This morning we woke up to the not unexpected news that our great leader, Nelson Mandela, had died during the night. No South African could have failed to have tears in their eyes. I wrote the following on my Facebook profile:
Later today, I am going to be at the Department of Basic Education (DBE), for a discussion or debate on the DBE decision to only allow proprietary technologies to be used for examining two areas of the high school curriculum. There are lots of pragmatic reasons why that decision is wrong. However, fundamentally, it is wrong because it teaches young people to be slaves to those whose hegemony keeps the proprietary software business model alive. Madiba fought for freedom, he recognised that the only chance for us to stay free is if the young people understand freedom. DBE is teaching that slavery is OK in the digital world. And that is wrong.
The future is here, it is among the young people of our nation. Let us not rob them of freedom in the digital world simply because we do not understand it, or because we understand it but don't care.
I need to start this post by saying that despite being a Free Software advocate, and despite finding Microsoft business practices dispicable, I very rarely criticise the company, and in the past have worked well with the company in various roles. In South Africa, however, the company does not display the same level of maturity that one finds globally. I would gladly not have to write this, but I cannot allow the words of the MD of MS in South Africa to go unchallenged.
I learned from Rafiq Phillips' uncrashable managed wordpress site (http://www.webaddict.co.za/2013/10/30/microsoft-south-africa-mteto-nyati/) in which he claims to have misrepresented the facts about the DBE CAT and IT story and negatively portrayed Microsoft. This is apparently based on an email from Mteto Nyati managing director of Microsoft South Africa.
In this email Mr Nyati claims that "I am afraid Derek has misrepresented the facts unfortunately at Microsoft expense." Apparently, this was said without actually reading my several blog posts on the subject, without saying exactly what I misrepresented. Nor was there any explanation as to how my assertions were 'at Microsoft expense'.
If there is any misrepresentation here, it is carried out by Mr Nyati in his letter to Rafiq, since I did not say anything about Microsoft other than to mention the products by name. In attempting to show how I misrepresented the facts, Mr Nyati says
Unfortunately, in a way however, Mr Nyati is right. By attempting to please all definitions I used the term Free and Open Source Software. This resulted in the term being misconstrued by Mr Nyati as 'open source'. To me, 'open source' is not very interesting, since it simply names something for one of its trivial outcomes, what is interesting is "Free Software". I said FOSS was effectively banned, it is an unfortunate semantics that we tend to lump Free and Open together, without separtating their different value systems. The difference in this context is important in that that Free Software and software freedom are incompatioble with the proprietary license rental industry. It is a FACT that no school can choose software freedom and still participate in these two subjects, and this amounts to a ban on Free Software, as I referred to it as FOSS. If you cannot do the exam with FOSS, then FOSS is banned. Simple. True. Not misconstrued. More importantly, the de facto result is to ban a Free Software approach in schools, and to favour the proprietary software approach despite public policy to the contrary.
So what exactly did I misrepresent, and what exactly was the Microsoft expense?
It is clear from the responses of the Department of Basic Education (DBE) to the uproar around their ridiculous and indefensable decision to use Microsoft Word for CAT and Delphi for IT, that we are locked into a model of education that I call 'administration-driven education' (ADE). Under this model, decisions are taken on the basis of how they affect administration, especially the management of examinations, not on the basis of the educational benefit. Often ADE practicioners are even unaware that this is their model, and - as is the case with the DBE - they often confuse administrative efficiency with good pedagogy.
In 1899, William T. Harris, the US commissioner of education thought it was great that US schools had developed the “appearance of a machine,” one that teaches the student “to behave in an orderly manner, to stay in his own place, and not get in the way of others.” This is what we are doing in South Africa, but not becuase it is what society needs, but because it is a lot easier to administer.
It is clear that this late industrial age model is not going to help us achieve what we need to achieve in the digital era of the 21st Century. The knowledge economy is fundamentally different from the industrial age economy, which emphasized sameness. The knowledge economy is not driven by sameness, but by diversity, by clever thinking leading to novel ideas.
If we think about the silly Delphi decision, what we see is an industrial age approach to IT. The fact of the real world is that there are different kinds of programming, all of them valid. There are, in any programming team, people with a different apporach to programming, some of whom even don't programme at all. There is no justifiable real-world reason to justify a single approach to programming in schools other than the fact that a single approach makes administration easier.
I wonder what would happen if a box of Arduino parts, a few Raspberry Pi's, and some computers running a reasonabley recent versin of GNU/Linux were dropped in a SA classroom, and kids were given the task to go learn programming. And they were told to do this without any interference from their teacher, with the teacher merely acting as a resource, and perhaps a sounding board.
As long as we use the ADE model for educational decisions, we will continue to make silly, educationally-ridiculous decisions.
There are many examples of Free Software in Government around the world, ranging from the USA through Europe to Latin America and beyond. This makes the near total failure of the South African government to make significant progress with Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) despite having a policy to do so highly suspicious.
One of the recent examples I have come across is the administration of the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, which will switch to the Free Software office suite OpenOffice. It plans to save about 2 million euro on licences for a proprietary alternative, the region announced on 7 October. To prepare the migration, a three-month pilot has been started at the Directorate-General for Agriculture, with 300 workstations. All other regional departments will follow by the end of next year. The region employs 3,545 civil servants, so this is not a small scale thing.
What makes the Italian region able to do this and South Africa not? My suspicion is that it involves better leadership, the creation of higher levels of competence, less corruption, and less susceptibility to the manipulative marketing tactics of the proprietary software license rental companies. There are no defensible reasons for South Africa to have failed to implement its own FOSS policy. None at all. Not even one. That's right not one.