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Glyn Moody's look at all levels of the enterprise open source stack. The blog will look at the organisations that are embracing open source, old and new alike (start-ups welcome), and the communities of users and developers that have formed around them (or not, as the case may be).

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Learning from Education

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Last week I went along to the Westminster Education Forum. The programme was only peripherally concerned with open source – Mark Taylor from Sirius was talking – but I wanted to get a feel for the context in which computers were being used in schools.

As well as Mark, there was a representative from Microsoft: no surprise there, but what was very noticeable was the way that Microsoft's software was simply a given in the educational context. This is extremely unfortunate, at many levels.

Cost is obviously one issue. Schools are perennially short of cash, and the Microsoft tax imposed on them is a burden they could do without. Security is crucial, especially given the propensity of young people to download stuff without thinking too much about the consequences; using software whose security record leaves a lot to be desired is clearly a sub-optimal solution.

Closed source code is also a bad match for what schools should be teaching: the ability to learn and to explore. Closed source precludes opening up the box, and reinforces an attitude of passivity and unthinking obedience. Too often, schools are teaching pupils where to find the Print command on the File menu, instead of helping pupils learn about how computers can be a powerful and flexible tool.

I wanted to find out about how computers are being used in education because this time forms the prelude to computing at work. Children are essentially being brainwashed that computing *is* Windows and Office, which means this is what they expect in the outside world, and that they often resist attempts to change the software on the PC.

Microsoft, of course, knows this, which is why it is spending increasing sums on courting educators, and seeding the market, both in the UK and abroad, often by offering extremely low-cost deals to fend off the threat that open source might get a foothold in education.

This would be disastrous for the company; once it is shown that pupils can use free software solutions, and that they work and learn just as well with it, word will get out on the teacher grapevine, and more people will consider making the move. The myth of the indispensability of Microsoft's products for the educational process will have been dispelled.

That's all old news. But recently, I've been hearing increasingly about another area in education where Microsoft is firmly entrenched, and where those setting the policy seem utterly unwilling to contemplate creating a level playing field for open source programs.

This is particularly ironic since the institution in question is none other than the “Open” University, and yet it seems anything but open-minded:

Gerry Gavigan, chairman of the UK's Open Source Consortium, wrote a letter to OU vice chancellor Brenda Gourley almost exactly a month ago, suggesting that the OU would honour its founding principles if it encouraged its 220,000 students to adopt Open Source alternatives to Microsoft software. The switch would do more than that, it would save them money.

Last week, OU vice chancellor Professor Brenda Gourley wrote back with the s ame argument that is used to defend vested interests everywhere: as most students use Microsoft, so the OU couldn't do any more to encourage them to use Open Source instead.

And things may get even worse, as the Guardian reported last month:

The Open University has appointed a Microsoft boss to be its fifth vice-chancellor.

Martin Bean is currently general manager of product management, marketing and business development for Microsoft's worldwide education products group.

As Bean explained:

"I look forward to combining my passion for education and technology to lead the university over the coming years, as we continue to provide innovative and high quality distance education solutions to meet the needs of the 21st century."

It remains to be seen whether those “innovative and high quality distance education solutions” turn out to be the same ones he has been peddling at Microsoft. It will be outrageous if they are, to the exclusion of free software options, since the office of vice-chancellor at the Open University's must clearly be a paragon of impartiality, and above simply pushing fat contracts to old chums. This means that not only must decisions be made fairly, but that they must be seen to be made fairly, in the most transparent and “open” way possible.

The Open University is not the only worrying example of the Microsoft mafia taking over important cultural institutions. The BBC has been hiring them too, notably in the form of Erik Huggers, who took over from Ashley Highfield when the latter left for the Kangaroo project, which then proved a convenient, er, jumping-off point for a move to Microsoft, of all places.

The central issue at the BBC has been the overly-close ties between the iPlayer project and Microsoft's technologies, locking out free software users. After much squawking by pains in the posterior like me, there seems to be some hope that GNU/Linux will finally be treated fairly, as Huggers himself revealed a couple of months back:

Using Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR), we intend to make BBC iPlayer download functionality available on Mac, Linux and Windows for the first time later this year. Whatever platform you use, you'll now be able to download TV programmes from the BBC to watch later - on the train, in the garden, or wherever you like.

I'm still waiting to see this plan put into practice, but it's good to have the commitment.

This experience suggests that we need to keep a close watch on the actions of Bean when he joins the Open University, and to ensure that his policies and purchasing plans are rigorously even-handed. If they're not, he may find it an “educational” process dealing with the free software community up close and personal....

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