I was asked by a journalist to comment on the NSW government decision to distribute Windows 7 “mini notebooks” across schools. Here’s my reply:
I used to work with satellite networks, providing Internet access to
most of NSW before wired broadband was widely available (and it still
isn’t in a lot of places). We had many rural schools and local
councils as customers. The difficulties of getting computing and
Internet resources to remote areas (with associated infrastructure,
training, etc.) cannot be underestimated.
Firstly examining from a business perspective, how is this to be
funded, given that NSW is in a poor financial state and the government
has been axing projects left, right and centre? What alternatives were
considered? How were they evaluated? Was there an open tendering
What matters most is what we can achieve with this programme. Simply
throwing a computer to every student won’t cut it. There needs to be a
clear plan and set of outcomes defined, as you would have with any
reasonable business arrangement. This press release doesn’t touch upon
any of that.
What is the opportunity cost of funding this scheme? Could the
resources have been spent on better facilities for the children or
better teachers’ salaries?
The phrase ‘new era’ implies some sort of major change. Has this been
adequately planned for?
Teachers have a hard enough time keeping up with technology. Will they
be given training and continued assistance?
How will these devices be integrated into curricula? How can they
become effective teaching aids and not just expensive appendages?
Will the focus be on teaching or training? I am a firm believer that
schools should teach children to be clever and think for themselves,
creating the basis for a flexible workforce. They should not simply be
trained to memorise the functions of a particular version of a piece
of software. Rote-learning like that will be worthless when they
graduate and enter the workforce.
Will there be any additional costs required to properly use the
equipment? Are classrooms adequately equipped with appropriate
electrical wiring and capacity to charge all of these? What about
network connectivity? What will it take to maintain the infrastructure
required for these, including hardware and software for servers,
routers and so on.
In fact, there is no mention of supporting infrastructure at all. What
are the costs of the entire life cycle of these devices, the software,
maintenance, infrastructure and so on?
Who will own the notebooks? Will students be free to explore and learn
about their computers, or will they be locked down? Can they install
whatever software they want? Will they be tied to particular
applications and file formats?
There is no mention at all of what software will be installed on these
computers. An operating system without applications is useless. Will
the included software be enough to empower and teach our children?
Have deals been struck with other software suppliers? Will there be
additional costs to acquire the software for particular subjects? Who
bears this cost – the school system or parents?
Has open source software been considered at all? There’s plenty of
open source software that works happily on top of Windows. Microsoft
may have discounted Windows, but did they include an office suite?
OpenOffice would do the job just fine.
Even if you believe the tired-old argument that the state MUST
purchase Microsoft Office for each and every student (which works out
to tens of millions of dollars), wouldn’t it be better to choose
OpenOffice for free, and spend those millions on new library books or
I’ll admit that OpenOffice isn’t exactly the same thing (it’s better
in some ways, not as good in others), but it’s so similar that it
doesn’t really make a difference. It is worth tens of millions of
dollars just to get the Real Thing? Does learning MS Office 2003 in
school really prepare you for using Office 2007 (with its completely
new interface) once you hit the workforce? Refer to my earlier
comments about teaching versus training.
Are they including graphics software for the art and design classes?
Are taxpayers going to have to pay for a copy of Adobe Creative Suite
for everyone? How about we save the hundreds of dollars per student
and use the GIMP and Inkscape instead? Examples such as these abound,
and there are plenty of other open source applications that simply
have no good parallel in the proprietary world.
I find it strange that the country’s largest state would tie the
education of its children to a totally unproven operating system. A
smart purchaser – especially one purchasing at such a grand scale –
would wait until the software had been out for a while and had been
thoroughly tested by consumers around the world. Internal testing is
one thing, but you cannot beat real-world experience.
A point-zero release is sure to have rough edges, and it would have
been far wiser to wait for at least the first service pack like most
organisations do. Can you imagine the fury that would have been
unleashed if the NSW Government had decided to kit out the state with
Windows Vista before its release? Sure it sounded good before it came
out (“The wow starts now!”), but it lost its lustre very soon after
unveiling. Many people today still cling onto Windows XP, and others
have switched to Linux and Mac OS X, in response to Vista’s abysmal
The OLPC Project has already identified and addressed many of the
issues that may be faced. They have done this through developing a
combination of hardware, software, infrastructure, training,
procedures and learning material. It would be wise to learn from their
The whole mini notebook revolution started with Linux. Starting with
the OLPC XO laptop, Linux has proven to be a flexible and capable
operating system suitable for small devices. Its resistance to viruses
and other network nasties is legendary. The last thing I’d want is for
my child’s computer to get infected and start showing kiddie porn.
Anti-virus and anti-malware software are band-aid solutions. I’m not
going to build a castle on a swamp.
Commercially, devices like the Asus Eee PC could not have existed if
it were not for Linux. It forced Microsoft to actually compete for
once, by resurrecting Windows XP and slashing its price to a more
The press release claims that this scheme is ‘unparalleled in
education globally’. There is considerable risk in being first off the
block. I’ve already explained the risks of using an unproven operating
system. It would be more prudent to learn from other large scale
rollouts in education.
Take the Republic of Macedonia, for example. Despite being one of the
poorest nations in Europe, they are the only nation to have one
computer per student. They achieved this through the use of Edubuntu,
a variant of the popular Ubuntu GNU/Linux operating system that is
specially tailored for education and learning. With that, they got a
vast library of open source educational software, which was all
translated into their native language.
Similar stories abound in places like Brazil, Russia, India and China.
Collectively known as the BRIC countries, they are considered to be
the up-and-coming nations to watch over the next few decades. Their
economies have been growing at breakneck rates, partly because they
have been clever in their investments. These nation states recognise
that education is the key to long-term economic success.
You might say that these countries are poor and that is why they are
choosing to use open source software. It is true that they don’t have
plenty of money to throw around, but does New South Wales? Does
Australia? Where would you want your tax dollars spent?