Concepts Trump Information
"The fact is, in the real world everyone uses proprietary software. If you make students learn free software in school, they will be ill-equipped to handle their jobs when they go into the work force."I can personally testify to encountering this argument twice during my last few years as a free software in education supporter. Further to the fact that this argument erroneously assumes a real world monopoly-lock in every area of proprietary software (should every school purchase licenses for both Quark and Pagemaker?), here's why I find it specious...
I don't teach students to memorize and regurgitate. I don't teach students to use MS Word or OpenOffice Writer. I use such applications to teach word processing. I don't teach students to use Mozilla or Internet Explorer. I use such applications to teach web browsing. I don't teach students Scribus or Adobe Pagemaker. I use such applications to teach desktop publishing. I don't teach students Logo, Guido van Robot or Python. I use such languages to teach programming. I don't aim to have students memorize the 5,6, or 7 steps it takes to perform a specific task. I teach menus, how they are organized and thus, where they would likely find a sought after function in any similar application. This is not to say that memorization does not occur - of course it does. But most of that memorization occurs unconsciously and is secondary to conceptual understanding. There are those (Marc Prensky calls them the "digital immigrants") who aim to memorize step-by-step procedures and consequently struggle when faced with learning a different application that performs the same task. Though understandable, this is the mindset that falsely posits the difficulties students will encounter in the "real world". This is the mindset that carries with it what Prensky calls the "digital immigrant accent". Borrowing another Prensky term, we need to treat our younger students as "Digital Natives".
I read an interesting book last summer called "A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age" by Daniel H. Pink. Today's students will need to adapt to changing technologies all their lives. To argue that we leave them unprepared by not using the "most popular" software is questionable and indicative of putting left-brain thinking on a pedestal. Pink argues effectively that a major shift is occurring, putting right-brain thinking in the driver's seat. Information is not necessarily power - it's how we design and give meaning to that information that will matter. That means students must be well-equipped for easy adaptability to ever-changing technologies. This means they must have a broader understanding of conceptual tasks. They must see interrelationship - and therefore acquire an increased ability in finding equivalent procedures between differing software environments. This means they need the ability to actively help themselves as all needed information will be at their fingertips. That is, students who have simply been taught to memorize one way of doing things will not be ready for tomorrow.