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Tim Cowlishaw [opinions]

Reclaiming ICT education - Why free software is a necessity in schools

fsmsh.com/1920 [free-software] [uk] [education]

My formal education in computing ended at the age of 14, about six weeks into a GCSE (The UK equivalent of the US's High School Diploma) course in ICT. I've had a lifelong passion for computers, but despite this, I opted instead to study Design and Technology and never looked back.

For anyone who has studied computing or ICT in a UK school, this will probably come as little surprise. My classmates and I (like many others) were taught by a teacher with little specialist knowledge of the subject (she taught French the majority of the time), following a curriculum that predominantly consisted of instruction in the correct use of the Microsoft Office suite.

Ten years later, not much has changed. Glancing at the National Curriculum for ICT, a great deal of it still revolves around the correct use of packages such as MS Word and Excel, with the notable addition of modules on the internet and (mostly deprecated) networking technologies. It is a great shame indeed, that while computer technology has revolutionised society to such an extent in recent years, education is still struggling to keep up.

The most pressing problem here is that pupils are taught computing as a means to an end, rather than as an end in itself. By teaching students to use specific software packages to complete specific tasks, computing classes become little more than an exercise in memorising processes by repetition. No analytical or inquisitive thinking is required, and no knowledge is gained about what the computer actually is, or is capable of. Word Processing is a particular culprit - teaching students the correct way to input and format text in Word teaches them nothing about computing, but neither does it teach them about typography, or indeed about writing. What exactly is being taught, in this instance, except the ability to push buttons in a prescribed order?

The other aspect of computing tuition in UK schools that should be cause for concern is that the curriculum revolves predominantly around the use of proprietary, non-free software. This is propounded by the fact that BECTA, the organisation that oversees ICT procurement for all UK schools, has a list of 'preferred suppliers' for IT infrastructure, none of whom provide free or open source software. Whilst schools are certainly free to purchase equipment and software elsewhere, in practice, this can work out to be difficult and costly. This may well have something to do with the fact that the Chairman of BECTA is one Andrew Pinder, previously the government's 'e-Envoy', responsible for the less-than-stellar Government Gateway project (a rather large contract for Microsoft). On the subject of teachers who advocate the use of FOSS in schools, Mr Pinder has this to say:

"Typically they [ICT Teachers] would be people who have a real passion about Open Source -- as if open source is any different to any other software -- it's just the pricing structure is different, that's all. But they have a passion. It's a religion, it's a real belief, and again they have a belief about bits of technology that are going to change things. What they don't do, however, is organize things properly..."

Overlooking for a second, the spurious allegation that FOSS supporters are somehow inherently disorganised, Mr Pinder's remarks that the difference between free/open source and proprietary software is solely a matter of 'pricing structure' betrays his ignorance of technology, but also as a result, his ignorance of the purpose of ICT education. I would assume that a man who appears to have difficulty understanding what 'open source' means has an insufficient grasp of computer technology to be put in charge of millions of children's ICT education, whether or not he supports the free software ideal.

In ICT more than in any other subject, the type of equipment used to teach is fundamentally important. While a blackboard, set of football goals or a bunsen burner will function more or less the same no matter from whom it was purchased, the choice of platform used to teach ICT has a direct effect on the effectiveness of the teaching provided, and for this reason, I believe that the use of free software in schools is of fundamental importance. The use of free software would prevent a generation growing up thinking that Windows is the computer (as, sadly, a not-insignificant number of my generation appear to do), and would help foster an inquisitive 'hacker mentality' which would be of benefit to their education as a whole. By shifting the emphasis of ICT education from button-pushing-in-a-certain-order to fostering an attitude of inquisitiveness and creativity, children would be not only provided with a more thorough computing education, but also with an understanding of the technology that would better enable them to apply the skills learnt to other subjects.

Free software is of vital importance to this mode of learning as the openness of the systems fosters and encourages this inquisitiveness. Closed, proprietary software is a 'black box' whose processes can not easily be taught or understood, and therefore the emphasis of an education using a proprietary platform must deal with the 'how to put stuff in and get other stuff out' paradigm that currently dominates ICT education.

Thankfully, this issue is beginning to be more widely recognised—the Open Schools Alliance have been actively campaigning for greater use of free software in education, and John Pugh MP is due to submit an early day motion to parliament, expressing concern over BECTA's "outdated purchasing frameworks", If you are a British citizen, I strongly urge you to write to your MP, requesting for them to support the motion—this can be done very easily at WriteToThem.

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