Linux and Open Source: The epitome of 21st Century Skills - My reflections on the Linux Foundation Collaboration Summit

This is a cross-post from our project blog

I know several readers of this blog are reading it for their interest in Linux and not so much for their interest in education. However, let me speak specifically to the educators for a moment. Besides, this is going to be a long post. A lot of us are looking at our schools and seeking ways to improve the application of 21st Century Skills into our environments. Many of us have recognized that the traditional models of instruction need to be shaken up a little as they are no longer reflective of the world in which we are sending our students. That was never more clear to me than this week. I spent the week in Austin, Texas as a guest of the Linux Foundation at their Collaboration Summit. What I observed and experienced was the most comprehensive actualization of the 21st Century workplace I could have imagined.

Though, at Whitfield, we are merging several notions of 21st Century learning to create one that best fits our school (something I would encourage you all to do) for the purpose of greater clarity, I will use the framework from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (“P21”) as a model for this discussion. The model identifies a new skill set for our consideration and suggests a framework for creating a sustainable environments for this kind of learning. The framework on which the skills are built is very good but will not be discussed in this post. Instead I will focus on the “rainbow” of 21st Century Skills.

Before I get into the model, I'd like to provide a little background on the Linux Foundation Collaboration Summit. The Linux Foundation is one of the key bodies dedicated to the support of the use of Linux, an open source operating system. Linux is not owned by a company, like Microsoft or Apple. Instead, it is created and maintained by groups of individuals from around the globe dedicated to making it work. Now, many of these teams include people from companies interested in seeing Linux succeed, such as IBM, Novell, Oracle, Google and Redhat. However, none of them “own” Linux and it can not really be sold. However, several companies, such as Novell and RedHat sell versions of Linux that include enterprise level support. Linux has prolific deployment in data centers. Almost everyone has Linux in their server room. However, most may not know it. It is usually an appliance, like a spam filter or remote access appliance, or a router. At home you may have Linux in your TiVO, television or car. I was invited to the conference to talk about how our students use Linux on their laptops. It was a chance for those who build it to hear how it is used by those who have little to no idea what is “under the hood.” I was honored to be there and they were extremely gracious hosts. However, for me, the magic was watching them collaborate during their few days together to identify issues, hash out conflicts and map out solutions.

OK. How was this 21st Century Skills? Oddly enough, it had very little to do with the technology. Instead it was all the things that show up in P21's Framework. The “rainbow” section of the framework has four parts; Core Content and 21st Century Themes, Learning and Innovation Skills, Information Media and Technology Skills, and Life and Career Skills. I will briefly break down each of those and discuss my observations of each.

The inside of the “rainbow” is Core Content and 21st Century Skills. New information is being created at an incredible rate. However, that doesn't mean we no longer need to learn fundamentals like reading, writing and math. We still need those basic skills as a foundation for new and ever changing information and knowledge. However, those skills can be taught in a cross curricular-manner within the context of a 21st century theme such as globalization.

At the Collaboration Summit, software developers from around the globe came together to discuss development standards. However, questions like legal access to DVD codecs and compatibility and adoption of standards within different media players colored the conversations. It wasn't enough to know “what” to code or “how” to code it. That's the “easy” part! Developers had to take international law as well as regional and global market demands into consideration. Though we all know information doesn't exist in a vacuum, it was instantly clear just how interdependent the discipline of their training was with critical information outside of their formal training. This is where executives from companies from HP and Lenovo would come into play. Also, to add further clarity to some of these issues, the Linux Foundation also hosts another conference dedicated exclusively to the legal issues surrounding the implications of their code. However, the point remains that information becomes significantly more relevant (and complicated) when placed in a meaningful context.

The next section of the model is Life and Career Skills. P21 breaks this down into several areas: flexibility and adaptability, initiative and self direction, social and cultural skills, productivity and accountability, and leadership and responsibility. Every manager wishes his or her employees possessed each of these and launching an entrepreneurial venture without at least most of these is virtually impossible! Watching the developers of Linux employ these skills was simply amazing.

In some ways, it may be more appropriate to consider Linux leaders entrepreneurs than software developers. The operating system is really created of different parts with varying teams that work together, and sometimes compete, to build the comprehensive Linux environment. The Linux community consists of teams such as the kernel team,, Gnome, KDE, etc. These teams work to enhance the user's experience and increase the power of the Linux operating system. Many work on their own for no pay or as part of non-profit groups. Typically, their only compensation is a “free” ticket to meet with other developers. However, several companies pay people salaries to engage with these teams to make Linux more stable and pervasive.

However, with no central management, each of these developers and teams are working together “on their own.” They don't have something like Q4 quotas with the pressure of a stock report to weigh on them. They share in the identification of problems, allocation of duties and completion of subsequent tasks. They work across political, social, linguistic and cultural boarders. They do this out of passion, pride and purpose. Now this is not to say their work will not be identified and yield them a high paying job with companies using or supporting Linux. However, this is typically not the motivation and there are much easier ways to earn that kind of salary.

The next section of the framework is Information and Media Skills. This is broken down into the following areas: information literacy, media literacy, information communication and technology literacy. This area challenges us to understanding different forms of media and how to best interpret and use information that comes from the varying forms of media. What role to books, magazine, newspaper, TV, radio, web pages, blogs, chat, and social networks, etc. play in our lives? What do we need to consider to evaluate the value of a particular message? Though this area was less significant, it still plays out in an interesting way in the Linux community.

People in Linux communities appear to be a tight group at some levels. I think this comes from working hard together over a long period of time. However, a great deal of time can pass before one member of team actually sees another member, if ever! Many times I overheard, “Wow! It's great to put a face with the name!” Most of the time, people are working over the Internet via e-mail, chat, web portals and ftp directories. It requires a different set of communication skills to develop solid working relationships with these tools.

The final section of the model is Learning and Innovation Skills. The P21 Framework further breaks this down into critical thinking and problem solving, creativity and innovation, and communication and collaboration. This, more than any other section of the framework, challenges us to get things done! These are the skills I saw most clearly played out at the Linux Foundation Collaboration Summit.

The Linux Foundation is building an ecosystem of computing! It is not an application, a suite, or even just an operating system...they are building an ecosystem! This is not a company, it is many individuals and groups. It does not have an organizational chart, a building, merit based parking or any of the other things we associate with organizations capable of taking on such a task. Instead, brilliant and passionate individuals work, often in their “spare” time, to build this computing environment.

This first requires the ability to communicate and collaborate. The Internet (e-mail, forums and blogs) provide the conduits of communication but people still need to be able to use those tools, and language, to collaborate and get things done. These developers not only collaborate across national and socio-economic borders, they also work across technical boundaries. What are the needs of the hardware, firmware, OS, and even (gasp!) the end user! This last one is the tricky one. These developers and leaders in the Linux community really care about the end user. They have worked hard to create an ecosystem and they are willing to talk to “the rest of us” to learn how to meet our needs. Those of you who have talked to extremely technical people know what an obstacle this can be. Now, imagine adding the complexity of language and cultural barriers to that. To me, given these challenges, it is incredible that Linux can boot, yet alone provide such a pleasant user experience.

However, these challenges may be the birth of the next skill set, innovation and creativity. Their access to so many people across so many cultures certainly creates a hot bed of innovation. At Whitfield, we've been using Linux Desktop since Suse 9. That was three years ago. In those 3 quick years, Linux Desktop has matched or exceeded the innovation curve Microsoft made in their move from Windows 98 to Vista! Those who have used Linux for the last three years know I am really not kidding! Linux is no longer the follower. They are a leader in new technologies. Their recent move to real time computing for the data center is one testament to this.

Lastly, critical thinking and problem solving is simply built into the nature of programming. Gary Steger, an educational consultant, was saying at event I was at that he believes that every student should take programming simply because it is such a great exercise in problem solving. Though I'm not sure that really meets the needs of each student in the best way, his point has considerable merit. Also, insofar as this post seeks to make the argument that the Open Source world serves as a wonderful example of 21st Century Learning, I couldn't agree more. Developers are constantly dealing with bugs, new feature needs and upgrade compatibility issues. When things don't work, they are forced to break down what they know and develop strategies for attacking the problem. Also, because they are developing a real product that is being used by the entire Fortune 500, it is a pretty meaningful challenge. You can't just set it aside.

So what does this mean to us as educators? Though perhaps to a lesser extent, 21st Century Skills are being played out in very real ways in all sorts of industries. What makes Linux and the Open Source world unique or special? Other than being able to say, “ I was one of the 5 people who made it this far in this ridiculously long blog post” what good does it do me to know this?

Well, the answer is access. It is difficult to create opportunities for your students in other major international projects capable of creating such meaningful and authentic experiences. It costs you nothing (and may actually save you money) to include your students in the Open Source community. It costs nothing to participate in an open source project and replacing a commercial product with an open source one in your school to create the environment for learning may actually lower your software budget. Not only does Linux and the Open Source community provide one of the best examples of 21st Century Skills, but its one that you have access to. How cool is that?!

OK. The next question is “how do I do it? I don't know anything about Linux! Also, I teach History for goodness sake, what does this even have to do with me?” A simple way is to begin using Open Source software in your school. Give students access and then point them to the community that supports it, usually found in Help menu, under “About.” Encourage them to bring questions about the software to the community. Encourage them to read the forums. After gaining some experience with a product, such as OpenOffice, Audacity, or iTalc, contact the project leader to organize a project to formalize feedback. Run the product through the paces of authentic use and have students engage in the process of evaluating the tool as a means to their productive end. Thinking about the process is a form of metacognition. By evaluating the role of the tool they are thinking about their learning and productivity process. Ask students to provide feedback on the tool based on their project steps. The project leaders will greatly value structured feedback. Also, they may make changes in the product based on your feedback and ask your students to test the changes. You can decide if you are going to build that step into your class. However, this is where the real energy happens. When testing changes, students will be working with a team of people (possibly international) to solve problems and meet standards.

Not everyone will care to do much more than “get the project done.” However, the end result of ALL of our projects is nearly meaningless in the big picture of our student's lives. However, the experience we create for them in while DOING these projects can literally change their lives. The “secret sauce” has always been the process...the experience. Letting open source be part of that allows them to think more about that process and some of your students will take advantage of the opportunity and become regular participants in open source projects, thus placing them in the epicenter of all of the 21st Century Skills discussed above.

Schools such as the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy have a chapter of kids developing for the One Laptop Per Child program. Vern Ceder teaches programming in open source languages at Canterbury School in Indiana. One of the most lively open source communities I've ever seen is the Moodle community. I encourage you all to take a deeper look at Linux and Open Source as an opportunity to enhance your student's learning of 21st Century Skills.

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Comment by Shuchi Grover on April 27, 2008 at 9:30pm
Hi Alex, this is very informative. I have posted a link to this blog post in a discussion on FOSS in schools that I started yesterday. Please join that discussion as well :)
Comment by Miguel Guhlin on April 27, 2008 at 9:49pm
Great post. Wouldn't detractors of FOSS counter with, "Why can't these 21st Century learning ecosystems be built with proprietary software? Aren't these diverse ecosystems that result in innovation possible simply by the parent company (e.g. Microsoft) tapping in world users?

I suspect the easy answer is because MS products are closed and do not allow for the level of tinkering and "hacking" FOSS does. But what are your thoughts?

Miguel Guhlin
Around the
Comment by Alex Inman on April 28, 2008 at 7:45am
Hi Miguel,

Yes. Within each company, a proprietary company could create a similar model, and, of course, they already do. However, as you suggest, I think the level of depth is limited when compared to open systems. Also, as it relates to us as educators, the barriers for entry for our students are much lower in the open systems than with a proprietary system. Thanks for reading this obnoxiously long post! :-)

Comment by Cindy Seibel on April 28, 2008 at 8:20am
Thanks for the post Alex. I appreciated how you contextualized the rainbow" with the examples. I'll be sharing this with technical staff to help broaden their understanding about the role technology plays in learning (or in some cases as you've said, doesn't play).

Further to Miguel's comment, I wonder if Tapscott's Wikinomics concepts will ever take root with the "big boys". That is the ecosystem that produces better product, and a win-win for all. Standards are what makes connectivity work, not proprietary components.

Cindy Seibel
btw I found your post via the ctonetwork group in diigo. Thanks Miguel.
Comment by Alex Inman on April 28, 2008 at 11:41am
I really agree, indigo196. Our staff had no Linux experience when we dove into the Linux world. However, our dependency on outside support reduced significantly faster than I thought precisely for that reason. It was pretty easy to get in and figure out how to make the software do what we wanted. The application of simply problem solving skills goes a long way in the Linux world. I think that's great for me and my staff and I think it is even more wonderful for my students!


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