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Uncertainty over Microsoft schools deal

By   |  April 23, 2007

The current agreement between the Department of Education and Microsoft that allowed South African public schools free Microsoft licences is soon coming up for renewal. Whether the deal will be renewed and what the details of the deal will be, still remain uncertain.

The Microsoft schools agreement was signed in 2003 between the education minister and the MD of Microsoft, allowing for all public schools to sign up and receive a free batch of Microsoft products. Presently there are 5 800 schools signed up out of the 28 000 public schools that had the option.

The agreement was originally set to last for three years, but was extended, first till the end of 2006 and then until June of this year, according to Mike Charles, IT director at the department of education in the Western Cape.

There is a consensus within the education department that the deal comes to an end in June, but when asked to confirm this, Microsoft’s spokesperson Tabby Tsengiwe responded with an ambiguous “As with all agreements, they have a specific period which needs to be renewed periodically.” Attempts to clarify this statement were not successful.

Asked if Microsoft is looking to renew the deal. Tsengiwe responded: “Yes, Microsoft remains committed to supporting education, the development of skill for employability, digital inclusion and ensuring that teachers and learners realise their full potential.”

Mike Charles said late last month that he suspected the deal would be renewed but that they were still waiting for a proposal from Microsoft.

Should the deal go through there is uncertainty as to the nature of the agreement.

Microsoft’s spokesperson said that the administration of the programme needs to be improved and that it is currently being discussed with the department of education.

Mike Charles was unavailable for comment when the Microsoft reply came through. Kobus van Wyk, the director of Khanya project, which has set up educational software in 700 Western Cape schools, was available but did not know any details on the progress of the Microsoft discussion. Queries with the national level of the education department merely confirmed that they were awaiting a proposal from Microsoft.

At an earlier stage, when Charles said he suspected the deal would be renewed, he speculated that the deal would either be extended further or that it would be renewed with the schools getting more recent versions of the current packages.

Hilton Theunissen, founder of Tuxlabs , which has been involved in providing schools with open source education packages, had speculated that in light of the recent announcement by South African government to pursue open source software, it was possible that Microsoft might reduce the offering this time round and only provide a discount on licence fees.

Kobus van Wyk, director of the Khanya project , said he has no reason to fear that the agreement won’t go through.

Explaining the use of computers in schools, van Wyk explained that they are not used for developing ICT skills but rather for curriculum delivery, with a focus on numeracy and literacy. Van Wyk explained the use of Microsoft as a matter of expediency as all of the educational software that they used was based on Windows.

At present the department believes that the open source educational packages available are not up to standard with those that run on Microsoft. Both van Wyk and Charles said that they had been watching the Microsoft/Novell deal closely with the hope that it will allow for Microsoft educational software to be run on Linux.

Charles ackowledged that the department had received pressure from the schools to renew the agreement, but added that there were also efforts to ensure the penetration of open source, from both inside and outside the department.

The Western Cape department has previously asked some of their suppliers to offer packages which would run on open source platforms. What little development that was done in-house had all been platform independent.

“It will take a while for open source software to become embedded,” Charles said, adding that three key challenges to implementing open source are those of support, quality of educational software and the fact that most educators have a background in Microsoft. He also mentioned that he believed Shuttleworth to be making progress in the direction of educational software.

Earlier this month New Zealand’s ministry of education signed a three year renewal deal with Microsoft for the supply of software and licences. This was part of a larger deal which included Novell, Apple and CA. Interestingly, this deal did not see the renewal of licensing for Mac Office, which has to be removed from all Macs in the education department.

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