(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

Regardless of its actual cost, sending a child to a good school is always a huge investment in the future. The relevance, inside school programs, of Information and Communication Technology (ICT), that is how to correctly use computers or telecommunications devices for fun and profit, is constantly increasing. This is a good and necessary thing, even if often it is done just to be trendy and some families are getting tired of it.

Now, how can a parent recognize the best ICT package for his or her children? How can one figure out if it will still be worth something by the time one graduates? Does the answer require any specialist knowledge? Luckily not!

The right questions are below. They are valid for any scenario from primary school to University degrees or single-purpose private courses or Professional Schools. Ask those questions, decide according to what you discover and, above all, if you decide not to go to a particular School or University for the reasons below, do take the time to let that Institution (and all the newspapers and TV stations in their area) know why you chose to go somewhere else.

The bogus ICT program checklist

Money first

The computer technologies used in schools, especially public ones, must not discriminate against the less wealthy children, by forcing their families to spend unnecessary money. If the expense for parents is null because already included in the school tuition or paid for by the Government, those are just more reasons to make sure that no money is wasted.

Who pays, and why?

There is nothing wrong with a computer class supported by a private company with any combination of its money, teachers, software or hardware. It is perfectly logical and legitimate to do so, both for the company and for the school which is funded, but only if the program is balanced, the (public) school mission is not forgotten, and no software time bombs are placed in the life and career of the students!

Do the computer activities at school tolerate or induce illegality?

Education is about principles, isn’t it? Well, as sad as it is, sometimes it is the teachers themselves who distribute the free drug, er we mean illegal copies of software programs to their students, or indirectly force them to use such copies: this may happen because the school curriculum is structured in such a way (but who wrote it?) that there are no alternatives than to use those programs at home. So much for ethics.

Remember that, in such cases, providing free or discounted copies to students is in the interest of the software makers. If the course program forces the usage of their software, all the students who today have little money anyway will be much more likely to prefer that software when they start working. Then they’ll be forced to pay whatever the full price is, and will obviously pass it on to their customers, that is, the rest of us.

Considering all this, does the school check that no student uses (both in the classroom and at home) illegally installed computer programs?

Sometimes, proprietary software is still the only kind of software appropriate for the courses in which it is used, as may still happen with some engineering programs. In such cases, are there enough computers in the school for all students to work on their projects during school hours? If the students are forced to used the same programs on their own computers, does the school takes care to get a special, hopefully free license for them?

If teachers receive homework that could have only been done with expensive software, do they ask for proof that the student obtained and used it legally, rather than inducing or tolerating illegal software usage?

Above all: do teachers know that there is software that can be legally installed for free and is more than adequate for the great majority of grade school projects?

Life expectancy of what is taught

No computer course program should focus on things that will be obsolete before the class ends. Many courses are sponsored, either directly or indirectly, by software vendors who need to release a new version every other year to survive. Many schools are proud to teach you immediately not how to do something (writing, calculating formulas) but how to use the latest version of this or that software package.

Teaching specifically how to use one version of one program, even if it were surely the best one in its field, is really like, instead of teaching writing, schools showing students the healthier and most efficient way to hold the latest model of pen from only one maker. The only reason they can get away with this is that computers are still seen as some must-have incomprehensible black magic by most of us. More or less consciously, we think that we will never be able to ask for better treatment without sounding stupid, and anything goes.

Is this computer-related training? Certainly. Is this worthwhile education? Hardly, if the course program stops there. In that case, it would be a sure sign that the course is worthless. Chances are that one will not remember anyway, nor find valuable, most notions of this kind in one year from now. Most basic courses which want to be this specific should come at no cost for their end users (online or in DVD/videotape form, maybe), with the software itself, if they already paid to use it.

By the way, the same judgment applies to all those job offers which demand “perfect knowledge” of specific versions of office productivity software (word processing, spreadsheets etc). Stay away from those companies if you can.

Concepts or buttons?

Do they teach what the problem being studied is (accounting, word-processing, whatever) and how to solve it in general? Do they teach how to install, set up, upgrade, troubleshoot and customize the software appropriate for the task, or just to click buttons like a monkey?

(this chapter continues here…)