Becta, open source and education: Too little, too late?

Inertia, fear of the unknown and agreements with vendors have lead to slow adoption of open source and free software in UK schools.

Perhaps the most interesting declaration was the promise that the "UK government will explore further the possibilities of using OSS as the default exploitation route for government-funded R&D software by academic research institutes".

This suggestion offered a break from the tendentious fashion that private enterprise always knows best. Sometimes government should take a lead in pushing an idea which works. The most celebrated of early computers, Colossus, was created by Alan Turing and associates as part of the government research establishment at Bletchley Park during World War Two, and virtually every initiative responsible for the modern Internet was created in universities or other publicly funded research establishments, and later released as public domain or free software.

In reality, promises to adopt open source software on the public sector desktop and in the server room have too often been used as pawns to cut a "better deal" with current suppliers, and in the education system there has been little attempt to bridge the gap.

Not a hype bubble

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The less than fulsome response of the British civil service to the original directive, and to Alexander's open source policy initiative of 2002, was reflected in a November 2003 hearing of the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee on "Purchasing and Managing Software Licences" that heard evidence from the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) chief executive Peter Gershon, and the OGC buying solution chief executive, Hugh Barrett.

The authors of the policy document issued in Alexander's name had evidently recognised the extent to which the software map is changing: "The software industry is very fast moving, and frequently throws up new developments that initially promise to make great changes in the marketplace, but which ultimately fail to live up to their initial press hype", they wrote. "OSS is indeed the start of a fundamental change in the software infrastructure marketplace, but it is not a hype bubble that will burst and UK government must take cognisance of that fact."

But incredibly Barrett, the 'buying solution chief executive' for OGC, told the Committee: "I thought I would investigate the use of open source software on my personal computer at home. I got a licence, free of charge, but after three hours of struggling to retrain myself from many years of using Microsoft, I abandoned it. On a sample of one, me personally, it was more cost effective to stay with Microsoft. Those arguments, when magnified across the whole public sector, may well sway the balance against the open source software..."

Department of skills and education

Despite the rare exceptions, the British education system has been locked-in to a Microsoft-only world, where children are educated as users rather than doers. Lock-in and the upgrade cycle result in the escalating costs that are the bane of the desktop market in the IT industry, forcing increased expenditure for smaller and smaller returns.

Encouraging a diversity of software products is a responsibility of government. Schools have become dependent upon educational packages written for Windows, and Windows is entrenched in the market for home PCs. The trouble is that ICT in schools has become little more than a training programme for using Windows and Microsoft Office. This has given rise to the complaint that "no ICT course has a programming or a systems module, instead students are taught to be mere consumers of technology, and operators of applications."

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IT qualifications, inside and outside school, are predicated on a similar assumption. Adult education courses on "computer skills" are seldom more than guides to using Microsoft Office, and IT technicians in schools are, more often than not, MSCEs, educated specifically in the use of Microsoft technologies.

Such a narrow view of the world has left gaping holes in the UK's education system, irrespective of whether the systems used are proprietary or open source. Computer systems for schools are more expensive and less effective than they could and should be, and also fail to provide the range of educational possibilities that could and should be possible.

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