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

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


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.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License.

Category: 

Comments

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

In my experience "Business" organisations in the uk, particularly the CBI, emphasize that children in our schools should be taught MS Office. Aside from the politics of this being both anti-competition and potential illegal support of a monopoly, is it not the case that we also have to persuade the executive layer of business of the great value of teaching computing rather than teaching Microsoft?

C de Salis

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

You may be thinking that education is about teaching children, helping them to grow.

What if the underlying premise was something completely different? Suppose somehow the idea was simply to train them, like animals are trained?

Then, the current system works very well. It produces people who equates computers with Microsoft Office. It discourages them from even thinking about anything else.

So, the problem from a Free Software standpoint, becomes how do we change the entire system of education, not simply change out closed software for Free Software. Because simply using Free Software instead, produces the same trained animals. Just trained in Free Software instead.

Free Software exists to enable people to become and remain free. If the current system of education overall is designed to remove and discourage freedom, then the whole thing has to go, not just the ICT curriculum.

Read the book. http://www.johntaylorgatto.com/chapters/index.htm

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

In the US there are several problems, the first being that using computers in education at all has only relatively recently become a part of the curriculum for training K-12 teachers, much less how to teach computer use to students. Teachers who graduated more than 10 years ago (probably > 60% of all teachers) have mostly had to educate themselves about using computers in education. And understandably, those who have taken the initiative to do so have taken the path of least resistance. For older teachers, this meant Apple, and there are still some Apple IIs around.

Another problem is that purchasing decisions are made by each school system. Because of the hallowed mythology of independence here in the US, every community (city, county, parish, etc.) has its own school system, with an elected or appointed school board that changes somewhat with each election cycle. Between the low levels of technological understanding in school systems (largely due to tightly stretched budgets) and the school boards' desire to prove their worth through 'shaking up the system', the wheel gets reinvented (by trial and error with lots of errors) again and again and again ... The desire for quick results (another quaint trait of ours), usually leads to the purchase of equipment and software with the flashiest sales brochures.

One bit of good news is that many of the kids who are going into IT tend to discover FOSS for themselves, thanks to the internet and community mentors. Our local LUG has begun talking about how we might be able to promote FOSS to students and the general consensus is to ignore the school system and look for extra-curricular activities we can sponsor. Also, at the college level, FOSS is much more recognized, although proprietary systems are prevalent. Most of the larger colleges have fairly active LUGs, and we are hoping to find ways to work with those in our area.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

One of the main problems with computing full stop is not wether its FLOSS or not - the whole Office concept is completely misguided.
In an internet age why make things paper shaped?
Another problem is data management.
I can get the Linux kernel and compile it and debug it and have complete knowledge of the status of several hundred thousand variables.
The average user, let alone company does not know the contents of most of their documents and have to do repeated searches to find even the most simple things.
I am a great believer in FLOSS but just because 10 million flies eat the ordure of office doesnt mean we should try and replace it with free version. We should replace it with a version that serves the user or company without blindly going down the office route.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

How about the idea that children should be kept away from computers, as they are already kept away from dangerous tools, and asked to learn how to think.

MSWord is little more than a glorified editor that most people master after 15 minutes of playing around. Sure it can do wonderous things but are you ever likely to make use of them?

No?

The same goes for most kids.

We should be teaching children how to think and reason.

Teaching the how to use Open Source is almost as bad as teaching them how to use MS products. All they learn is how to use the hammer to knock a nail in. They don't learn the difference between the hammer and the nail.

Most people don't want to learn anything about computers other than how to use them.

Most people think single button mice are brain dead.

Most people don't really think!

As long as computers are used as dumb tools we have some hope for the adults of tomorrow. If, however, we mislead them into thinking that knowing how to use MSWord or AbiWord or SWriter is the same thing as knowing something about computers we are doing them a major disservice.

I work with soemone who hardly touched a computer in secondary school. The first time she used a computer was at university. She is a great developer.

Kids don't need to learn about computers in school. That can wait until much later.

Perhaps they need to learn how to type things into MSWord.

But lets not call that "learning". It is training, pure and simple. So it fits into the same category as PE.

And is just about as exciting.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Another problem is that purchasing decisions are made by each school system. Because of the hallowed mythology of independence here in the US, every community (city, county, parish, etc.) has its own school system, with an elected or appointed school board that changes somewhat with each election cycle. Between the low levels of technological understanding in school systems (largely due to tightly stretched budgets) http://www.online-cheap-pharmacy-rx.com and the school boards' desire to prove their worth through 'shaking up the system', the wheel gets reinvented (by trial and error with lots of errors) again and again and again ... The desire for quick results (another quaint trait of ours), usually leads to the purchase of equipment and software with the flashiest sales brochures.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Another problem is that purchasing decisions are made by each school system. Because of the hallowed mythology of independence here in the US, every community (city, county, parish, etc.) has its own school system, with an elected or appointed school board that changes somewhat with each election cycle. Between the low levels of technological understanding in school systems (largely due to tightly stretched budgets) http://www.online-cheap-pharmacy-rx.com and the school boards' desire to prove their worth through 'shaking up the system', the wheel gets reinvented (by trial and error with lots of errors) again and again and again ... The desire for quick results (another quaint trait of ours), usually leads to the purchase of equipment and software with the flashiest sales brochures.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I am a Systems Manager in one of the uk's secondary schools, and one that "Thinks Different"
I personally agree with the Article by Tim Colishaw, that the National Curriculum has to change. Who wants to do word processing, spreadsheets, and death by powerpoint all day long. Todays pupils are creating their own blogs, with video footage, edited using a computer, music created by them with a computer, Animation, you name it, they are producing it.
So why are they not having an exciting curriculum with this type of content?
The reason, exams. Most of the exams are tested in WP, SP, PP,DB, and for them, the wording of these exams are in the office suite. We use a different Database program, and every time there is an exam, we have to make sure the pupils understand the access lingo before their exam. - Isn't that an unfair system?
Not also forgetting that some of the more exciting subeject matters in ICT do not count the same when talking about the league tables, on how all schools perform. Lets face it, that is what the school's are judged on, is it? Don't you think that these are the issues that need changing, and then students in the UK may actually receive a changed ICT curriculum.

Author information

Tim Cowlishaw's picture

Biography

Tim is a Free Culture and Digital Rights activist (amongst other things) from London, UK. He also writes a sporadically updated and chaotically disorganised weblog at http://www.continuingadventures.co.uk