Friday, June 02, 2006

Jonathan Kozol Hates Microsoft!

I teach technology classes and act as the technology coordinator at a small international school in west Africa. Almost 2 years ago I presented to the school board the idea of testing free software as a possible replacement for our predominantly Microsoft Windows machines.

The time had come to order hardware and the school needed to make a decision. We were to order new machines and decide upon the software systems for the student/teacher computers across campus. To ensure any recommendation was collaborative, a technology committee was formed and I was to present a proposal. This meeting was just over one month ago. Although there were a few skeptics on the committee, by the time the presentation was done, the committee unanimously agreed to move all student and teacher machines to free software beginning the 2006/07 school year.

Though the committee put forth its unanimous recommendation, apparently the ultimate decision lay in the hands of one person - the director. Yesterday, the technical aide and I were called in for a meeting on short-notice and handed a letter by the director. Following are some key excerpts:
"In April 2006, the decision was accepted to convert predominantly to the use of free and open source software for [school] computers, with new computers to be ordered without Windows or any other proprietary software. However, the appropriateness of this plan has since been reconsidered for the overall benefit of the school as an educational organization."
I was stunned. Reconsidered? By whom? The letter went on to offer "reasons" why:
"[...] due to numerous recommendations forthcoming from the US Embassy, the State Department, and technology professionals involved in providing services to international schools worldwide, it has been decided that the switch to open source software on such a large scale is premature, and has therefore been reversed."
When I asked for the names of the "US Embassy" and "State Department" consultants with whom the director spoke, I was told that this information was "confidential." I then asked the director to - at the very least - ask these anonymous individuals if they would be willing to come forth so that an honest dialog regarding this matter might occur. I was told that this would be "inappropriate" though I wasn't given a reason why.

The letter went on:
"We are not interested in being 'cutting edge' in this area, nor will such a change be made as an ideological stance or only to save money."
I wondered who was "we", considering the technology committee (whose members were hand-picked by the director) had made a unanimous recommendation to switch to free software. I also mentioned that if this is the case, we should make some fundamental changes to our School Wide Aims and Philosophy as stated in our teacher handbook. For example, we say that "it is important to be knowledgeable about and adaptable to emerging technology" and that students "develop a personal code of ethics for responsible world citizenship." And although I agree that money should not be the primary concern, I wondered about the appropriateness of throwing thousands of dollars away on proprietary software - especially considering we're a non-profit organization.

The letter went on:
"Time spent during the school day installing open source software and the ensuing time and labor required for converting programs, repairing documents, etc. is not part of your duties and has detracted not only from your teaching responsibilities but also from advancing the school technologically. While open source software may of course be used as per individual preference, time during the school day is no longer to be used for any technical tasks having to do with the installation, conversion, etc. of open source software."
I don't know what I found more absurd. The claim that free and open source software has "detracted" from my teaching responsibilities (as if proprietary software doesn't demand just as much of my time?) or the fact that I was now forbidden to do any "technical tasks" regarding free and open source software.

There were other points in the letter that seemed to be taken straight from the proprietary software hymn book. Free and open source software was not only an issue because of the "time and labor" involved but an issue because of the "incompatibility" of office documents. As well, with a free software platform teachers are "prohibited from ordering new software they find attractive." Even though all of these issues were directly addressed in the committee meeting and understood to be completely false, solvable, or a relatively minor sacrifice, it was disingenuously presented as a sudden revelation of hindrances.

The letter went on:
"You have expressed strong opinions against Microsoft, obvious from comments made by teachers and students, statements posted on your classroom door, etc. In accordance with Personnel Section 5.032 e) Code of Professional Ethics, "All staff should refrain from proselytizing for a personal, political, or religious belief." Therefore, you need to refrain from placing undue focus on your personal beliefs concerning the philosophy and practice of Microsoft."
At first, I wasn't sure if I should burst out loud laughing or feel defensive. While its true that I'm a worshipper at the church of Emacs, in seriousness I consider myself fairly aware of the issues, technology, and history behind free and proprietary software. In fact, I wondered how I was to continue teaching the high school Technology in a Global Society class and its unit on copyright and patent law without placing focus on the practices of Microsoft...or Ubuntu or Red Hat for that matter. But the icing on the cake was this perception that I had anti-Microsoft "statements posted on [my] classroom door". Naturally, I questioned this claim and stated that there must be some misunderstanding as I have never posted any anti-Microsoft propaganda on my door. When I was challenged then - very confidently and abruptly - to disclose what had been posted on my door, I let the director know. The quote was by Jonathan Kozol, partly in regard to the fashionable yet vapid and destructive "accountability" and high-stakes "standardized testing" movement (an ideology supported by the new director) epitomized by the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. It said -
"The best reason to give a child a good so that a child will have a happy childhood, and not so that it will help IBM in competing with SONY... There is something ethically embarrassing about resting a national agenda on the basis of sheer greed."
Personally, I have no idea what Jonathan Kozol thinks of free software or Microsoft. But now I'm curious.


Blogger Scott Walters said...

I think when one becomes a school administrator, one must submit to a surgical procedure that removes all elements of personal courage or creative daring. As a former administrator myself, I know -- although the surgery is reversible after resignation...

Good luck on your quest. It is amazing. I think you should send this link to Tom Peters, the management guru -- he would throw up his hands!

Blogger Miguel said...

Hang in there, Peter. More at:

Best wishes,
Miguel Guhlin

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! What an adventure. It's good to know how deep the connections go. I was ordered to remove Firefox from my work computer at my school because it would compromise our Microsoft contract. Whose interests are these public schools really representing? Thank you for your efforts to keep some integrity left in institutionized learning.

Blogger Gnuosphere said...

Anonymous says:

"I was ordered to remove Firefox from my work computer at my school because it would compromise our Microsoft contract."

Do you mean literally? That is, do you mean that in a contract it stated that IE had to be the default browser? If so, that's absurd. And scary.

Blogger Gary said...

I respect your concerns visa vis your desire to run Linux vs. Windows.

Few other consumer decisions would be considered an expression of religion or political statement.

What does this have to do with Jonathan Kozol? Did I miss something?

In Kozol's brand new book, "Letters to a Young Teacher," the author is critical of The Gates Foundation" and suggests that their involvement in American public education is advancing school segregation when their money could be used to reverse the trend.

BTW: Two of my interviews with Kozol may be found at A new interview will be published in a few months.

Blogger Gnuosphere said...

"Few other consumer decisions would be considered an expression of religion or political statement."

It certainly has a strong element of politics. Without free software, free speech is compromised. It has nothing to do with religion (i.e. esoteric belief) though many like to joke that it does since the free software movement is grounded in an ethical argument. Of course, ethics need not belief but we like to playfully go along with the religious theme at times. There is a certain level of irony that the GNU operating system was launched by an atheist who gets called a "religious zealot" by many who support the proprietary model of software licensing.

"What does this have to do with Jonathan Kozol? Did I miss something?"

It doesn't. The title is meant to be as absurd as the accusation was that I had "statements posted on [my] classroom door" that were anti-Microsoft. Clearly, ammunition (regardless of its merit) was being gathered to make sure the committee's decision was overturned and that I be painted as on one who had broken a "Code of Professional Ethics". The director didn't even understand the statement on the sign. She just jumped to the conclusion that it was related to my feelings on free software vs. proprietary software in education. And of course, it has nothing to do with that. So the title of the post is playfully going along with the idea that the director's point is valid to emphasize its absurdity. And like I said at the end, I really have no idea what JK thinks of Microsoft.

"In Kozol's brand new book, "Letters to a Young Teacher," the author is critical of The Gates Foundation" and suggests that their involvement in American public education is advancing school segregation when their money could be used to reverse the trend."

My wife and I both have a few Kozol books on our shelf. We'll pick this new one up at some point in time. I'm quite curious as to what he has to say about the Gates Foundation. Thanks for posting links to your interviews. I will give them a read.


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