I was asked by a jour­nal­ist to com­ment on the NSW gov­ern­ment deci­sion to dis­trib­ute Win­dows 7 “mini note­books” across schools. Here’s my reply:

I used to work with satel­lite net­works, pro­vid­ing Inter­net access to
most of NSW before wired broad­band was wide­ly avail­able (and it still
isn’t in a lot of places). We had many rur­al schools and local
coun­cils as cus­tomers. The dif­fi­cul­ties of get­ting com­put­ing and
Inter­net resources to remote areas (with asso­ci­at­ed infra­struc­ture,
train­ing, etc.) can­not be under­es­ti­mat­ed.

First­ly exam­in­ing from a busi­ness per­spec­tive, how is this to be
fund­ed, giv­en that NSW is in a poor finan­cial state and the gov­ern­ment
has been axing projects left, right and cen­tre? What alter­na­tives were
con­sid­ered? How were they eval­u­at­ed? Was there an open ten­der­ing
process?

What mat­ters most is what we can achieve with this pro­gramme. Sim­ply
throw­ing a com­put­er to every stu­dent won’t cut it. There needs to be a
clear plan and set of out­comes defined, as you would have with any
rea­son­able busi­ness arrange­ment. This press release does­n’t touch upon
any of that.

What is the oppor­tu­ni­ty cost of fund­ing this scheme? Could the
resources have been spent on bet­ter facil­i­ties for the chil­dren or
bet­ter teach­ers’ salaries?

The phrase ‘new era’ implies some sort of major change. Has this been
ade­quate­ly planned for?

Teach­ers have a hard enough time keep­ing up with tech­nol­o­gy. Will they
be giv­en train­ing and con­tin­ued assis­tance?

How will these devices be inte­grat­ed into cur­ric­u­la? How can they
become effec­tive teach­ing aids and not just expen­sive appendages?

Will the focus be on teach­ing or train­ing? I am a firm believ­er that
schools should teach chil­dren to be clever and think for them­selves,
cre­at­ing the basis for a flex­i­ble work­force. They should not sim­ply be
trained to mem­o­rise the func­tions of a par­tic­u­lar ver­sion of a piece
of soft­ware. Rote-learn­ing like that will be worth­less when they
grad­u­ate and enter the work­force.

Will there be any addi­tion­al costs required to prop­er­ly use the
equip­ment? Are class­rooms ade­quate­ly equipped with appro­pri­ate
elec­tri­cal wiring and capac­i­ty to charge all of these? What about
net­work con­nec­tiv­i­ty? What will it take to main­tain the infra­struc­ture
required for these, includ­ing hard­ware and soft­ware for servers,
routers and so on.

In fact, there is no men­tion of sup­port­ing infra­struc­ture at all. What
are the costs of the entire life cycle of these devices, the soft­ware,
main­te­nance, infra­struc­ture and so on?

Who will own the note­books? Will stu­dents be free to explore and learn
about their com­put­ers, or will they be locked down? Can they install
what­ev­er soft­ware they want? Will they be tied to par­tic­u­lar
appli­ca­tions and file for­mats?

There is no men­tion at all of what soft­ware will be installed on these
com­put­ers. An oper­at­ing sys­tem with­out appli­ca­tions is use­less. Will
the includ­ed soft­ware be enough to empow­er and teach our chil­dren?
Have deals been struck with oth­er soft­ware sup­pli­ers? Will there be
addi­tion­al costs to acquire the soft­ware for par­tic­u­lar sub­jects? Who
bears this cost — the school sys­tem or par­ents?

Has open source soft­ware been con­sid­ered at all? There’s plen­ty of
open source soft­ware that works hap­pi­ly on top of Win­dows. Microsoft
may have dis­count­ed Win­dows, but did they include an office suite?
OpenOf­fice would do the job just fine.

Even if you believe the tired-old argu­ment that the state MUST
pur­chase Microsoft Office for each and every stu­dent (which works out
to tens of mil­lions of dol­lars), would­n’t it be bet­ter to choose
OpenOf­fice for free, and spend those mil­lions on new library books or
hos­pi­tal beds?

I’ll admit that OpenOf­fice isn’t exact­ly the same thing (it’s bet­ter
in some ways, not as good in oth­ers), but it’s so sim­i­lar that it
does­n’t real­ly make a dif­fer­ence. It is worth tens of mil­lions of
dol­lars just to get the Real Thing? Does learn­ing MS Office 2003 in
school real­ly pre­pare you for using Office 2007 (with its com­plete­ly
new inter­face) once you hit the work­force? Refer to my ear­li­er
com­ments about teach­ing ver­sus train­ing.

Are they includ­ing graph­ics soft­ware for the art and design class­es?
Are tax­pay­ers going to have to pay for a copy of Adobe Cre­ative Suite
for every­one? How about we save the hun­dreds of dol­lars per stu­dent
and use the GIMP and Inkscape instead? Exam­ples such as these abound,
and there are plen­ty of oth­er open source appli­ca­tions that sim­ply
have no good par­al­lel in the pro­pri­etary world.

I find it strange that the coun­try’s largest state would tie the
edu­ca­tion of its chil­dren to a total­ly unproven oper­at­ing sys­tem. A
smart pur­chas­er — espe­cial­ly one pur­chas­ing at such a grand scale -
would wait until the soft­ware had been out for a while and had been
thor­ough­ly test­ed by con­sumers around the world. Inter­nal test­ing is
one thing, but you can­not beat real-world expe­ri­ence.

A point-zero release is sure to have rough edges, and it would have
been far wis­er to wait for at least the first ser­vice pack like most
organ­i­sa­tions do. Can you imag­ine the fury that would have been
unleashed if the NSW Gov­ern­ment had decid­ed to kit out the state with
Win­dows Vista before its release? Sure it sound­ed good before it came
out (“The wow starts now!”), but it lost its lus­tre very soon after
unveil­ing. Many peo­ple today still cling onto Win­dows XP, and oth­ers
have switched to Lin­ux and Mac OS X, in response to Vis­ta’s abysmal
state.

The OLPC Project has already iden­ti­fied and addressed many of the
issues that may be faced. They have done this through devel­op­ing a
com­bi­na­tion of hard­ware, soft­ware, infra­struc­ture, train­ing,
pro­ce­dures and learn­ing mate­r­i­al. It would be wise to learn from their
expe­ri­ences.

The whole mini note­book rev­o­lu­tion start­ed with Lin­ux. Start­ing with
the OLPC XO lap­top, Lin­ux has proven to be a flex­i­ble and capa­ble
oper­at­ing sys­tem suit­able for small devices. Its resis­tance to virus­es
and oth­er net­work nas­ties is leg­endary. The last thing I’d want is for
my child’s com­put­er to get infect­ed and start show­ing kid­die porn.
Anti-virus and anti-mal­ware soft­ware are band-aid solu­tions. I’m not
going to build a cas­tle on a swamp.

Com­mer­cial­ly, devices like the Asus Eee PC could not have exist­ed if
it were not for Lin­ux. It forced Microsoft to actu­al­ly com­pete for
once, by res­ur­rect­ing Win­dows XP and slash­ing its price to a more
rea­son­able lev­el.

The press release claims that this scheme is ‘unpar­al­leled in
edu­ca­tion glob­al­ly’. There is con­sid­er­able risk in being first off the
block. I’ve already explained the risks of using an unproven oper­at­ing
sys­tem. It would be more pru­dent to learn from oth­er large scale
roll­outs in edu­ca­tion.

Take the Repub­lic of Mace­do­nia, for exam­ple. Despite being one of the
poor­est nations in Europe, they are the only nation to have one
com­put­er per stu­dent. They achieved this through the use of Edubun­tu,
a vari­ant of the pop­u­lar Ubun­tu GNU/Linux oper­at­ing sys­tem that is
spe­cial­ly tai­lored for edu­ca­tion and learn­ing. With that, they got a
vast library of open source edu­ca­tion­al soft­ware, which was all
trans­lat­ed into their native lan­guage.

Sim­i­lar sto­ries abound in places like Brazil, Rus­sia, India and Chi­na.
Col­lec­tive­ly known as the BRIC coun­tries, they are con­sid­ered to be
the up-and-com­ing nations to watch over the next few decades. Their
economies have been grow­ing at break­neck rates, part­ly because they
have been clever in their invest­ments. These nation states recog­nise
that edu­ca­tion is the key to long-term eco­nom­ic suc­cess.

You might say that these coun­tries are poor and that is why they are
choos­ing to use open source soft­ware. It is true that they don’t have
plen­ty of mon­ey to throw around, but does New South Wales? Does
Aus­tralia? Where would you want your tax dol­lars spent?

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