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A local primary school here in Otago has been developing capacities in the use of Free Software in their school. I have met the principal of Warrington Primary, Nathan Parker. He came around to my house one afternoon after work. We drank liquorish tea and shared a few tips on the use of GIMP. I got to hear a lot of the ins and outs of the school’s progress, and I honestly think they have found a way to do it right with Free Software in Schools.

Computer World recently published an encouraging article about their developments:

The school is deploying the GNU/Linux operating system, aiming to have free software across the board by 2010, and the complete switch to Linux has been approved by the MoE, says the school’s principal, Nathan Parker.

“We are saving the government money,” says Parker. “We are saving them 13 [Microsoft] licences this year, and hopefully we will be down to zero next year.”

I hear that Nathan and his colleagues have even been rebuilding old computers and providing them to families in the school! That’s pretty nice.

What’s really great to see is the fact that Nathan and his colleagues actually knew very little about computers and networks before they started this. I think Nathan said it was a parent that introduced Ubuntu to them, and the social aspect of it clicked. Now Nathan and his colleagues have been rapidly building up a self sufficiency in computing not only in the school but in the community around them.

Some might say that makes them vulnerable in a global economy. They will have difficulty finding staff and support people for their alternative approaches. The kids will eventually be faced with a new school or employer who has never heard of free software or open standard formats. And they have more work ahead in trying to fit with the Ministry of Education’s approach. There are a few educational ways to look at those issues.. it seems we only look at it one business case way.

One thing that strikes me as VERY concerning in the article is the suggestion that the Ministry have not considered Free Software before:

In terms of future costs for supporting a non-Microsoft environment, he says, the MoE is willing to investigate situations it has not already covered.

But it’s encouraging to think that little Warrington might actually be driving a Ministry rethink!

Ideally (I think) schools should be offering educational experiences in all three computing platforms with a preference for free software. We need to equally acknowledge that there are some people who don’t mind paying for Macintosh, others Microsoft, and some quite enjoy the uniqueness of GNU/Linux.. we should preference the free software because, well.. its free, accessible, and affordable to those who can’t see the sense in paying $1000-$4000 for a personal computer that could just as easily cost $100 – $500 and that evidently encourages computing self sufficiency and the wider recognition and use for open standard formats. (Anyone having trouble opening Vista files lately? Here we go again).

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Sunshine and I moved to New Zealand to be a part of what we saw from Australia as a progressive society that has continuously lead the world in things like Treaties, decolonisation efforts, sustainable energy use, banning Nuclear warships into its harbors, applying political pressure on countries testing Nuclear weapons in the Pacific, not sending troops to Iraq, signing the Kyoto protocol, big time adoption of Moodle, and leaders in the development of Open Educational Resources. Of course now that we live here there are hidden details not easily seen from afar, but generally speaking this is a place where progressive action is possible.

Our local news paper reports that Warrington Primary School, not more that 20 kms North of Dunedin, have been quietly chipping away at the idea to migrate all their computers to GNU/Linux and then ask the Ministry of Education to pay their school the savings afforded by not using Apple or Microsoft software in the school. Even better still is that the Ministry are supportive of their action, and the Commonwealth of Learning, upon hearing the news, is extending them support too.

“It’s not just the financial savings. It’s the philosophy behind ‘freeware’, and reducing ‘e-waste’. If a laptop crashed now, it would have to be sent to the North Island for software to be reinstalled. But we can repair systems at the school with a disk, and we aren’t especially savvy.”

I can only hope that the tertiary sector around here will take notice of what this little school is setting out to achieve, and start asking itself why it is not also rebuilding old computers and giving them to people in need; why it is not saving some of the copious amounts of money spent in software licensing and using it to train locals how to be self sufficient and more sustainable; and why it is not teaching business and community how to access and operate free software that might save people and business hundreds if not thousands of dollars, not to mention to reduce computing waste and create new business opportunities in system support and hardware service and sales.Oh, and did I mention that all this helps market ourselves as progressive, which attracts unforeseeable support and resources?

At the very least the tertiary sector should be offering some educational support for free software alternatives, and to my mind it should be of a positively discriminate type to counter the cornered market we have allowed oursleves to become.

Dave pointed out a cartoon that I just had to mess with.