A while ago, Gerry White – CEO of Education Australia made a dismissive statement, debate between open source versus proprietary software is over, in which he made an obvious point that software should be chosen based on how best to meet an organisation’s requirements. Thankfully Gerry made up for that by giving a rather good explanation on what open source software is, and some detail on how Education Australia implements software in its organisation.

I wish I knew Gerry actually, as his picture portrays a light hearted man who probably enjoys good discussion and maybe even a bit of sh!t stirring. But its not the picture I had in mind when I read the statement. What does Gerry really mean by “the debate is over”? Does he mean to imply that those of us forcing some form of debate don’t understand the bigger picture? Does he mean to imply that Education Australia know best, and are not interested in further discussion? Let me just take another look at Gerry… no, he doesn’t mean to imply those things.

While I was writing a critique on issues affecting digital literacy in Australia, I looked quite hard for records of a debate on free and open source software in Australian education – I found very little in fact. Perhaps some might think that says something about my research skills, I won’t disagree with that, but I think more importantly it says more about how open that supposed debate has been.

Perhaps the issue about FOSS and proprietary software have little to do with software, and more to do with operational perspectives. The ideology that currently manages and directs our educational infrastructure in Australia is captured by Gerry when he says:

“We have found that the magic mix is to choose the most appropriate solution according to business need…”

Call me naive, idealistic, or just way out of step, but I’m really concerned by this business talk over riding our educational goals here. I know its just words, and that our business is education, by why not just let it be called education? Delete the word business, reinsert the word education, and we have a statement I feel more comfortable with.

So now that we’re back on track with educational talk and not a muddied water of business (for the purposes of this post at least), does this then give us pause to rethink the criteria with which we select software?

To finish up I want to give 2 first hand examples of where the exclusive use of proprietary desktop software is having a very negative impact on Australian education. These examples have very little to do with Education Australia’s choice in software for their own projects, but have a lot to do with the thinking expressed in Gerry’s statement:

  1. Just recently I’ve taken a job helping young kids in the Blacktown area (Sydney Western Suburbs) who have more or less dropped out of school. My job is to show them a few things about computers and the Internet. I’m to relate this to a photographic exhibition they are working towards. Here I am, working with a group of – shall we say – slightly disadvantaged kids, most of whom have trouble getting the bus fair together to make it to my class once a week. Am I gunna start teaching them how to use the $370 dollar Microsoft Office package that is installed on the college computers, or am I gunna try and install the free and open source Open Office and show them how to effectively do everything the MS Office does, but for free and legally? Of course I’d rather show them Open Office, but the dramas I am having to go through to get the Institute’s IT support section to install Open Office (or just give me permission to install it) is ridiculous. In the end I always get the “please state a business case and well look into it in a couple of weeks” type of response! Those IT guys even asked the College Director to give me a call and quieten me down a bit! I’m not even going to try and bring up GIMP, Ubuntu, Audacity or the suite of other free and/or open source alternatives in desktop software.
  2. My girlfriend is studying Graphic Design. Its a pretty intense course and if she didn’t have her own computer complete with a range of pirated software, there’s no way she’d be able to keep up with the course. It frustrates me no end to see her assignments, requiring her to use expensive proprietary software, when in most cases high quality free and/or open source alternatives are available. I try to encourage her to use GIMP for her graphics and image manipulation, I try to show her ways to use Open Office to do layouts, but its a struggle for her when her college doesn’t even support the option to continue using those alternatives while in class. So I guess we’ll have to either make friends with a maniac software pirate, or find the dollars to buy the software upgrades so she remains compatible with her college. The college argue that their choice in software is industry standard, but all the graphic designers I know are self employed and struggle on pirated software. You should see the look on my designer friends faces when I show them Open Office and GIMP. So what is industry standard in a fragmented, unrepresented, majority self employed job such as graphic design?

So in reference to Gerry’s statement title at least, the debate about [free] and open source software is far from over!

While Gerry talks mostly about server side applications in his statement (to which there are vast unexplored educational opportunities afforded to students by open source software), my examples of desktop applications perhaps broaden the scope and intention of what Gerry was originally talking about. But its my view that the debate encompasses desktop applications as well, and that the debate has not even begun in Australia in reference to that at least.

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