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The challenge of critical mass in South African ICT innovation
980 days ago

BlocksIt could be argued that one of the defining features of the late 20th and early 21st Century is that it has been a time of rapid innovation. The opportunities for technology-based entrepreneurship are unparalleled in history, yet South Africa and the rest of the African continent have largely been relegated to the role of consumers of innovations produced elsewhere, or at best have done innovation around the periphery and in a few areas that are the exception. One such exception to this trend might be the cellular phone industry although it might be argued that we have have gotten behind in that space too.

The raw material for innovation, potentially creative young minds, is being wasted even as we languish as consumers of technology and process innovation done elsewhere. In recent years there has been a substantial increase in opportunities for youth to study at higher and further education levels. The number of places at universities and colleges increased, and  financial access has been improved by the expansion of the funds provided the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). Yet despite this, youth unemployment is rife, and there are substantially more young people qualifying to enter higher education than there are places available.

The squandering of our youth is evident in some recent statistics. Approximately 680 000 school leavers wrote matric examinations at the end of 2010, but only about 230 000 qualified for university studies at a minimal level. South African public universities only have the capacity to accommodate 130 000 first year students, leaving about 100 000 young people – who could be contributing to the economy and society and building the next generation of business – without university places. Getting into university is no guarantee. Up to 30 percent of university students are unable to find jobs after they graduate resulting in high numbers of unemployed graduates. Graduates are the fastest growing group contributing to the increasing numbers of unemployed. The entrepreneurial sector is not growing fast enough to make a high enough contribution to economic development.

Given the low production of high-level skills, all technology-based industries face a critical shortage of highly skilled graduates, and the pace of creation of new businesses is low compared to many other countries. Even if our existing institutions were to improve on their poor throughput rates, and take on the maximum number of students that they could, we would still substantially lack critical mass.

The output of universities in areas of technology that could provide opportunities for innovation is well below what we may call critical mass – the input of talented educators and researchers and the output of talented graduates required to foster innovation and the significant creation of new businesses. Salaries in technology fields are very attractive for graduates, with the result that movement from undergraduate to postgraduate programmes of study is low. The unemployment of graduates generally, and the low rate of production of high-level, technology and entrepreneurship skills are related. They take place within the same ecosystem, and this is a key limiting factor in the knowledge economy and the knowledge ecosystem that supports it.

To make a serious difference, we need 5 000 to 10 000 new PhD's and 100 000 to 200 000 new graduates from the programmes they create. Instead, we are tinkering around the margins and doing incremental things. And of course talking. It is easier to talk, and to tinker incrementally than it is to make a difference. Meanwhile, as a nation, we are wasting our youth.

Originally posted about 5 months ago in 2011. Given the large number of matrics graduating school but not finding places in higher education this year, this post is still very valid.



A tweet reminds me that we MUST teach Computer Science at school again in South Africa
905 days ago

Today, the day that my Christian friends and family call Easter Sunday, I saw a tweet by Angelica Rocha (@angie4edtech)

Nobody bothers to ask the question Papert 1st posed 45 years ago: Does the child program the PC or does the PC program the child? Tragedy!

which was retweeted by Audrey Watters.

This got me thinking about computer science in schools, which I suppose was its intent.

But first I had to dissect the question. Lately, I have been pondering a lot about the nature of questions that people ask, and the implicit assumptions as well as the emotions they contain. If you have read some of my blog posts answering specific questions about FOSS, you will see some of my thoughts on how questions can be used to create emotions or responses that have nothing to do with the answer.

In the 1960s, mathematician, computer scientist Seymour Papert postulated that a computer could allow learners to shape the way in which a computer was used, and to construct knowledge in ways and domains that would be impossible without it. Papert suggested that using a computer, learning math could be made natural and effective, like learning Zulu by living in KwaZulu-Natal as opposed to being taught Zulu in a classroom in an English speaking region. Papert posed the question "Does the child program the computer or does the computer program the child?" (there were no PCs then).

On the one level the question is meaningless, and on the other it's answer is axiomatic, but in between lies the true meaning of the question. Where does the power in the child-computer relationship lie? More importantly, it gives rise to the question "What are we doing today to shift the balance of power more in the direction of the child?"

For the first two instances of the question, the use of the "or" operator is entirely inappropriate. Of course, we need an operational definition of 'programming', since the word is inappropriately applied to the child as the technology does not deliberately construct algorithms and load them into the child for their execution. On this level, it is a meaningless question, and in this sense the first clause is true, and the second one false (C-PC  !PC-C). But that is not what Papert was on about.

In the second instance of the question, we can adopt an operational definition that defines 'programming' as creating a sequence of instructions in the case of the child programming the computer, and altering the behaviour of the child in the case of the computer programming the child. All interactions with technology are - well interactions - and the influence runs in both directions. There is no single answer to this instance of the question, as the degree to which the relationship is skewed depends on context. A child doing some deep programming task, such as writing a module for the Linux kernel has a different kind of relationship with the computer than a child playing Angry Birds.

We first need to acknowledge that all technology works like this. If id didn't we would still be living in caves and foraging for roots and fruits. It is fundamental to our nature, we give up some power to technology and its creators for the real or perceived benefit it brings. We create the technology, and then the technology alters our behaviour. Which way the influence runs depends on the nature of the technology and our relationship with it.

But neither of these meanings was what Papert had in mind. He was asking, in an obscure and metaphorical way, where does the centre of power lie in the relationship between the child and the computer.  His work led to the creation of the Logo programming language, and the kinds of things he had in mind were related to a child ACTUALLY programming a computer, something that is a rare phenomenon these days. And this is the crux of the challenge we face in building a so-called knowledge economy.

There was a time in the brief history of computing when computing was taught at school, but these days, it seems unlikely to happen very much. I have four children, two have finished school, and two are still in high school. They all took subjects that have the word computer in them (or some watered down term for computers), but not one of them have the faintest rudiments of knowledge about programming, and despite it being something I do almost every day for the pure pleasure of it, neither of them and neither of their friends have any clue about computer programming. Not even web scripting or an entry level language like logo. Not even how this text is bolded in HTML.

So, the answer, at this time in the 21st Century, using the third interpretation of the question, the answer is clearly that the power lies with the computer as a manifestation of the ideas and activities of other people who live on the other side of the asymmetric relationship. These are the people who conceived the programmes, wrote the games, designed the applications, or created the web sites and applications that are being used. There is not ONLY a relationship BETWEEN computer and child, there is a relationship AMONG computer, child, and a whole lot of other people. It is a highly skewed relationship these days for most children.

This relationship has been weakened and skewed by a combination of the technology itself (computers are easier to use because people have already programmed them) and educational policies around the world that have shifted computers from the centre to the periphery of learning. We no longer learn ABOUT computers, we learn WITH them (if we are lucky). The theoretization of computers in learning, and the creation of a pseudoscience around it has created the illusion that we still do deep stuff with computers. We mostly don't.

Of course, the phenomenon of 'backgrounding' happens with all technology. Perhaps it is a tragedy, perhaps it is natural, human. I find it unfortunate, it has happened too early with computers,  and in South Africa, we seem dead intent on propagating this misfortune in our education systems. I find it sad that we are losing opportunities for more general and widespread capabilities to tell 'the computer' what to do. In South Africa, our school-level education system seems to be increasingly based on a 'for dummies' approach.

We talk about maths and science education, yet hardly anyone is saying that to have effective maths and science education, we need computer science.  Teaching Maths and Science education without computer science is like trying to teach literacy without ANY means to produce written words.  We have a lot to say about the so-called knowledge economy, without understanding that the knowledge economy rests entirely on the work of people who are able to exert force and do work deep down in the increasingly smaller bowels of the computers that are ubiquitous in our lives. If we don't delve that deeply into computers, all South Africa will ever be is a peripheral player and consumer in the knowledge economy. We will be colonised and exploited AT LEAST as badly as the Apartheid system was exploitative.

Eben Moglen said "software is life".  A society that does not have a widespread understanding of computer science in all its forms will not understand that the implication of this is the formation of a society that is not programming the computer, but a computer that is (as a mediator) programming that society. And a programmed society is not free.

The solution? Talk about computers, not watered down phrases. Teach programming, not web browsing and Facebook posting. Take back control. Shift the balance of power in our favour. And of course, Free and Open Source Software can help make that happen. 


SInce I wrote this, the 'Related Tweets' in the sidebar have turned up some interesting links that I didn't know about. That's the bees knees!



The business opportunities in capacity building for APPS development in Africa (TelecomsWorld Africa talk)
859 days ago

The topic that I was given when my colleague was unable to make the conference was: "How to develop localised applications to target and profit from the African market." This seemed straight-forward until I started thinking about some of the concepts contained within that simple phrase. Firstly, assuming localised applications refer to applications targeted at local markets, it is important to realise that the current device landscape in this very large continent of Africa is quite heterogeneous. Secondly, most African countries have a scarcity of developers, more so of good developers. In a recent trip to Nigeria, for example, it was reveled that there are about 2000 independent developers in the country, compared to several hundred thousand in the USA. Many thousands are unemployed, and have very limited experience. Thirdly, while there are purely exploitative opportunities to develop apps and sell into the African market, such opportunities do not lead to the generation of local idea capital - the raw material of the knowledge economy. The real opportunity is therefore to use the growing potential of the software applications market place - both open source and (shudder shudder) proprietary - to create capacity-building initiatives, and by doing so to grow idea capital, and thence to grow the size and variety of the market. I use my 8 years experience in the African Virtual Open Initiatives and Resources capacity-building initiative to discuss how this could be achieved while still creating business opportunities and growing local economies.

From Telecoms World Africa, May 22, 2012, Sandton Convention Centre, Johannesburg, South Africa



Why Delphi is a bad choice for teaching programming in SA schools
355 days ago

With the release of Circular S9/2013, the Department of Basic Education has made Delphi mandatory for teaching programming as part of the Information Technology curriculum in South Africa schools. This is a follow on from my previous post, and focuses on why I think Delphi is a bad choice. It is partly a response to a comment on the previous post

One of the commenters on my previous post pointed out, correctly, that Delphi is far from a dead language. He noted that it has  currently over 3.7 Million active users, and that the latest version provides native code application development for iOS, Mac, PC (only if they are running Windows) and Android. It is hardlly old technology! He noted that in South Africa already over 10000 students are using the Delphi IDE in schools and there is an active Delphi user group in the region. Delphi is the base of many worldwide software applications including Skype. He also noted that Delphi provide students the opportunity to develop software in a true IDE environment, and that Embarcadero (the company who rents Delphi licenses to users) is providing free Delphi to all school students in South Africa. 

I want to point out that none of this information, though true, negates any of the arguments that I have made.

  1. Delphi is far from being among the more common technologies in use in for programming. While I never said it was dead, I did say it was moribund, which is perhaps over stating the case a bit. Let's rather say it is far from the most popular. But I wonder what the 3.7 Million active users really means; is it developers (I do not believe it)? Java, various flavours of C, Python and PHP are the most commonly used languages today. Java and C have TIOBE index values of 1 and 2, while Delphi a TIOBE index of 14. Delphi is popular like Lisp and RPG ILE are popular!
  2. Regarding Skype, it is only Skype for Windows that is built in Delphi, the Skype for Linux client is sure not built in Delphi!
  3. The fact that South Africa already over 10000 students are using the Delphi IDE in schools is not an indication that it is a good thing, rather it is an indication of the problem. The existence of a user group in SA is laudible given the status of the language and its specialised nature, but there are user groups for all other languages that would make sense, and there are massive global communities in which learners could participate. Learning to participate in these global, open communities is as important to 21st Century programming as writing the code itself. Probably not in the curriculum though! Furthermore, new developers coming out of school have a number of barriers to entry into work or university with Delphi: Java, Python, PHP, Ruby, Javascript are free to learn, build and share and you do not need to rent a license to change source code after the free license has expired or is no longer available to you. 
  4. Regarding Delphi providing students the opportunity to develop software in a true IDE environment, I would firstly say that developing without an IDE is a far better way to learn the basics. This can be done, for example, with Python, and the there are plenty of Free Software (open source) IDEs that can be used without having to worry about proprietary licences and the later need to pay rentals for license use. 
  5. In respect of the fact that Embarcadero does not currently charge license rentals for Delphi to all school students in South Africa is merely good marketing. The company who rents Delphi licenses to users can withdraw this at any time, there is no guarantee that it is in perpetuity. Furthermore, any student who wants to continue developing after leaving school will have to pay for the license rental. This is merely the free heroin effect of gratis copies of proprietary software made available in schools. It is a dispicable practice.
The worst aspect of Delphi is that it does not work on Free Software (open source) operating systems such as GNU/Linux. This creates totally unnecessary pressure on schools to have Microsoft operating systems, and gives that particular software license rental company unfair advantage in our schools to the detriment of our children. It remains a bizarre choice in my opinion.
After I posted this, Bern Heyer commented on Facebook that besides teaching a new generation not to be dependant on one manufacturer, the spirit of Free software is incredibly important for people to learn. It teaches community, sharing and building on your own ideas, not just becoming a consumer of whatever is fed to you without question.


Department of Basic Education bans Free and Open Source Software in SA Schools and mandates programming an ancient, moribund language in contradiction of government's own policy
356 days ago

Today I received a copy of a Circular S9/2013 from the Department of Basic Education (DBE) that made me as angry as I have ever been in my life. In effect it destroyed any initiative in schools that offer the subjects "Computer Applications Technology" (CAT) and "Information Technology" (IT) and that use open source software. For CAT, the DBE has indicated that only Microsoft Office can be used and that this will only be MSO2010 and MSO2013 as from 2014. I learned that in IT they have dumped Java, effectively from 2013, and have prescribed Delphi, a language that is not in general use today and is basically Pascal with a Graphical User Interface.

The directive states re CAT:

... from January 2014, and November 2014, the DBE will only use Microsoft Office to respectively implement the CAT curriculum and assess CAT as part of the NSC examinations. Furthermore, only the latest two version of MS Office will be use, i.e. MS OFfice 2010 and MS Office 2013. Should newer version of MS Office be released, the phasing out of olderversions and implementation of newer versions will be communicated to all stakeholders.

The directive states re IT:

The programming language to implement the IT curriculum will be standardised using Delphi. Due to training requirements for provinces currently using Java, implementation will be as follows: Grade 11 implementation in January 2015, and grade 12 implementation in January 2016.

As from November 2016, the DBE will only use Delphi for assessment in the IT NSC examinations.

This is a shocking embarrassment to our nation. Last year, then the DBE failed to ensure textbook distribution to certain schools in Limpopo, the press (correcly) went into a feeding frenzy. This is a bigger issue, because it disadvantages every school child in the nation, creates a whole generation of technology slavery, and denies school learners the opportunity to learn programming technologies that are ACTUALLY IN USE. The decision to implement Delphi is a bit like mandating Latin as the language for literature. The press will probably not go into a feeding frenzy because the IT disaster is less obvious to the uninformed than the much less important text book debacle.

This is wrong on so many levels, that it will be difficult for me to convey them all in the time available to write this blog post. However, let me list a few:

  1. The decision to allow only a single operating system from a single license rental company (Microsoft) is anti-competitive, and denies school learners exposure to a variety of viable alternatives, and also denies other companies access to the school environment.
  2. The decision to allow only a single office suite from a single license rental company (Microsoft) is anti-competitive, and denies school learners exposure to a variety of viable alternative office suites that could indeed run even on said operating system, and also denies other companies access to the school environment.
  3. The directive locks school children to a particular company's product, hiding from them that there are viable alternatives that they can have full control over, and that does not lock them into being customers of a particular license rental company (indeed that do not extract rents from artificial scarcity at all and that respects their freedom).
  4. The decision passes a cost burden onto parents, as in purchasing a laptop for their children will now be required to pay for license fees to Microsoft products, even though viable free alternatives are available.
  5. The South African government has a Free and Open Source Software Policy, that was promulgated in 2007, and this directive is counter to that policy completely in that it FORCES the implementation of proprietary technologies where viable FOSS alternatives exists in contradiction to government's own policy.
  6. IT should be the subject that excites the next generation of software engineers. Goodness knows, we are not producing enough of those by a long shot in South Africa at present. Teaching a moribund language is not going to excite anyone. It would be far better to teach something that is acutally in use, and to allow young people to build real world appliations for mobile phones, tablets, web applications, games. This is how you excite the next generation. Python, PHP, Java, Javascript... any 21st Century language would be better than Delphi. Any. Any at all.

I have no doubt that many lies will be told about the cost of implementing FOSS, etc. I hope that when you see them, you will recognise them for the corrupt untruths they are. 

DOWNLOAD: Circular S9/2013



Quick response to the Department of Basic Education's defence of its decision regarding CAT and IT
354 days ago

Here is my quick response to the Department of Basic Education's defence of its decision regarding CAT and IT. I must emphasize that this is a quick response as I might not have Internet tomorrow. Theirs in red, mine in blue.
 
****
 
Firstly, from the response in the social media, the impression is given that DBE has totally banned open source software while the announcement only affects two curriculum subjects in Grades 10 – 12 where these tools are used to implement a national curriculum and asses a national examination. It does not affect other activities the DBE is involved with, such as e-learning/ICT integration in other subjects and grades.
 
That argument is just semantics. This directive does in effect preclude FOSS operating systems - amounting to a ban on FOSS for teaching CAT, since the schools will need to run Microsoft or Apple in order to comply. It would have made much more sense to standardise on technologies that anyone can use. FOSS office packages such as LibreOffice and OpenOffice work on all platforms whether they are Free or Non-Free, and thus do not force the install of proprietary operating systems.
 
Secondly, the decision was made in consultation with structures that represent provinces and teacher unions where advice was given that a circular be issued.
 
There is no objection to a circular, only to standardising on 1). non-free software that 2). advantages a particular company and 3). does not expose learners to a broader range of technologies thus favouring the proprietary hegemony, 4) does not expose learners to real world programming, and 5). violates national policy. Of course the real problem there is the lack of imagination in the curriculum, but that is another issue.
 
Thirdly, the decision is based on educationally sound and pedagogical considerations informed by research regarding the future of the two subjects.
 
I cannot comment without knowing what that research was, how sound it was, and how applicable to our situation. It is difficult to imagine that any research would show that it is better to teach children using Microsoft Technology than any other, or that Delphi is better for teaching programming than say Python unless the curriculum was designed for Delphi in the first place. But that is speculation.
 

Fourthly, the decision was made considering matters that impact on curriculum delivery and national examinations where different software tools and versions impact on the delivery and fairness of these matters.

The fact that SOMETHING needs to be done does not justtify WHAT was done. This is not a logical argument. 
 
Fifthly, matters that negatively affect learners such as migration between provinces or schools that use different tools, the cost to develop resources for different tools and versions, as well as the fact that the vast majority of schools currently use MS Office were also considered.
 
I find it utterly shocking that we are teaching kids to use tools that should be second nature to them. We should be teaching principles not particular company's technologies. You could achieve the same level of standardisation at no cost using LibreOffice and other FOSS tools. 
 
One wonders why you are teaching TECHNOLOGIES and not PRINCIPLES in the first place. I understand the industrial model of education that we employ has some limitations, but the same effects could have been achieved another way.
 
There are other costs than financial
- Locking childern into technologies that do not respect their freedom. We fought hard for freedom in the physical world, only to give it up in the digital world for expediency.
- Keeping the nation further away from the ideals contained within the FOSS strategy
- Teaching children to programme using tools that are used by a small minority in the real world
- Keeping children away from the fun of learning thruogh participating in FOSS development
 
Only 0.9% of Grade 12 learners take IT and 9% of Grade 12 learners take CAT.
 
This somehow makes it OK? It is OK to keep a minority of learners in a digital prison?

I know I am missing something here. Please help me complete this rebuttal rebuttal.



More on the tragedy that the DBE (and provincial departments) have created in IT in SA schools
349 days ago

One of the key issues regarding the Department of Basic Education's decision to standardise on the products of one software license rent extraction company (sometimes incorrectly referred to as vendor) is that it represents a cascading effect of past mistakes throughout the whole education system. Firstly was the decision effectively not to comply with the government's FOSS policy, which resulted in a deep insertion of Microsoft and other proprietary technologies into the lives of our young people. Secondly, there is the dull, boring view of what young people should learn about technology in school.

Firstly, our schools have fallen victim to vicious marketing by these license rent extractors. They give away things for free, sometimes even donate money knowing that it will be more than paid back when their unsuspecting victims are adicted to the technologies from which they extract license rent. Back in the day, not long after the FOSS policy was promulgated, provincial education departments had a choice. They could have gone over to a different world, a better world, a much more pleasant world to live in as I did in 2000-2001. They didn't. They allowed our school kids to be brainwashed into believing that they had to use proprietary technologies to do stuff. Trivial stuff at that.

Secondly, we need to create a generation of makers. People who build stuff, not just people who use stuff. Otherwise, we are passive participants in the knowledge economy. Utterly and totally passive.

I remember when I was in high school, a very poor school in Canada's Third World province (then) of Newfoundland. We had no lab facilities in the school, so some of us taking physical science used to go to the garbage dump to scrounge electronic components (in those days vacuum tubes, giant capacitors, rheostats, coils and the like from which we would try to make stuff. What I realise from these days is that learning physics by making things is rather like like learning Zulu by living in KwaZulu-Natal, where as classroom learning about the same concepts is like being taught Zulu in a classroom in an English speaking region. I talked to Steve Wozniak, one of the founders of Apple, last year, and though he is older than me it seems that making stuff was the culture of the day.

Instead of arguing over Delphi, I mean are these people serious? Delphi? Eish. Instead of arguing over that, we should be bringing a whole host of Free and Open technologies into the classroom, and creating a rich vibrant culture of making stuff. There are plenty of hardware opportunities, things such as Arduino, Rasberry Pi, and 3D printing that can be combined with programming in a variety of languages. Let kids explore, and let them learn by making stuff. Stop teaching programming out of context, and stop teaching it as if we were still the 20th Century. 

In their response to my previous blog posts and the uproar on Twitter, the DBE responded

Fifthly, matters that negatively affect learners such as migration between provinces or schools that use different tools, the cost to develop resources for different tools and versions, as well as the fact that the vast majority of schools currently use MS Office were also considered.

This shows how out of context the thinking is, and how utterly stale IT is in our schools. We cannot build our participation in the knowledge economy on such a weak foundation.

A further aspect of this tragedy is that all of the people who have gone on to found large global companies, from our own Mark Shuttleworth to the founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin have cut their teeth and founded their businesses on Free Software. And the access to the source code was a major source of learning, as anyone who participates in FOSS projects knows. Without this learning, and without the Free Software tools that they could use and customize, the obstacles to them creating those businesses would have probably been too large to overcome. What we are doing when we lock our children into becoming chronic renters of proprietary software licenses, is we are making sure that the next Mark Shuttleworth, Larry Page or Mark Zuckerberg does not come from South Africa. 

And that is not good four our nation. 



The joys of administration-driven education (ADE) - what is really wrong with S9
346 days ago

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.



Responding to the accusations of the Microsoft MD regarding my assertions re DBE and FOSS
334 days ago

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

the department of basic education has standardized training and assessment of CAT & IT matric students on MS Office
Yes, and this does not change anything that I said.

this decision was requested by teachers to align with market needs & facilitate mobility of matric students across schools
The decision was requested by SOME teachers, but not by ALL teachers. The misrepresentation appears to be in this over-generalisation. In any case, it in no way cancels anything I have said in any of my blog posts on the subject, so it is largely irrelevant in this context.

South Africa government has not banned open source in fact it has FOSS policy
Said policy has not been implemented in part due to the actions of the proprietary license rental industry, their propensity to use FUD as a marketing tactic, and their willingness to act in questionable ways to attempt to undermine said policy. It is interesting that Mr Nyati raised this policy in the context of a decision that is in fact counter to its intent and its requirements, and seems to suffer no cognitive dissonance about it whatsoever.

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. 

all public schools in SA already have a Microsoft license agreements
I never claimed otherwise, so there is no way I misrepresented this fact. As this statement makes clear, the bad decision that I was writing about rests on top of other bad decisions, I never claimed otherwise. 

So what exactly did I misrepresent, and what exactly was the Microsoft expense?



Thinking of Madiba, of education, and of freedom
298 days ago

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:

Once, when I was shopping in Claremont, Cape Town, we were standing near the lifts. The lift opened and there was Madiba with one person who presumably was his body guard. No fanfare, he was just shopping. My daughter noticed and said "Daddy, daddy, there is Mr Mandela." He heard her, and came over and knelt down on the hard floor to talk to her. And it was not a quick political conversation, he asked what school she went to, what grade she was in, about her likes, and what her aspirations were. Another time, we had the International Year of the Oceans opening in Parliament, and there were dignitaries from all over the world. There was a children's choir that sang at the opening, and President Mandela stopped the whole proceedings after the song was finished to go and talk to each of the children individually. Such was the humility of Madiba, and his understanding that the future was there that morning, among the children, not among the dignitaries.

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.



What if President Zuma could call for all South African young people to learn to code?
293 days ago

While we argue over whether we should be using proprietary technologies or FOSS technologies in our examination-driven, expediency based education system, President Obama calls on all American  learners to learn to code. He is asking for his country to hold the technology lead that they have taken. Unless our Department of Basic Education come out of their administration-driven educational thinking, they are going to relegate our next generation to be mere consumers in the Knowledge Economy. Is it not time we stood up, and claimed the freedom for which Madiba sacrificed so much. There is no reason we can't take our place as builders of the Knowledge Economy. But not with our current mindset. No way. We have to up our game.

Why not? Any why not respect Madiba's legacy by making this happen in the spirit of software freedom?



The DBE Circular requiring proprietary office & programming technologies: An excellent example of how not to do IT in SA schools
293 days ago

The Department of Basic Education Circular requiring proprietary office & programming technologies: An excellent example of how not to do IT in education in South African schools. This presentation was given at the a stakeholder meeting at the Department of Basic Education, December 6th 2013

The following recommendations were made (with thanks to Mike Chiles for his contribution):

  • The implementation of Circular S9 should be suspended pending further investigation, hence the status quo remains for now
  • During 2014-2015, the DBE examining panel needs to review the current assessment practice so as to make the IT practical paper language independent
  • An independent group should be appointed to review both the CAT and IT curriculum to make them more current and more exciting so as to attract learners to the subjects
  • The revised curricula should be phased in in Grade 10 in 2016 and the IT curriculum should not have a prescribed programming language
  • Both CAT and IT must be compliant with the Government FOSS policy and the Minimum Interoperability Standards

I got the distinct impression that:

  1. They intend to take the advice they paid for even it is abundantly clear the advisor is obviously ignorant of how it could be any different, or how to make it so
  2. The meeting was orchestrated and managed so as not to discuss hard issues. The scope was only the circular in the very narrowest sense, and not the curriculum. 
  3. The final decision will be driven by the narrowest view of what is perceived to be administrative expediency, not by educational or social opportunities
  4. There is nobody in DBE who understands the implications of Free Software and its potential impact on education

I felt like I was in a meeting of people who had agreed that they wanted to live their  lives in prison, I was arguing that living outside prison was better when all they wanted to know was whether to sleep on the left or right side of the prison cell. It looks as though software colonialism will be allowed, but I hope I am proven wrong on this. If I am I will eat humble pie in abundance.



Education is a powerful weapon for freedom, as freedom is a powerful weapon for education, and S9 is withdrawn
291 days ago

I just finished reading Martin Hall's Times Higher Education article entitled "Mandela saw education as a powerful weapon for freedom". Martin wrote:

Madiba had a lifelong respect for education: in his early years at Fort Hare; in pursuing legal qualifications (and writing examinations under threat of a death sentence in jail in Pretoria); on Robben Island, in his now famous organisation of seminars while working in the blinding light and dust of the lime quarry. He saw equality of opportunity through education as key to emancipation, a principle yet to be realised in South Africa, or elsewhere.

This prompted me to tweet that "#Mandela saw education as a powerful weapon for freedom, it's a shame that DBE doesn't see that freedom is a powerful weapon for education." Here DBE is the department of education, the government department responsible for education at school-level. Two months ago, this government department flouted government Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) policy by sending a Circular S9 stipulating that the curricula for Computer Applications Technology (CAT) and Information Technology (IT) could only be examined using non-free software (proprietary software). Here I am using the word "free" in its sense of freedom, not in the sense of absence of price.  (Read back through my older posts in the education category to the right if you want more information on Circular S9).

Freedom does not stop with the right to vote. In a digital society, for that society to be free they must use, create, and promote free software. Without a preponderance of Free Software, no digital society is free. Indeed, we are subjected to many forms of software or digital colonisation. In the knowledge economy, without Free Software, we are largely relegated to the role of consumer, with a little bit of tinkering in pockets and around some edges.

As a component of the freedom that Madiba and others fought for, Digital Freedom is an end in its own right, but it is also a powerful weapon for education.Used correctly, a virtuous circle can be created in which freedom powers education and education powers freedom. Creating this virtuous circle is vitally important if we are going to have a free and democratic society in the digital age.

Freedom requires vigilance, and understanding as we move into new domains where it is contested, and new forces act to take it away. This past month or so, a number of us came together as FOSS businesses, activists, and concerned citizens to challenge the DBE on the contents of Circular S9. It seems that DBE listened. 

We have just learned that the Circular S9 that mandated proprietary technologies exclusively for CAT and IT has been withdrawn. We do not yet know what will come in its place, or what action DBE will take. We can only hope that they begin to see that education and freedom are liked in both directions, and that it is time for them to take a leadership role in insuring that this synergy happens.

I hope humble pie is not too fattening......



We need more South African kids coding
265 days ago

We need more South African kids coding if we are ever to move away from the periphery of the knowledge economy. Besides, it is the most fun you can have that is legal, and it is a form of fun you can carry throughout your life, right up to the last moment.

We need to make computer science wet in schools, right now it is drier than the Sahara.