Learning from Education


Last week I went along to the Westminster Education Forum. The programme was only peripherally concerned with open source – Mark Taylor from Sirius was talking – but I wanted to get a feel for the context in which computers were being used in schools.

As well as Mark, there was a representative from Microsoft: no surprise there, but what was very noticeable was the way that Microsoft's software was simply a given in the educational context. This is extremely unfortunate, at many levels.

Cost is obviously one issue. Schools are perennially short of cash, and the Microsoft tax imposed on them is a burden they could do without. Security is crucial, especially given the propensity of young people to download stuff without thinking too much about the consequences; using software whose security record leaves a lot to be desired is clearly a sub-optimal solution.

Closed source code is also a bad match for what schools should be teaching: the ability to learn and to explore. Closed source precludes opening up the box, and reinforces an attitude of passivity and unthinking obedience. Too often, schools are teaching pupils where to find the Print command on the File menu, instead of helping pupils learn about how computers can be a powerful and flexible tool.

I wanted to find out about how computers are being used in education because this time forms the prelude to computing at work. Children are essentially being brainwashed that computing *is* Windows and Office, which means this is what they expect in the outside world, and that they often resist attempts to change the software on the PC.

Microsoft, of course, knows this, which is why it is spending increasing sums on courting educators, and seeding the market, both in the UK and abroad, often by offering extremely low-cost deals to fend off the threat that open source might get a foothold in education.

This would be disastrous for the company; once it is shown that pupils can use free software solutions, and that they work and learn just as well with it, word will get out on the teacher grapevine, and more people will consider making the move. The myth of the indispensability of Microsoft's products for the educational process will have been dispelled.

That's all old news. But recently, I've been hearing increasingly about another area in education where Microsoft is firmly entrenched, and where those setting the policy seem utterly unwilling to contemplate creating a level playing field for open source programs.

This is particularly ironic since the institution in question is none other than the “Open” University, and yet it seems anything but open-minded:

Gerry Gavigan, chairman of the UK's Open Source Consortium, wrote a letter to OU vice chancellor Brenda Gourley almost exactly a month ago, suggesting that the OU would honour its founding principles if it encouraged its 220,000 students to adopt Open Source alternatives to Microsoft software. The switch would do more than that, it would save them money.

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