespread in the Computing department. The second thing and this was more wide spread through the university: any new software that was purchased, had to be compatible with the existing Open Source services first.
Within the department, if you were using Windows you were pretty much on your own. For MacOS they will provide some basic assistance. I agree that this approach is rather radical, but I enjoyed it. Some students had a disadvantage because they were not aware of the capabilities of the commercial solutions, but nobody seem to be bothered.
The department’s view on this was that students should be taught to have good standards and learn the basics on tools where they can look at the code if necessary. This way they would not consider a feature magic and they would not be afraid to debug very complex systems. Most of them never debugged a kernel or a compiler, but some where aware where the sound is coming from on the laptop and what is the architecture of an OS. Some of them had various customisations for their desktops and don’t get me started on the distribution war. There were groups not talking to each other because of the distribution they were using.
Some of the students I use to work with are still using Open Source as much as possible in their commercial project. I also want to believe that they are giving back to the community.
I think the Canonicals and Red Hats of the world should start more intense University programs, similar to Microsoft and Oracle, to promote their technologies and allow students to get familiar with their work.