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A Teacher's Misguided Linux Rant and the Equally Misguided Response

A Teacher's Misguided Linux Rant and the Equally Misguided Response

One teacher's letter to the head of a Linux distributor set off a thunderous response by the Linux faithful. The letter -- and its response -- resonated long and hard in the echo chamber that is the Linux blogosphere.

By Katherine Noyes
12/15/08 4:00 AM PT

A variety of interesting topics are usually discussed on the Linux blogs in an average week, which is why it's often so hard for us here at LinuxInsider to choose a select few to focus on in this column. Luckily for us this time around, last week was no average week.

No, it became immediately obvious last week that there was really no choice as to what to focus this column on, because the same, shocking topic was the center of conversation after conversation.

What could possibly attract so much concentrated interest, you ask? How about a letter from an irate middle-school teacher, threatening legal action over the appearance of Linux in her classroom?

'No Software Is Free'

"Karen," as she is now known thanks to some considerate -- and prudent -- identity-protecting steps taken by those toward whom her rage was directed, apparently found a group of students in her classroom demonstrating a Linux-enabled laptop not long ago and handing out disks loaded with the operating system. The technology Visit the VMware Tech Center, it seems, came from the HeliOS Project, which aims to give Linux-enabled computers to kids who can't afford them.

Warning: Readers with pacemakers or poor circulation may want to sit down before continuing.

"I am sure you strongly believe in what you are doing but I cannot either support your efforts or allow them to happen in my classroom," Karen wrote in her letter to HeliOS Solutions' Ken Starks. "At this point, I am not sure what you are doing is legal. No software is free and spreading that misconception is harmful," she charged.

'Holding Our Kids Back'

"I will research this as time allows and I want to assure you, if you are doing anything illegal, I will pursue charges as the law allows," she went on. "Mr. Starks, I along with many others tried Linux during college and I assure you, the claims you make are grossly over-stated and hinge on falsehoods. I admire your attempts in getting computers in the hands of disadvantaged people but putting Linux on these machines is holding our kids back."

Karen then concluded her letter with some helpful suggestions.

"This is a world where Windows runs on virtually every computer and putting on a carnival show for an operating system is not helping these children at all," she wrote. "I am sure if you contacted Microsoft, they would be more than happy to supply you with copies of an older [version] of Windows and that way, your computers would actually be of service to those receiving them..."

'Doesn't Pass the Smell Test'

Now, we realize it's difficult to find words after reading such a shocking set of statements, but that didn't stop Linux bloggers. After being posted on the Helios blog on Monday -- along with Starks' less-than-completely-patient response -- the topic got picked up on LXer on Tuesday, on Slashdot on Wednesday -- drawing more than 1,500 comments by Friday -- and on Digg on Thursday, where it garnered more than 5,500 Diggs and almost 800 comments in less than 24 hours.

So extreme were the reactions to the letter, in fact, that some doubted it was genuine.

"The original email sounds like a hoax or a prank to me," Slashdot blogger Mhall119 told LinuxInsider. "They had me up until they said they tried Linux in college and started comparing it to Windows. If they knew that much about Linux, they knew about GPL and open source. It doesn't pass the smell test."

'Comically Ignorant'

Similarly, "when I first read this exchange, I thought it was an Onion-style parody -- the aggressive ignorance, the 'tried it in college' line that manages to sound both dismissive and vaguely naughty, the lengths to which a misplaced, farcically wrong idea was being pushed, all seemed beyond reality," Slashdot editor Timothy Lord agreed.

"Imagine if the same teacher had said that there was no such thing as a free recipe, or that there was no such thing as a freely tellable tale or hummable song, or even that the public domain and any other form of permissive licensing does not exist," Lord told LinuxInsider. "Actually, those last things are essentially what she *is* denying -- that someone could both publish and intentionally give away the codified, crystallized tracks of their thoughts.

"I hope two words flashed through the minds of any parents who read Karen's comically ignorant missive: 'Teacher's Union'," Lord concluded.

Hostility and Blame

Along similar lines: "It's not shocking that no one even questions that a schoolteacher could be that clueless," Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told LinuxInsider. "I can't imagine any group more hostile to people who enjoy technology or self learning than teachers."

When Mack was in high school, "the teachers tended to blame the most technologically adept student in the room -- usually me -- when their BIOS passwords disappeared, rather than the cheap motherboards with the dead batteries that were the actual cause," Mack recounts.

"Don't even get me started on the idea of keeping students out of class while the teachers went on strike 'on principle' over a smaller wage gain that brought in less money over the life of the contract than they lost during the strike," Mack added.

'Character Assassinations Ain't Us'

Indeed, teachers and their unions figured prominently in Starks' original response to the letter as well, unleashing a virtual firestorm of bile and accusations.

"I certainly didn't like Mr. Stark's response," Mhall119 said. "The open source community would have been better off if he had sent a strictly informative response, rather than flaming a (supposedly) middle school teacher."

Similar outcry was heard throughout the blogosphere, causing Starks to post a follow-up on Friday -- titled "Character-Assassinations Ain't Us" -- in which he provided more context and apologized for some of his initial reactions. He also steadfastly refused to reveal Karen's full identity -- despite the fact that at least one significant bribe had been offered for the information.

Memories of Days Gone By

Nevertheless, by that point the story had taken on a life of its own. Since the initial post, it has grown into a far-reaching discussion of not just one woman's ignorance but higher-level questions such as school budgets, the education of teachers, nastiness in the Linux community and, of course, the role of Redmond.

"I was shocked that a school teacher, of all people, could be so ignorant to the fact that her student, as well as the students crowded around the computer, were showing a willingness to learn something new and she blatantly stopped that from happening," Adam Kane, a blogger on Foogazi, told LinuxInsider.

"She shows the ignorance that a lot of everyday computer users have about Linux," Kane added. "Most people remember Linux from five, 10 or even 20 years ago, when it wasn't capable of being used as an everyday desktop as it is today. They remember hearing that Linux is used by 'hackers' and 'smart geeks,' and -- most of all -- 'it's too hard to install.'"

Savvy users of the technology, however, "know that none of these statements hold true today, and Linux has come leaps and bounds even in the past year," Kane added.

'An Elephant in the Room'

"I'd love to call the teacher out on her lack of technical savvy, but the teachers' universe can be a hostile one," Slashdot blogger yagu told LinuxInsider. "Teachers strike a balance between many opposing factions: parents who want teachers to babysit, pressure to build collectively higher test scores, and Microsoft. I don't think teachers get sufficient training to do justice to more difficult subjects, especially technology."

The teacher's lack of intellectual curiosity is "frustrating," yagu admitted, but "in all of this, the elephant in the room is Microsoft," he said. "Microsoft has so dominated PC technology, most don't have the slightest idea what Linux is!"

Linux provides a superior product by many measures, but "there isn't much advertising, there isn't much budget to advertise, and people instinctively do not trust 'free,'" yagu added. "The teacher in this discussion demonstrates that in spades."

A Political Issue

More than just a market issue, it is a political one, Monochrome Mentality blogger Kevin Dean asserted.

"This speaks directly to the authoritarian nature of government-run schools," Dean told LinuxInsider. "Teachers tend to be some of the most resistant to anything that results in 'less government,' and a challenge of the school-used tools could very well have been an attack on that."

It's "unfortunate that so many people who support Free Software misidentify the very nature of attacks on software freedom," Dean added. "Patents are a government thing, enforced at the point of a gun if they want, and yet Free Software advocates blame businesses who are themselves forced to use that system."

To wit: "Government-run school systems hold children and parents captive, at gunpoint if they want, to the software mandates of uneducated people, and yet Microsoft is blamed even though they depend on the voluntary contribution of money to them for their goods," he charged.

A Teacher's Perspective

Perhaps the best perspective of all, however, comes from Robert Pogson, himself a teacher and blogger on the subject of Linux.

"I am a teacher and I have made a few mistakes," Pogson began. "I plan to retire in June, so perhaps I will make fewer mistakes in the future."

The letter has created "an amazing story, but it is true that many so-called educators have a narrow outlook on the world," Pogson told LinuxInsider. "They see their classroom, issues in their school and issues on the radar in their area of specialization, and that's all. Unless a teacher has a life outside of education, the teacher can easily get into a rut."

'Teachers Are Not All the Same'

Many teachers, for example, "are used to violating copyright because they never have enough resources in their schools," Pogson said. Others "think it is illegal to change the OS on a PC," he added.

"I have met teachers who think free software means copyright violation," he said. "I have met teachers who ran from the room screaming when I showed them GNU/Linux running on the PC in the lab in which they had only seen that other OS."

Nevertheless, "teachers are not all the same," Pogson cautioned. "There are many technologically literate teachers in schools who are willing to learn about free software."

Helping Teachers 'Escape'

The tide is turning, he added, as school divisions begin to adopt GNU/Linux as a cost-saver or for ease of management and to get off "the Wintel treadmill," he explained.

One of Pogson's last acts as a teacher before retirement will be to give a presentation to a conference of teachers in February.

"I plan to allow the audience to set up a GNU/Linux terminal server on Debian in virtual machines and to use thin clients," he said. "Teachers will see that they do not need Wintel to educate. It will be a pleasure to help a few more teachers escape."

Looking ahead, "enlightenment comes slowly sometimes," Pogson concluded. "The early adopters have done their thing, and now the main body of teachers will have a chance to change. There is plenty of good news these days to offset this particularly bad item."

Turning the Focus Inward

Meanwhile, within the FOSS community, too, it's probably safe to say that not a few eyes have been opened about the dangers of ignorance, stereotypes and making assumptions.

"While I was as outraged as anyone about the ignorance exhibited by Karen in the email snippet you posted before, I was absolutely horrified by some of the comments posted here and on Slashdot," Steve G. wrote in response to Starks' apologetic follow-up. "It did *not* make me proud to be a member of the open source community."

"Good on you!" echoed Xetheriel. "I'm glad to see that there was more misunderstanding and less ignorance than was originally presented."

And on that note, dear readers, we'll leave you to ponder this fiery week for yourselves. What are your conclusions? Please comment and let us know!


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