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Advocacy

On Teaching Computer Literacy and FOSS

(Original article found at http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/FOSS_Education/Teaching_IT_with_FOSS#Computer_Literacy)

"At the very basic level, teaching IT involves imparting computer literacy. Computer literacy means having acquired the skills to make use of a computer for common tasks. It implies competency in using common desktop applications such as a word processor, spreadsheet, email client and Web browser. The skills in Table 1 are considered essential.The order of the skills in the list is not indicative of their importance and will change with time as technologies change.The relative importance of skills also varies, depending on individuals.

Computer literacy should be taught not only to students in schools but also to university students, who may not have acquired these skills during earlier schooling. It is a common assumption that university students today should be computer literate and have the skills to use desktop applications for their academic work regardless of their field of study. In some universities, computer literacy courses are offered to ensure that the students have these skills. In others, there may not be formal courses and students are expected to learn on their own.Whatever the case, computer literacy programmes usually use the dominant proprietary software. Even at the lower education levels it is not uncommon to find students being taught to use Microsoft Windows and Office as a part of computer literacy courses.

Table 1 IT Skills
1. Setting up a personal computer
2. Using basic operating system features
3. Using a word processor
4. Using a graphics and/or artwork package
5. Connecting a computer to a network
6. Using the Internet
7. Using a computer to communicate
8. Using a spreadsheet
9. Using a database system
10. Using instructional materials for new applications

(Source: US National Research Council's Committee on Information Technology report)

However, there are two problems with this method of teaching computer literacy. First, the skill in the use of a particular version of proprietary software is usually short lived. Even though it will be easier to learn how to use a new version of the software from the same vendor (relative to learning an entirely new software), re-training will still be necessary unless the user has the ability to self-learn. A different approach to teaching computer literacy should be used in order to equip students with the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn. The emphasis should be on generic skills that should not be dependent on software from a specific vendor.

The second problem with using specific proprietary software in the computer literacy curriculum is that it encourages illegal copying of software. Students need to use the same software which is available in their schools or universities for doing their homework and assignments, leading many of them to use illegal copies at home or on their laptops. Schools and institutions with financial constraints may even use illegal copies of proprietary software in their enthusiasm to provide computer literacy training to their students.

In teaching computer literacy it is not important which operating system, word processor, email client, Web browser and spreadsheet are used. GNU/Linux, together with appropriate Graphical User Interface (GUI) such as GNOME or KDE, is a FOSS operating system that can be used to teach the basics of operating system features.

OpenOffice has word processor, spreadsheet, presentation and drawing programs that can replace the proprietary equivalents. It should be sufficient for teaching the basic features available in office productivity software. Other FOSS such as the Abiword word processor or the Gnumeric spreadsheet can also be used in a computer literacy curriculum if necessary.

To teach students how to access the Web or to use email, the FOSS application Mozilla can be used. Again, the features of Mozilla are comparable to the browser and email client that come together with Windows and should be sufficient for use in a computer literacy curriculum.

The FOSS database systems MySQL and PostgreSQL are full-featured and can certainly be used to teach the basics of database systems. The GUI available for these databases may not be as user-friendly as the proprietary equivalent but it should not be an obstacle to learning the basic principles.

Michael Surran, a Computer Science teacher in the US, states the following:

People sometimes ask me, "Is teaching our students Linux preparing them for the workplace?" This question is based on the fact that Microsoft is the current dominating presence in operating systems and office software. It is a question I have thought over a long time, and the answer I always come up with is, "Yes, most definitely." The basic principles of any type of operating system, office application or other similarly grouped software are the same. A student who becomes proficient in Linux will not find themselves (sic) lost in a Windows environment.I have found Linux to be the more advanced of the two operating systems, yet our students are very quickly and easily learning it. The process of copying a file or formatting a paragraph is not so different between one operating system and the other.

Using FOSS software as the basis of the computer literacy curriculum also results in cost savings for the school or university. It obviates the need to ensure that sufficient licenses are purchased as FOSS software can be legally installed in as many computers as necessary. Students can also install the FOSS software in their own computers without restrictions, and illegal copying of proprietary software is not necessary for their academic work outside the school or university's premises.More importantly, it would encourage placing emphasis on the teaching of the basic principles and concepts and avoid narrow exposure to proprietary software from specific vendors.

However, it may be necessary to train teachers and lecturers in the use of Linux and FOSS before they can be competent to conduct classes using these software. Modification of the curriculum is necessary and some effort will have to be put into developing suitable teaching materials.

Schools

Computer literacy is usually the main focus of teaching IT to students in schools. This would equip them with the ability to use computers to enhance their learning, access the Internet, use email, and so on.

But as emphasized earlier, this should not be confined to teaching students to use specific proprietary software.Students who have not been exposed to computers are likely to be more receptive to Linux and FOSS and it would be desirable to start using FOSS as early as possible.

For example, for pedagogical reasons FOSS was introduced in some non-governmental schools in Australia. The students in these schools developed the ability to use IT without assuming that computing can be based only on one predominant computing platform. Teachers at the Sydney Church of England Girls Grammar School deliberately expose students to more than one suite of office applications, giving them the opportunity to use both FOSS and proprietary software and increase their understanding of the principles of these applications."

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