Department of Basic Education - why? why? why?

In a time where 'open' has become the new mantra of the socially conscious everywhere, the department of Basic Education is embracing 'closed'.

In a time where “open” has become the new mantra of the socially conscious everywhere, the department of Basic Education is embracing “closed”. Open data, open government, open access and open source all suggest freedom and democracy. The Department prefers closed data and closed source.

The annual survey of ordinary schools, a national study that collects information at a school level has been declared closed to the public. This study identifies a secondary school in Kwa-Zulu Natal where 46 scholars died from violence and homicide in 2011. In another school in the Eastern Cape, 78 scholars died of an unspecified illness. What are our kids dying of? It sounds like unreported out-breaks of war and the black plague are taking place in our schools. This information and more has been declared confidential and will not be released at a disaggregated level.

More recently, circular S9/2013 from the Department of Basic Education, dated 9 September 2013 was distributed to education officials. This document communicates a new policy to be implemented in Computer Applications Technology (CAT) and Information Technology (IT) taught at schools.

The part of the policy that concerns me the most is:

... from January 2014, and November 2014, the DBE will only use Microsoft Office to respectively implement the CAT curriculum and assess CAT as part of the NSC examinations. Furthermore, only the latest two version of MS Office will be use, i.e. MS Office 2010 and MS Office 2013. Should newer version of MS Office be released, the phasing out of olderversions and implementation of newer versions will be communicated to all stakeholders

Really? Let’s go over it again. The Department of Basic Education is prohibiting the use of all office software with the exception of a proprietary product published by a commercial company? Is that even legal? It’s not as if alternatives don’t exist. For example, the Libreoffice suite, used by millions of users around the world is both free and open source. Moreover, older versions of MS Office are being phased out requiring the purchase of newer versions. In other words, if you don’t have the latest software, you need to upgrade. According to www.pricecheck.co.za, you can pick up a copy of Microsoft Office 2010 Home and Student for R1,014 and Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013 for R984. That’s a lot of dosh. Even if Microsoft gives deep discounts or gives the software away for free, this presents a real problem.

Forcing proprietary software on learners creates a stranglehold on the South African economy with long-term lock-in. Once you start out learning how to use a particular piece of software, you’re unlikely to change. This bias will migrate from schools to tertiary institutions and to business. The lifetime value of a consumer who is introduced to this product at an early stage is enough to keep Microsoft, a company with a market capitalisation of over 200 billion us dollars, in business for many years. This practice of marketing to the young (through policy, donations and discounts) creates an environment that stifles competition and re-inforces Microsoft’s hegemony in the marketplace.

The open source community has been beating its drum on this topic for years, but since this is a technical topic, most people imagine that it doesn’t affect them. It does. It is not acceptable to require the use of one piece of software over another when they are both comparable. Students should be allowed to make their own informed decisions about whether to purchase expensive software or not. Taking this idea further, since South Africa has a Free and Open Source Software Policy, the Department should be actively promoting the use of open source software rather than stifling it.

One final thought. I keep thinking about how valuable this policy might be to Microsoft. The total of current and future earnings from this decision must be in the 10s of millions of rands. It seems strange that public procurement policies require public tendering while this sort of policy can be pushed through without any oversight or investigation. That’s the third “closed” that the department seems to have embraced, closed decision making. I would like to read a report describing how such a decision was made and what the arguments for it were.

As a society, we need to stand up and question the decisions taken by our leaders. Standing on my soapbox, I have one thing to say to Angie Motshekga: “What were you thinking?”

If you have an opinion, come have your say at a Council Chamber meeting - details below:

Date: 16 October 2013
Time: 09:00 to 11:00
Venue: Council Chamber
Cape Chamber House
19 Louis Gradner Street
Foreshore
Cost: Free

Thanks to Derek Keats at dkeats.com for sounding the alarm on this issue and causing an outcry in that special space on the Internet where techies tend to hang-out.

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