Australian public schools have an agreement with Microsoft, that entitles them to use the full suite of 'serious', school-related software from that company, for a nominal fee (nominal for the schools that is, there 'might' be hidden costs involved at higher level). Since there's nothing wrong with Microsoft software, why would a school choose to use Open Source software instead, gaining no economic benefit therefrom.
Australian public schools have an agreement with Microsoft, that entitles them to use the full suite of 'serious', school-related software from that company, for a nominal fee (nominal for the schools that is, there 'might' be hidden costs involved at higher level).
Since there's nothing wrong with Microsoft software, why would a school choose to use Open Source software instead, gaining no economic benefit therefrom and creating more work sourcing out what the schools need to cover their software needs, downloading the software (Microsoft software is 'kindly' delivered to the schools as it is released) at some expense (actually, a totally unrealistic expense, compared with the free market options)?
The answer would be: For equity reasons.
If the first tool mastered is a hammer, everything looks like nails.
Studies we carried out at Grant High School, Mt. Gambier, South Australia, showed that users' preference for applications to do specific tasks, is closely related to when in their education they were introduced to the applications. A concrete example: Half a photography class was subjected to Adobe Photoshop for image manipulation, the other half was using The Gimp. Halfway through the term, the students swapped 'weapons'. The study showed, that the ones who were initially using Photoshop didn't like Gimp, and the 'Gimp-borne' students thought that Photoshop was crap.
With this in mind, I move that we need to consider carefully whenever we introduce new tools to students.
If we critiquelessly roll out Microsoft Office on all school networks, with no consideration of alternatives (or no support for the alternatives) then we are effectively CREATING Microsoft Office users. I wonder what this process is worth to Microsoft? New users, created by the tens-of-thousands, every year. Still, WE pay THEM. This 'addiction' to certain brands of software is not a problem as long as the students and their work is confined to the school networks. It becomes a problem in many ways when students want to do their homework, using the same tools as in school. Firstly, they need a copy of the software they use at school, obtainable in only two ways: Legally or illegally. Microsoft has cleverly made available an 'Educational Version' of their Office pack, obtainable for about 1/4 of the cost of the commercial package, for the students to do their homework. The price of this 1/4 pack is still prohitive for many users, who then choose to get a pirated copy or miss out on the computer based homework option. This 1/4 priced solution is also 'off-limits' for mum to do her business correspondance, even though she owns the computer it is installed on. She'll have to fork out the money for the full version (which, luckily enough, her kids can use for homework as well ;-)
Another problem is the assumption on Microsofts behalf, that ALL recipients of data, created by their programs, actually have a copy of Microsofts programs installed on their computers. This is due to the closed source dataformats that are used unless otherwise specified (with loss of formatting as a result). I've seen schools offering reports in electronic format (good on them) for parents to copy and read and store on their home computer... But written in Microsoft Publisher! Despite the schools good intentions, they happened to make a huge assumption on behalf of their recipients, a bit like writing letters in swahili to someone who's never heard of that language. Had the software, that was used to create the data, been free, then a copy of it could have been issued with the reports. Had there been a 'reader' application for Publisher files, a la Acrobat Reader for PDF-files, things would have been different again.
Microsoft is securing their foothold in South Australian schools by making their software portfolio available, for free, for all teachers to install and use at home. This is removing all incentive for - and all initiative from - teachers to change to other products/standards. Nice move.
OpenOffice 2.0 is a feature rich office automation package that is somewhat comparable to Microsofts Office 2000. It contains pretty much the same range of applications: A word processor, a spreadsheet application, a program to create and show presentations and a relational database management system. The 'look and feel' is so comparable that any users with any experience with either OpenOffice or MS Office will find no difficulty in using the 'other one'. The available features are mostly the same in both packages. OpenOffice is free, free as in 'free beer' and free as in 'free speach', meaning: It is Open Source software made available at no cost other than what we pay for traffic on the Internet.
Installation (for single- and multi-user) is straightforward and customisation can be done for all users and by the individual users. OpenOffice will save all data in its own (open standard) format, based on the OASIS standard for document interchange, ensuring that, ten years down the track, noone will have to buy a new license of some proprietary application in order to read data that they've created (and own) themselves ('data hijacking', pay the 'ransom' or the data 'gets it'). If you use OpenOffice to write 'swahili' then you can include a complete course in how to interpret it...
Students can legally, and at no cost, install the software they use at school on their home computers, even if their home computer is not a Windows or a Mac machine, OpenOffice is open in the sense that it comes for a variety of platforms as well.
Tell me again why we pay Microsoft? For using their software... Okay. For being their agents in the field, handing out free samples to the poor unexpecting kids, to get them so dependant that they eventually buy a license for the software... Ummm, we're on a moral slope with that one. For promoting the use of closed standards that lead to vendor lock-in... Well, if they made their software as freely available to the students as they do to teachers, and kept it that way, maybe I wouldn't need to worry about that. For putting our kids in a situation where they have to resort to piracy to compete... I think that terms like "Sharing" and "Honesty" are included in most schools' mission statements. Apparently 'honest' 'sharing' is having a hard time.
I do believe that the contract between Microsoft and the various Australian 'Departments of Education' is limited in time and, at certain intervals, needs to be renegotiated. When that time comes, I sincerely hope that Microsoft will move towards the release- and pricing-model of the OpenSource movement.