Tuesday, June 06, 2006

We Got a Cocoon

After a most disturbing turn of events, my school's technology committee met yet again to discuss (be told?) what would happen with our computer systems. It was a rather ugly meeting but a very fruitful one considering we were facing a school-wide ban on free software. It's interesting to note that one member resigned from the committee half-way through the meeting. He was justifiably upset that the committee had spent hours upon hours researching/presenting a proposal that was unanimously accepted then overturned by one person using specious reasons. To make things worse, the director said that this reversal was happening on advice from US Embassy/State Department personnel but that these individuals' names were "confidential." "Why can we not talk to these people?", the now ex-committee member asked. "Because it's none of your business", was the response. He understandably left the meeting, and the committee, moments after.

A big loss came in regard to Office products. In the first meeting, I offered a very thorough presentation on the OpenDocument format and the reasons why we, as a school, should adopt it as a standard. And again, I emphasized this point - that even if we adopt Windows as a platform on all of our machines, we should use an Office suite that supports the OpenDocument format for administrative, teacher, and student work. Unfortunately, it was evident that those in charge were not interested in learning the facts regarding file formats. Windows got confused with OpenDocument which got confused with "open source" which got confused with...and so on. "People should have choice! We shouldn't force them to use a particular format!" we were told without rhyme or reason. And so thousands of dollars will be spent equipping the new Windows machines with a product that doesn't even support an open standard. There was no further opportunity to state the case so all I could do was reflect on the irony in believing proprietary formats offer "choice." Disheartening, to say the least.

In the end though, there was a small but very significant victory. It was as if the insanity of forcing the entire school to adopt Microsoft products finally dawned upon the powers that be. Perhaps enough committee members rallied hard enough to push the door open just a crack. Regardless, that crack is significant. I can now teach my classes using a free platform as one lab - my classroom - will function fully in a free software environment. I was told that "this isn't a good decision" but a "compromise." I didn't see a point in responding. So this means that all students will receive instruction using free software. There will be one haven in a sea of proprietary technology. I'll make the best of what we now have. We now have a small cocoon.

5 Comments:

Anonymous dave cormier said...

Miguel turned me onto your blog and your issue. I'd love to have you come on to our show and talk about your story. We're at http://edtechtalk.com. There are the very issues that we like to address... If you'd like more information you can email me at dave[at]websitelistedabove. We can contact you via skype or even skypeout to a landline there if necessary.

16:44  
Anonymous symmys said...

Congrats on getting at least this cocoon. The thing I hate most about committees of all kinds is when it's unclear how the ultimate decision-making process will be made, as it appears to have been in this case. The committee-as-advisor only exists to create the opportunity for conflict or brown-nosing, neither things which ultimately help instutions get smarter.

That said, I think that having a small test-cluster may ultimately be a very good way to ease into free software. Obviously it would be better to avoid mass spending on a proprietary solution, but this will give you a chance to work out kinks of compatability etc. and then really make a concrete case to people (see, kids can sit down and use these machines easily!) rather than having to work on their imagination.

One question about the OpenDocument standard -- if I went to a store and bought a windows or mac machine, would it's default software support OpenDocument? If not, it seems like it's not really accurate to say that the open standard provides more choice, even though theoretically it should.

This theory v. reality split is something I live with all the time -- for example, I encode all of my music as ogg-vorbis so I can use legally downloaded open-source software (rather than infringing on a patent by getting mp3-playing software). That said, when it came to using distributing music for a project at my school, I chose the mp3 format, because it is the standard, in the sense that students with a huge variety of software and hardware can all play it. It strikes me that .doc or .rtf files may still be closer to being this kind of real-world standard (i.e. works the best on the most machines) than OpenDocument is, though of course word-processing files are much more complicated, and therefore much more frequently broken, than audio files.

17:04  
Blogger Steve said...

Forgive me if I'm being naive (I've only just come across your blog) but what has the US Embassy got to do with what software you have to use?

Cheers,

13:22  
Blogger Gnuosphere said...

symmys says:

"I think that having a small test-cluster may ultimately be a very good way to ease into free software. Obviously it would be better to avoid mass spending on a proprietary solution, but this will give you a chance to work out kinks of compatability etc."

I agree although we've already undergone over a year of testing and have concluded that such a switch can be done. The testing phase - although it could've been done more smoothly - is finished and we can definitely move to a free software solution for all teacher and student machines. Major kinks have been worked out - it would now be a simple matter of about 1 week of teacher training.

"One question about the OpenDocument standard -- if I went to a store and bought a windows or mac machine, would it's default software support OpenDocument? If not, it seems like it's not really accurate to say that the open standard provides more choice, even though theoretically it should."

The fact is, software that supports OpenDocument is widely available as free software. So even if it doens't come preinstalled, it is a trivial matter to get it up and running on any machine coming from the shop.

10:37  
Blogger Gnuosphere said...

stephen carlyle-smith asks:

"Forgive me if I'm being naive (I've only just come across your blog) but what has the US Embassy got to do with what software you have to use?"

Technically, they have no direct say. We are not a State Department school. However, there exists a certain relationship between the organizations. The school is under the 'auspices' of the State Department and often receives funding. So even though the relationship is minor in a technical sense, the actuality is that there exists a strong influence. It is important to note that the decision was influenced by the Embassy/State Department - not made. What is disappointing is that those who influenced the decision are anonymous so there exists no recourse to address their reasoning.

10:44  

Post a Comment

<< Home