Open Source in Education

The very limited use of FOSS in the UK’s education sector has long been a source of much puzzlement and even anger – from this side of the IT divide at least.

In the last year or so we have, happily, seen a rise in the background noise level, and more recently with BECTA’s activities and the award of the approved supplier status to Sirius IT as signs that things are finally changing.

This morning, I saw a post on the OOo marketing list from Ian Lynch publicising this new place of reference and support for the education sector: Open Source Schools:

Open Source Schools is an initiative to inform schools about Open Source Software (OSS). A number of schools are already realising the benefits of OSS within their ICT strategy. This project will work to share their experiences with the wider community of educational practitioners.

The project will support a community of practice that engages those who are currently using OSS and welcomes and supports new members. Our aim is to create an educationally focused project driven by the needs of the community – giving them the means to become confident users of OSS.

A great idea Ian and I hope it gets wide publicity. It was a very timely post considering a couple of conversations I had yesterday at the Woking Business Expo where we were exhibiting…

The first discussion was with a parent and school Governor who has really started to understand FOSS and the benefits it brings from several meetings we have had with him over the last few months on a more professional basis. He dropped by yesterday to say hi and was very keen to introduce the concepts and ideals of FOSS into his school and LEA. We will help him in this as much as possible. Dave, let’s arrange that beer!

The second, and far more worrying conversation, just shows what a total travesty it is that we continue to teach our children not how to use a computer as a tool, but instead teach our kids how to open and create a Microsoft Word or Excel document. Another visitor to our stand (and parent) was discussing the experience of a colleague whose child came home from school with some homework only to find he couldn’t open the files on his home PC as they were created in Office 2007! The family couldn’t afford to buy it – and why the hell should they frankly? This was obviously very distressing for the family and child concerned.

Our our schools now a sales channel for Microsoft I wonder?

The result of this kind of upgrade-treadmill that MS would love us all to live on permanently, is to create a two-tier system of education for our children: those whose parents can afford to buy expensive commercial software and those who cant.

The UK Government, even more so now they have just spanked £500bn propping up the banking system, must start to act and reduce the outrageous and completely wasteful expenditure on proprietary software. Why oh why don’t we just do a nation-wide roll out of OpenOffice.org to EVERY computer in the public sector and especially in Education? It would be a good start, and then we can get rid of that festering boil called Windows later.

  • No more extortionate upgrade costs,
  • no more public documents created in binary, patent encumbered formats,
  • an end to the single vendor lock-in and monopoly,
  • no more two-tier children…

We can always dream I guess.

UK Government Finally Sanctions Open Source! [Updated]

Halleluya

The Inquirer has broken the news that the UK Government, helped by BECTA, has finally approved at least two companies to be official suppliers of Open Source Software into our Education sector.

OPEN SOURCE companies have been granted official permission to supply software to the UK public sector for the first time in British history.

At least two Open Source software suppliers have been awarded places on the £80 million Software for Educational Institutions Framework, making them official suppliers to UK schools and scoring a victory in what has been a long and frustrating battle against favouritism shown to conventional commercial software companies in UK politics and procurement.

One of the suppliers is Sirius IT run by Mark Taylor.

Mark, here’s many congratulations from us at The Open Learning Centre. You have been a fantastic advocate for OSS for many years and this award to supply is thoroughly deserved. We wish your company every success.

Novell are apparently another “named” party to the supplier framework and having been long-time sponsors of the OSS eco-system also deserve congratulations. Now, if only they’d drop the deal-with-the-devil…

Novell didn’t make it; Becta have just announced and released the list of the 12 suppliers. And as Glyn Moody also considers, the “pact with the Devil” in which Novell sold its identity to Microsoft probably means that it isn’t such a bad thing in reality. By way of support, the article I wrote just 6 weeks ago “How to remove Mono from Ubuntu…” was, and remains, the most read piece on the whole blog. And almost all of the 50+ comments are in support of the objective. Clearly there isn’t much appetite for tainited code in FLOSS from the enlightened…

Freedom of Information Act: Microsoft Rules O.K.

One of my favourite commentators on the Open Source phenomenon is Glyn Moody. And today he has clarified something I had been struggling with for a couple of days now.

The story in question, from The Inquirer, is basically this:

Becta refused to satisfy a Freedom of Information request made by the INQUIRER for details of the latest Microsoft schools megadeal, “after consultation with Microsoft.”

Which is pretty bad really. We are talking about Taxpayers’ (that’s you and me friend) money here. Why should we not be allowed to know what our beloved Government is spending with a US Software company on our children’s behalf? And don’t forget that it’s a company that has been convicted of monopolistic and anti-competitive practices, so it should be even more important we know what we are giving them. Shouldn’t it?

Well, on the face of it I bought the argument from Becta that goes:

If Becta, a UK government quango, published details of schools’ Microsoft spending, it “could give rise to an actionable breach of confidence by Microsoft against us,” it said. This was a “considerable risk”, it added.

And further, plausibly stated:

Becta said there could also be repercussions in disclosure for itself: “We have concluded that disclosure of any part of the MOU would prejudice the commercial interests of Becta and of schools throughout the UK because the significant savings achieved under the MOU would be put at risk,” it said. “We believe that our future negotiating position with Microsoft would be weakened and we would not be confident of our continuing ability to obtain the best deal possible for those UK schools that choose to purchase Microsoft products,” it added.

If we ignore the fact that the Microsoft products are pretty crap, and they aren’t really the right thing for education to be using in the first place, I can sort of understand the bit about their negotiating position – if they know no better.

But I wasn’t totally convinced… Something was niggling at the back of my mind as to why this is really bad…

Enter Glyn:

I do realise that it’s too much to hope that Becta will take open source seriously, but I wonder if it has ever crossed Becta’s chosen minds that putting themselves in this position of snivelling dependence on Microsoft isn’t actually the optimum way to get the best deal for UK schools – even for those benighted enough to want to bathe their charges in the delicate glow of BSODs. Has it ever occurred to them that if they started negotiating from a position of dignity and strength, rather than abject, supine servitude, they might just possibly do their job a teensy-weensy bit better?

Microsoft is scared witless by the prospect of open source getting a foothold in schools, and would agree to any deal rather than let the UK education system discover the power and value of free software. Becta is actually in an incredibly strong position, and yet somehow manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The idea that “our future negotiating position with Microsoft would be weakened” if it dared to cross Masher Microsoft, as it has claimed to The Inquirer, is simply risible, and shows how desperately out of touch it is with the realities of the marketplace. The sooner this particular quango is abolished, and decisions are made locally, the better.

Ouch!

Thanks for clearing that up Glyn ;-)

Becta and AlphaPlus and a lot of crossness

Over the last few years Becta, the government’s advisers to education on technology, have been consistently increasing their level of interest and support for Free and Open Source Software. Today they surprised a lot of folk by awarding a contract relating to Free and Open Source software to a little consultancy called AlphaPlus. No I haven’t heard of them either. There was quite a bit of competition for this tender, and some of those who were unlucky this time, including our friend Mark Taylor at the Open Source Consortium, are struggling to understand the decision. You can read Mark’s reflective musings in an open letter here. It doesn’t appear to me that AlphaPlus have done anything untoward in the process, most reactions I have seen were along the lines of “Who?” rather than “Not them again!”. I am sure the education sector in the UK will continue on the path of software Freedom, in fact I wouldn’t be shocked if Freedom 1 (The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs) became mandatory for all software used in Education. I am sure that as schools continue on their path they will need more help and assistance which they will get via procurement processes (procurement just means “buying stuff from people who like filling in forms”) and in these processes contracts will be awarded to big companies and small companies and companies full of educationalists and others full of geeks. Some you win, most you lose.

We at The Open Learning Centre congratulate AlphaPlus Consultancy on winning this contract and wish them the best of luck in delivering a fantastic solution that will just encourage more and more future contracts to go to deserving little consulting companies :-)

Becta refers its interoperability complaint to the European Commission

Oh goody!

Becta are once again proving to be a particularly spiky thorn in the side of Microshaft.

You may recall that they reported the evil empire to our OFT (Office of Fair Trading) back in October last year. We’ll today they have announced the following further development:

Following discussions with the OFT, Becta has now referred its interoperability complaint and related evidence to the European Commission in support of the Commission’s wider investigation. At a recent meeting with the Commission Becta set out its key areas of concern and their impact on the UK education system.

Becta believes that impediments to interoperability limit choice. In the context of the education system this can result in higher prices and a range of other unsatisfactory effects which have a negative impact on wider policy initiatives, including improving educational outcomes, facilitating home school links and addressing the digital divide.

Commenting after the recent meeting with the Commission to discuss Becta’s detailed concerns, Dr Stephen Lucey, Becta’s Executive Director of Strategic Technologies, said:

“It is not just the interests of competitors and the wider marketplace that are damaged when barriers to effective interoperability are created. Such barriers can also damage the interests of education and training organisations, learners, teachers and parents.

I therefore very much welcome the decision by the Commission to conduct a wide ranging investigation.”

Basically they are helping the EU Commission in their investigations of anti-competitive practices and particularly their awful and proprietary OOXML file format. It is so good to hear a respected and influential publicly funded body actually articulating the real problems with proprietary software and especially when it is used to support and extend an existing monopoly position.

And in a rather nicely worded conclusion that would work really well in a thriller movie…

Dr Lucey confirmed that the other aspect of Becta’s complaint, which relates to Microsoft’s School Agreement licensing model, remains under active consideration by the OFT.

This is in relation to the terrible contract Microshaft have managed to tie our schools into where they will be purchasing subscription licenses for software that they could never use… Here’s the original piece.

At least there are some public organisations in the UK which seem to have understood the threat that M$ poses to all of us. Shame that the current Government and our Standards Institute haven’t.

Roll on the next election…

Microsoft’s Fixed Rate Tax approaches 100%

Yesterday, we decided that we needed to get a new laptop for our business.

Nothing particularly staggering about that you might think. And, on the face of it you’d be spot on. However, as you probably know, our company The Open Learning Centre is focused on delivering business solutions and services based on Open Source technology.

Consequently what I definitely DO NOT WANT is to be forced to buy any Operating System with my hardware. I would like to choose for myself. I might want Ubuntu, or SUSE or Mint or something else. Or, god-forbid (and this is purely for example’s sake) I could choose to install one of the many valid, and already paid for, copies of Windows 95, 98, ME or XP that I have lying around.

So after a great deal of Googling yesterday, I found a grand total of TWO companies here in the UK that publicly offered me the opportunity to buy a new laptop on-line without an operating system.

The only other way is to buy individual components and assemble your own computer. This can end up being more expensive and is certainly not a trivial task, especially with a laptop. I do build my own desktops but wouldn’t consider doing the same for a portable PC.

I did look at Dell’s Ubuntu offerings but the spec of the machines wasn’t quite what I needed and – to be honest – all the “Dell Recommends Windows Vista” and notices about “Beware! This Computer Doesn’t Run Windows” made me feel a bit patronised. I understand to a certain degree the problems Dell face and must address; support and an audience of not-so-techy customers so I am not going to denigrate what they are doing. I just hope in a year or two’s time, I will be able to choose NO operating system on any of their computers.

But to get back to the main thread of this. Just two companies here in the UK that could offer me a laptop which I could choose to have supplied without an Operating System. That is bloody scandalous. EVERY other laptop (apart from the 2 Dell machines and some Asus EEe PCs [Update: I was a bit brief here. There are few other vendors who supply Linux pre-installed. But they do not offer the choice of "no operating system"]) would be supplied with a Microsoft Operating System. I had little or no choice; I could always have bought a Mac but that’s a somewhat similar issue.

Irrespective of the fact that I wouldn’t use their crappy and expensive software anyway, I have plenty of old discs with Microsoft’s operating systems on them that I have legitimately paid for and are not installed on any of my other computers. I’m sure there are many millions more like them. So why must I pay for another copy? This is completely unfair and should be (if it isn’t already) illegal.

The Globalisation Institute submitted a report to the EU commission last September saying just that:

Computers in the European Union should be sold without a bundled operating system, according to this submission to the European Commission. It says that the bundling of Microsoft Windows with computers is not in the public interest, and prevents meaningful competition in the operating system market.

The current situation basically means that for almost every single PC sold around the world, I believe we (you) are paying a TAX to Microsoft. We have already seen how they have done this with our schools. And we have seen Becta’s responses here and here.

I suggest that interested readers write to their MP or MEP, explain about this grievance and ask what the EU is doing about the report above.

On a positive note however, the two companies that did enable me to buy OS free computers deserve to be properly applauded, mentioned here, and please pay them a visit when you are looking for new hardware.

The first is a highly customisable offering from PCSpecialist.co.uk (http://www.pcspecialist.co.uk/). You can build desktops, towers, cubes and laptops to your own specifications and choose your Operating System or not as you wish. Removing the OS saves you anything from about £60 to £120 depending on your other choices.

The second is a more “mainstream” computer business. And was where we decided to buy from in the end as the price/spec was just a bit better for my particular requirements. That company is Novatech (http://www.novatech.co.uk). Yes, Novatech. It looks as though you can choose your operating system (or not as you wish) for any of their PCs. Be they laptops, servers or desktops. They have a good range and probably the best value we found anywhere. Choosing no OS saves you anything between approx. £50 and £300 depending on your choice of hardware.

Up to £300 quid Microsoft TAX… And it’s a fixed penalty too. Your hardware could cost £250 or £2500 – it doesn’t matter to them. Next time you are equipping your business or home with new computers please think about this first. You can have Ubuntu Linux Desktop Edition and/or Server Edition for free. You can copy, re-use, install on as many machines as you wish and they will provide much better performance with no usage restrictions either…

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