Windows in Schools, Open Source at Home

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Anyone remember Computer Assisted Learning or CAL? No? Well it's back.

Ever since the first computer to draw a graph or do that parsing thing to allow kids to fill in missing words, ICT has been the 'Great Beige Hope' that would revolutionise teaching and learning.

It's all tosh by the way. Ignore the fake stats and the deluded evangelists. CAL (or interactive computer lead learning) is simply a gimmick perpetuated by the faux trendsetters with good hair that stalk education.

If you need proof, the latest band-wagoners are Sun Microsystems and Microsoft Corp. The former trumpet their new e-learning for Generation Y (grief..) and the latter are to supply free of charge MS products to UK school kids to help them through the upcoming Swine Flu-generated school closures!

Give me a break, if these two Co's are the CAL vanguard you know you are in trouble. CAL died out during the mezozoic era* re-emerging in the VLE (virtual learning environment) which in turn was ignored by schools en masse.

So all was well in Sleepy Hollow. OK you had the occasional pundit 'discovering' CAL again and corporations out of ideas in general, 're-inventing it, but by and large it was safely back in its beige box.

Oh no. Here comes the H1N1 virus or Swine Flu.

School's Out

Swine Flu is of course a serious subject and we are resigned to its return this Autumn. It affects mostly those of school age.

Swine Flu is from a human psychological perspective an 'Apocalypse Soon' scenario.

Unlike 'Apocalypse Now' and 'Apocalypse Later', scenarios which in turn produce 'headless chicken style wild overreaction or no response at all, 'Apocalypse Soon' allows bureaucrats to plan and do; scary.

Schools are perfect for disease transmission. They gather together the infected and the well into large groups. Here they are encouraged to assemble and to share bugs. Then they are sent back into their communities.

Pick your infection vector, there are so many. How about communal unsanitised keyboards and mice (why are they always black?) ? In hospitals, viruses and bacteria like MRSA can survive up to six weeks on keyboards so it's likely to be the same in a school.

So not panicking the UK Gov (and Microsoft) have worked out that apocalypse soon means schools will have to close. Hence teaching and learning will shift to the home.

This means that in this day and age Teaching and Learning will be delivered electronically.

Is CAL back for real this time, maybe not?

Home Learning Essentials

Just what then is needed to deliver teaching and learning outside school?

You will need a computer and a broadband connection and the following:

1) Information (replacement for text books and work sheets)

Information is delivered via the Web Browser either directly or via a Portal such as a VLE which has extra functions such as collaborative and assessment features.

2) Courses

As defined by the schemes of work on the VLEs

3) Communication ( direct human to human contact- teacher to pupil- pupil to pupil)

This means peer to peer: Video-VOIP, Instant Messaging, file sharing. Use e-mail if you must.

4) Application Software to do stuff

Writing, Mathematical, Creative (visual, music).

Note, not included above are xyz pieces of proprietary computer software which help students to learn 'maths' or 'do English' etc. The reason is:

a) they don't work,
b) they only cover small niche areas of learning,
c) they cost money which we don't have

Point C also brings us to why all of the above will be Free Software and mostly Free, Open Source Software.

Home Learning and Freedom

By and large schools use one operating system and have computers of similar ages which use much the same proprietary software. All children attending a given school thus have the same opportunity be it good or poor, it is the same at least.

This is not the case at home. At home there is a range of platforms and operating systems and a vast range in the age and capability of the hardware.

So for example a product like IE7 delivers Windows platform-specific content (eg. SharePoint Portals) which is OK (if unethical) for a college but totally unacceptable in every home.

Equality of opportunity is enshrined in our public educational ethos (obviously the opposite is true in the fee paying sector). This has important consequences for software choice.

Short of re-supplying school children with new hardware and a complete set of given away free licenced software, inequality is the necessary consequence of sticking with proprietary software. Some can afford it some can not. Photoshop anyone? The solution is xFOSS.

Cross-Platform Free Open Source Software (xFOSS)

If you think FOSS is for Linux then think again and start Googling (or Binging). I have a Linux box (Mint 7 KDE 4, try it), a Mac and a Vista Dell (my Wife's, honest). I use the same FOSS on all three.

xFOSS simply allows all students, schools and teachers to access the same high quality facilities for free.

The Learn at Home generation may fare well or poorly, either way simple fairness implies that they will use xFOSS at home. My feeling is that separating teaching and learning away from other aspects of schools will be very effective. It will be an interesting experiment.

Conclusion

Swine Flu will close schools. Technology will make home learning effective and may change schooling for ever. The software will be free and largely open source despite those generous offers from Microsoft.

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