The new talk in the halls of education policy makers is computer science. Gina Raimondo has been pushing for the implementation of a in-depth Computer Science curriculum and students this year are using Google Chromebooks in the classroom already.
The Computer Science for Rhode Island (CS4RI) effort is the first major public appearance of Richard Culatta, whose installation last year as an “Innovation Officer” cabinet member at the Rhode Island College Foundation brought scrutiny. Patrick Anderson wrote for the Providence Journal:
Although Raimondo said Culatta will be a member of her cabinet, he will not be employed by a state agency, but instead by the Rhode Island College Foundation, the school’s nonprofit fundraising arm, which will pay his $210,000 annual salary and benefits. (His contract also includes a $550 monthly car allowance and a supplemental retirement benefit worth 10 percent of base salary, or $21,000.)
Following the announcement of such an unusual arrangement, Sen. Paul Jabour announced he would ask Attorney General Kilmartin to investigate the matter, at which point I argued it would also be worthwhile to ask whether this was connected to the ouster of RIC President Carriuolo.
One of this reporter’s sources that is currently in the Department of Computer Science and Statistics at University of Rhode Island pointed out that programming jobs are expected to shrink by 8% in the next few years, including in terms of salary. This means that Raimondo could in fact be creating an influx of laborers that would cheapen costs of employing the labor pool, not giving these students a competitive edge in high-paying tech jobs as much as insuring they can only get low wages for their special skill set. The Bureau of Labor Statistics points out regarding programmers that “[t]he projected percent change [of -8% is] in employment from 2014 to 2024. The average growth rate for all occupations is 7 percent.” The BLS does however say that “[e]mployment of software developers is projected to grow 17 percent from 2014 to 2024, much faster than the average for all occupations. The main reason for the rapid growth is a large increase in the demand for computer software.” Would this mean that the development field would absorb this shrinkage and resulting unemployed workers from the programming field?
However, there is a further dark comedy to this issue. Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, is a longtime education deform advocate and was behind the implementation of Common Core. The state relies on Microsoft for a good deal of computing needs, so much so that “[o]n Wednesday [September 28], Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President Fred Humphries will join Raimondo during a coding class at Central Falls High School”, according to a story by Linda Borg in the ProJo. It is a case of the state quite literally rewarding the very people behind the union busting in public education!
The common response here is that Microsoft is really the only option, that Macs are just as problematic, and that you need to have a vibrant computer science curriculum in a competitive job force.
Or is that really so? What if there was a way to teach coding, protect teacher unions, and on top of that cut a huge chunk out of education expenses?
It is not as far-fetched as one might suppose. The alternative to Windows is not just Mac, there is a third option called Linux, a series of free operating systems that have all the accessibility and capabilities of Microsoft but with no cost. There are literally hundreds of variations, called “flavors”, that exist all across the globe and feature their lovable mascot Tux the penguin. There’s the ever-technical yet stable Slackware, the office-friendly Ubuntu, and the student-catered Fedora.
Originally released in 1991, it has become a small subculture in the computer world. The basic unit of the system is called the kernel, the foundation cornerstone. From there online communities of programmers worldwide work together to update and design new features for the operating systems and programs to run on them. The programs that have been created in this community are so popular that there are Microsoft and Mac varieties now, available for free and created due to demand and popularity. Case and point, this reporter uses LibreOffice, a powerful suite of programs with all the abilities of Microsoft’s Office but none of the yearly costs for license renewal, on a Mac desktop.
For further illustration of how one can use Linux, I will use my own example. In 2005, my parents purchased a Dell laptop for me for college with a powerful video card for my needs as a film major. But within two years, after my warranty had expired, the Windows installation began to fail. Rather than pay for a new computer or expensive repairs, I instead was able to install Fedora on the laptop. It had all the same programs and layout of Windows and even a few added elements the old Microsoft installation would never have been able to handle.
That sort of re-purposing of old computers is not just cost-cutting, it is better for the environment due to the hazardous materials that can pollute if so-called ‘e-waste’ is improperly disposed of. Furthermore, it reduces costs because municipalities are no longer paying for yearly Microsoft Windows user licenses. Perhaps it also bears mentioning here that one of the greatest hustles in American electronic sales history is the way personal computers are sold intentionally to fail. The manufacturers sell as a standard model a machine that has too little RAM. For a few years, these machine will work fine but then begin to slow down, meaning within a five year span it is time for a new one. Or so customers would think. In fact RAM is a relatively cheap enhancement to add to a computer at any point and can extend the life of your machine substantially. Adding new RAM to older machines while converting to Linux could provide the state and municipalities with a huge savings if executed correctly. Such a transition would also offset the losses expected by BLS in the programming field by creating new jobs.
Ironically, some people are already using variations of Linux in their daily life and do not realize it. The most prominent example would be on any mobile device, like a cell phone or e-book reader, using the Android system, which is a Linux flavor. Wikipedia explains that:
Linux distributions have also gained popularity with various local and national governments. The federal government of Brazil is well known for its support for Linux. News of the Russian military creating its own Linux distribution has also surfaced, and has come to fruition as the G.H.ost Project. The Indian state of Kerala has gone to the extent of mandating that all state high schools run Linux on their computers. China uses Linux exclusively as the operating system for its Loongson processor family to achieve technology independence. In Spain, some regions have developed their own Linux distributions, which are widely used in education and official institutions, like gnuLinEx in Extremadura and Guadalinex in Andalusia. France and Germany have also taken steps toward the adoption of Linux. North Korea’s Red Star OS, developed since 2002, is based on a version of Fedora Linux.
We learn in the same Wikipedia article that “Edubuntu and The Linux Schools Project, as well as the Debian derivative Skolelinux, provide education-oriented software packages. They also include tools for administering and building school computer labs and computer-based classrooms, such as the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP).” Here is a video demonstration of Edubuntu at work:
In fact there is a significant level of Linux use by major computing corporations, including Amazon and IBM. Motion picture special effects companies and animation houses like Industrial Light and Magic (the people behind STAR WARS) or DreamWorks Animation (SHREK and KUNG FU PANDA) all use it. Generating a unique version of the operating system that would preserve security and ease of use could be of lower cost than Microsoft license renewals if implemented correctly. The fact that there are certain limitations on Linux in terms of gaming would actually prove to be a benefit for computing teachers because a major classroom problem is students using programs they should not be that are standard on Windows platforms.
Naysayers will argue that getting used to a new computer system like this would be hard work and still cost time. But that is not as certain as one might think. Remember those Chromebooks making a debut across the state this year?
They run on a flavor of Linux developed by Google.