Risks for Italian Public Education in Government/Microsoft deal

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What would you do if a teacher…

…tried to teach your children to write only with one brand and model of pens or pencils, “because that’s what everybody uses”? Would you laugh in his face and immediately ask he’s suspended from teaching or would you let him continue?

If you answered "I'd laugh and then make sure he's suspended" and you'd like that school taught as to solve problems rather than blindly push buttons like monkeys, here is an interesting story.

Microsoft has been under examination for several years before the European Union, with charges of abuse of dominant position, that is because it makes unnecessarily difficult to get rid of its software even for users who would like to run other programs in order to save money or for any other reason. This is why, starting in 2004, the European Union fined Microsoft for more than one and a half billion Euros.

With such a background, why did Italian Ministers Brunetta and Gelmini signed a three years deal for multimedia educational tools and services with Microsoft in a moment (September 2009) in September 2009, when the EU antitrust regulators hadn't yet verified if the answers from Microsoft to the charges against them were acceptable?

The press release linked above says that, among other things, "Microsoft commits to provide at no cost operating systems and application software to support specific needs or activities of italian public schools or of the italian Ministry of University and Research" currently lead by Gelmini.

The truth is that getting software for free is almost useless if it is software too powerful and sophisticated for the real needs of the recipients and may force them to buy new computers even if the ones they already have still work without problems.

Any Public Administration, as well as any private business or professional knows very well why students get software for free: it is because when those students join the workforce their employers will have to pay the full price to keep those ex-students happy with the only software they've been taught to accept. Today people can work with whatever brand of pens they can afford but are forced (without any real, technical reason) to spend lots of money to have the same software that everybody else uses. This is because software is like a pen that can force (even if there is no need!) whoever reads whatever was written with that pen to buy the very same pen to write an answer, even if that pen costs hundred Euros more than all others. Therefore it would be also in the interest of all private businesses if future workers are tought to use whatever software "pens" are available, not just the most expensive ones.

What should be done to minimize the damage?

The opportunity of signing deals with companies with a less than perfect record in fields which are very relevant to the subject of the deal is something that would deserve a whole separate article. What matters now is to make sure that any negative consequence from this specific deal is minimized.

In and by themselves, the goals described in the cooperation protocol are important and necessary, if not overdue: to make easier for students and teachers to access to new technologies, especially in the education field, and to increase their technical and didactical skills. This doesn't mean that it makes sense, in order to achieve such goals, to only partner with a company that:

  • already created the problems mentioned above
  • due to its own nature and mission cannot help but offer only software that end users cannot modify to fit their own actual needs and that, in the long run, must get the highest possible amount of money from society as a whole to make its stockholders happy.

Whatever the underlying reasons may be (lack of competence in teachers and decision makers, mental lazyness, insufficient funding) Public School must not "teach (only) what everybody else is already doing". If that were an acceptable description of education, all children would need would be reality shows and sitcoms. No responsible parent or teacher could accept such a mission statement. Soon after the deal was announced, an Italian regional administrator criticized it, asking "will it educate students to be autonomous citizens or just addicted consumers?". The Italian Association for Free Software asked in a press release to further discuss the deals with Ministers Brunetta and Gelmini. As of December 2009, however, it is not clear yet how and how much exactly this deal will impact on usage and teaching of Free Software in Italian Public Schools.

In the meantime, we all welcome the will to bring the Italian Public Education System in the digital era, but in order to avoid that such deals damage it all parents and teachers should, at least, make sure that their schools:

  • never force the students to study and do their homework in ways which are only possible with one specific software program, regardless of its price. It would be *exactly like forcing students to bring at school only binders and pens of one brand and to purchase them in one stationery shop.
  • take as much advantage as possible communities, businesses and organizations already existing in their area that can provide the same services at often lower effective cost
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