Learning to learn

"It's too difficult! Why can't it just be simple, like I'm used to?" I've been hearing that a lot recently. No, not from the mouths of people struggling to learn Linux. Quite the opposite, actually.

You see, my wife is currently taking a college course that requires the use of "alternative" software. Perhaps you have heard of the package -- it's called Microsoft Corp.'s Office.

Is the problem really that the package is too difficult to use? No, the issue is it's simply not what my wife is accustomed to using. It's not that learning Office is a hurdle too tall to jump over; the objection is that the hurdle exists at all. Life would be so much easier if we didn't have to learn new skills now and again to accomplish things.

The problem is certainly not unique to my wife. In fact, I regularly get e-mail from folks who echo the same sentiment. For example, I get letters proclaiming that open source is not ready for prime time. Is this because the software lacks a mission-critical feature? In most cases, no. More times than not, the complaint is that unless the interface is identical to that of Windows, it's no good. And for some folks, unless open source runs Office, it's just not ready for prime time.

Aside from the truly frightening concept that a business' survival might actually rest on the ability to run a particular office-productivity package, there is clearly something else at work here. When keystroke-for-keystroke compatibility is the be-all and end-all, you are not talking about ease of use or readiness for prime time. You are talking about unwillingness to learn.

Learning new things takes some work. The unknown always has some degree of difficulty associated with it. But in an industry where technologies rise and fall about as fast as the hemlines on Paris runways, not learning is not an option. Timely acquisition of new skills is essential.

Open source is not inherently difficult to use or administer. The modern Linux distributions in particular have some excellent user and administrative interfaces. My home network consists of 14 machines spanning five hardware architectures and three open-source OSes. My administrative overhead for the whole group can be measured in minutes per month. I spend more time each month unfreezing my wife's Windows Me box.

It's also not true that other OSes are truly easy to administer. If that were the case, why would we bother with expensive certifications for Windows administrators? We don't certify people to do easy things; we certify them for difficult tasks. We even pay premium salaries to certified workers.

Learning is as essential to survival in the IT world as oxygen is for survival in the natural world. The costs of learning are an inevitable expense. Hiding from the cost of learning is like hiding from the dark; in the end, it gets you nowhere.

Don't let the task of learning keep you from adopting open-source solutions where they make sense.

What do you think? Send me e-mail at pavlicek@linuxadvocacy.com.

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