Whither free software in education?

I just arrived back from the Australian Computers in Education Conference (ACEC). It’s actually still going, but as I’m not a teacher and hence hanging out at education conferences doesn’t constitute paid work for me, I decided to go home early.

It was all a bit of an eye-opener for me. There was a huge hall filled with exhibitions mostly from commercial software companies, where all meals were held. I was rather taken aback at the idea that teachers might wander around and actually purchase software based on these stands. Reminded me of pharmaceutical companies marketing to doctors.

For fun I spoke to the woman at the Encyclopedia Britannica stand. I didn’t even realise they had much Australian presence. And I didn’t even realise the main thing they were pushing these days was website subscriptions (as opposed to books and CD-ROMs!). They offer basically three versions of each article, written for different ages/reading comprehension skills. She also told me a couple of scare stories, like what if chill-uns look for pictures of the murray darling (“Imagine what they get, with the word ‘darling’!” — actually they get exactly what they’re looking for), and a surely made-up story about her 10 year old nephew looking for pictures of soldiers by typing in “pictures of privates”.

There was exactly one talk relating to open source software (many others by commercial software providers). At first I was so excited to see another FLOSS advocate (despite the somewhat troubling use of the word “freeware” in the abstract.) So I went to it… and the speaker proclaimed that “Google” was “open source”. I don’t even know what that is supposed to mean, most Google products don’t even supply source, let alone under an open source license. So that was kind of a shocker. What a shame. There was supposed to be an OLPC talk but that was cancelled.

I spoke to a university lecturer there I had met before, and I said how I found the lauding of web-based technologies a little worrying given the concerns about network lock-in, and that as I saw it there was little difference between being locked in to a software product/format vs a website. (It’s all about the API — can you get your data back out if you need to? If not, tread warily!) He mentioned how a large company had come to his campus offering to take care of his university’s infrastructure (email, course management etc), and his university had just laughed at them because it would be ludicrous to give up that control to a commercial company for little to no benefit. And seemingly the large company was taken aback because elsewhere they had had a good reception. Seriously.

What primary school and high school students learn to use is likely to be highly influential. Many of them may never go software-exploring beyond what they become familiar with at school. As I remember my grade 12 software development and design teacher putting it, why the hell should the state education department pay Microsoft (or anyone else) for the “privilege” of using their software or services? Why the hell shouldn’t they be paying the education department for the opportunity to influence this captive audience of millions of students?

OK, so that’s a naive dream, but I learnt more about free software in education at a Software Freedom Day event with an audience numbering tens, than I did at a gigantic biennial national computers-in-education conference. So we freedom lovers can’t afford lobby groups and trade show exhibition stalls; I reckon we could have at least put together a FLOSS talk from someone who actually knows what the term means.

01 October, 2008 • , , ,

Comment

1

Hey Brianna,
Good post.

You’ll be pleased to know Pia and I are putting together an event dedicated to FOSS in Edu for 21 November in Sydney. That’s the Friday before the VITTA conference.

I know there was an effort to get an open source stream on the agenda for ACEC2008 – but fear of offending the proprietary software vendors scuttled it an early stage. Stark contrast with reports of NECC conference in the US – where the Open Source pavillion was constantly full to overflowing.

I just got back from http://k12openminds.org/ so the acec2008 experience reinforces how far behind we are in Oz. Got a ways to go methinks.

Donna Benjamin · 2. October 2008, 15:37

2

I know there was an effort to get an open source stream on the agenda for ACEC2008 – but fear of offending the proprietary software vendors scuttled it an early stage.

Ugh, that is outrageous…

Do you know if there will be much at VITTA itself?

pfctdayelise · 4. October 2008, 09:53

3

Heh. You know, if you search for just “darling” and are silly enough to have SafeSearch off, you do get a few NSFW hits in the first page. A couple of Murray Darling hits on page 2, though.

CM · 7. October 2008, 20:30

4

Well if you are searching for the Murray Darling by only the keyword ‘darling’ then you already have some fairly serious problems. :P

pfctdayelise · 7. October 2008, 22:20

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