[Haifux] Student complaints.

Nadav Har'El nyh at math.technion.ac.il
Mon Feb 2 11:51:51 IST 2009

On Mon, Jan 26, 2009, Yossi Gil wrote about "[Haifux] Student complaints.":
> Folks, here is the list of the unedited gripe list of students. As you will
> see, some of the problems are educational (MS WORD is sexy), other are
> organizational (not enough quota), while others are technical (Eclipse
> crashes). I am asking for your help mainly in dealing with the
> psychological  issues... Make it easier and more exciting for the students
> to work with Linux.

Hi Yossi. I am not a student at the Technion, I finished my BA 15 years ago
already and my MSc nine years ago (boy, time flies). But I do have some
comments that might be valuable.

Most of the complaints deal either with either bugs in the Linux system
or with differences between it and the Windows system they are used to.

The first type of complaint (bugs) is valid, but a bit harsh on Linux,
because if you go to a Windows farm, or a SGI farm (those were the days...),
or whatever, and spend hours upon hours there, you're also bound to find
problems and bugs there. These bugs should be fixed, mitigated or at worst
documented, but there is no way to avoid them completely. The better your
system administrator is, the less your users will notice these problems.

If your system administrator thinks that a 10 MB quota is enough for users
(when I was a student, this is what the t2 admins thought :-)), he can't
blaim Linux when users constantly go over this quota.

The second type of complaint is more problematic in my opinion. Here the
students are almost saying "I came to the Technion knowing operating system
X, and I don't want to learn and use another one". This is a strange attitude
to come to school with. I think the students who are saying this simply
do not understand all the value and experience they are getting by working
on Linux for a change. Here are, for example, some of these added value that
they are getting:

1. They are getting experience in yet another technology needed in the job
   market. And we're not talking here about some esoteric software that nobody
   will need in two years, but rather a system, Unix, that has been in
   constant (and growing) use since the 80s and used to run some of the
   most exciting servers we all here about on the news.

2. They get exposed to more software engineering philosophies, operating
   system design issues, ways of thinking, that simply do not exist in
   Windows. The shell (command line), scripting and automation of everything,
   separation of Window system from OS, server processes, configuration files,
   and much much more. And of course there is the whole free software
   philosophy and the thriving world of free software development that exists
   out there.

3. If they choose to use the same OS at home, they can get it absolutely
   free. Last time I checked, students always complain about the lack of
   money - so I find it hard to understand their desire to pay for Windows
   and the outrageously-expensive MS-Office.

4. A typical Linux system has a much bigger variety of software than Windows,
   simply because on Windows every piece of commercial software (which is
   the type of software these students are wishing for) costs money.
   In a software development lab, most likely nobody will purchase software
   for photo editing, for OCR, for PDF encoding, for speech synthesis, or
   who knows what a student might need for his or her project or personal
   interests. On Linux, all of these things come (depending on how/what
   you installed) already with your OS, absolutely free.

5. When they get to know Linux, they will learn that while there are indeed
   things that are more convenient on Windows, there are other things that
   are actually more convenient to do on Linux! Remote login and automation
   are just two examples.
And now we come to what I consider the greatest advantage of Linux as a
teaching device over any commercial system, be it Windows or Sun or Mac.

I'll start with a personal story.

My first encounter with Unix was a bit over twenty years ago. 
My father was working in AT&T Bell Labs in New Jersey (where Unix, C, and
a lot of other great stuff was invented). He let me - a ten year old
boy - play around with the Unix system there from home, and gave me two
great books to learn from (Kernighan&Pike's "The Unix Programming Environment" 
and Kernighen&Ritchie's "The C Programming Language").
But after I learned the basics from the books, one of the best things about
learning to program in Bell Labs was that the source code of everything was
available: When I wanted to know how some feature of "vi" worked, I could
read the code and feel Bill Joy's joy of writing it. When I wanted to improve
the Basic interpreter (don't ask ;-)), I just did. When the "new line
discipline" was invented circa 1985 (allowing backspace to actually erase
the character instead of just moving the cursor :-)), I read the "stty"
source code to learn how it can be enabled. And so on, and so on.

This was an amazing learning experience. To learn that on a computer,
everything has a reason, and that reason can be traced. If something
doesn't work properly, a programmer's recourse isn't to complain, isn't
to pray that it will get fixed, but it is to find and fix the bug.

Imagine that you're studying theoretical CS without access to the library.
You're told that you can learn what you hear in class, but if you wish to
learn more on a certain specific topic, you can't go to the library and
pick up a book about it. This is what learning programming on Windows is
like: Sure, you can do the exercises you get in class. But what if during
these exercises you discover an interesting question about the OS you're
using or one of its applications? You can't go to the source code ("the
library") and learn from it.

This is, I think, something that the students need to understand.
Learning computer programming on Linux is a gift, not a chore. I think
that if they seriously love computers (and didn't just come to study CS
because it's the fashion) they will be greatful for this gift for the rest
of their life. I know that I am.

Now I'll address some of the specific comments:

>  הנושאים היחידים אליהם אתייחס הם נושאי לינוקס. במשך שנתיים אני נמצאת במעבדה
> כמעט כל יום, > ל היום (פרט לזמן בו אני נמצאת בהרצאות)

It is quite obvious that these students do not only program on these
computers, but also do everything else on them. And today even more than
in the past, people need computers for a lot of things.

The system administrator needs to be aware of this fact and configure the
system accordingly - he cannot be cheap in quotas, he has to install a
large variety of software (this is quite easy to do in Linux), and has
to listen to the needs of the students.

Moreover, it would be ridiculous if the teachers send the students to use
these machines, but then demand them to use Windows (e.g., by needing
to send MS-Office documents, by asking them to install Windows software,

>    ספציפית לגבי הפרויקט בשבוע האחרון קרו לנו פעמים תקלות בהעברת קבצים ממחשבי
>    המעבדה הביתה. לכולנו יש בבית מחשבי windows וכאשר תכננו משימות לשבוע
>    במחשבי המעבדה בהעברה למחשבים בבית פעמיים היו בעיות התאמת פורמט ומישהו היה
>    צריך להגיע לטכניון (למחשבי linux) כדי לטפל בבעיה לאפשר לקבוצה להמשיך
>    לעבוד בבית.

All these format issues should be dealt with a clue stick ;-)

The only format issue that cannot be solved in a trivial manner are the
office formats, and even there the solution is quite clear: DON'T USE
MS-OFFICE. Use OpenOffice, both at home (it works on Windows!) and at
the Technion. And remember that OpenOffice *can* read MS-Office documents,
quite well.

When these students go out to the real world, they *will* encounter systems
of many types, not just Windows: Linux, Unix, mainframes, embedded systems,
and so on and so on. It's a good thing to learn how to manage working on
different types of systems together without needing to complain about
formats, file transfers, etc., and instead knowing how to quickly solve
these kinds of problems when they arise.

>    בכל פעם שעלינו להכין מצגת או גרפים אנו עוברים למחשב שאינו במעבדה בגלל
>    שאנו רגילים לעבוד ב windows ועבודה בו חוסכת לנו זמן. הפרויקט דורש הכנת
>    מצגות רבות במהלכו ולכן נראה לי שהמעבדה שאחת ממטרותיה היא לשרת אותו אמורה
>    לספק כלים נוחים להכנת מצגות וגרפים.

These and similar questions shows students that appear not to want to
learn anything new in the Technion, and continue to do what they are used
to, just because they are used to. I don't accept this attitude.

Besides, the saying goes: "The nipple is the only intuitive interface -
everything else is learned".

>  אני מניחה שהמחשבים לא יועברו בחזרה ל windows בקרוב. אבל אני מקווה
> שתלונותינו יעזרו לבאים אחרינו.

This is a good point. Maybe you should start a document or a Wiki or
something titled "Using the Linux Lab for a Windows User" which talks
about all the pitfalls and surprises a Windows fan will encounter when
he or she starts to use the Linux lab.

>    לא ניתן להתקין plagins ותוכנות שיסייעו לנו בעבודה השוטפת על הפרויקט.

Here the solution needs to be two two-pronged: First, the system administrator
needs to be responsive and open to requests to install new software that
students need. Second, the users should have enough quota to install new
software on their own directory, if they wish to.

It appears the quota problem is repeated by almost everyone who commented.
I suggest that you should address this issue *immediately*. Disks are so
cheap today, that there's simply no excuse to be cheap on quota. If you want,
I can eleborate.
This would be, no question about it, the first task I would ask the
sysadmins to take care of.

>    מחשבים לא מזהים התקני USB  לא ניתן לבצע גיבויים לפרויקט ולהעביר קבצים
>    בין מחשבים.

Why does this happen? This issue simply needs to be solved.

>  *אני יודע שלרוב הבעיות ישנן פתרונות מקומיים**, **אולם אין סיבה שמעבר לשעות
> הנדרשות לביצוע הפרויקט עצמו **"**נבזבז**" **עוד שעות רבות במאבקים עם מחשבי
> המעבדה**!!!*

Again, somebody who things that learning how to solve real problems that
happen on real machines is a waste of time. I think this is valuable

> בהיבט השלילי הדבר שהכי מפריע בעבודה עם לינוקס הוא תחליפי האופיס שמותקנים בה.
> רוב המצגות והמסמכים שאנחנו כותבים נערכים גם בבית וגם במעבדה, ויש הרבה בעיות
> בהעברת קבצים כאלה מאופיס של מיקרוסופט לתחליפי אופיס

Again, did anybody tell them that they can install OpenOffice at home too,
and save hundreds of shekels in the process?

This was my (pretty long) 2 cents. I hope it helped, even a bit.


Nadav Har'El                        |       Monday, Feb  2 2009, 8 Shevat 5769
nyh at math.technion.ac.il             |-----------------------------------------
Phone +972-523-790466, ICQ 13349191 |I have a watch cat! If someone breaks in,
http://nadav.harel.org.il           |she'll watch.

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