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
process?

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
hos­pit­al beds?

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
state.

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
experiences.

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
reas­on­able level.

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?

%d bloggers like this: