SA education department's laptop initiative snubs open source policy
A year after it was first announced, the South African department of education yesterday kicked off its teacher laptop initiative. The initiative aims to subsidise teachers so that they can purchase a laptop from one of the department’s approved suppliers.
It’s a welcome addition to the education arena except for one detail.
Despite a national open source strategy and a well-publicised set of minimum interoperability standards for government, the laptops prescribed by the education department exclude free and open source software options.
In fact, the specifications laid out by the department explicitly favour Microsoft software and services.
Government Gazette 32077 (PDF), which details the approved specifications says that the laptops must run “Windows XP or higher”, include Microsoft Office as well as use Windows Live. Other approved software includes a range of Microsoft applications such as Microsoft Digital Literacy and Microsoft Partners In Learning.
The department does not specify any open source alternatives to the Microsoft software for the initiative.
The decision by the department of education to specify proprietary Microsoft software as the minimum requirement for the purchase of laptops by teachers runs contrary to the South African national strategy of open standards and open source software.
Government’s Minimum Interoperability Standards (MIOS) for information systems in government, for example, specifies a set of standards for information sharing within government departments as well as between government and citizens. These include formats such as text, OpenDocument Format, XHTML and CSV for document sharing but does not include Microsoft’s Word format.
The exclusion of open source software by the education department also runs contrary to the Policy on Free and Open Source Software use for South African Government which was approved by the Cabinet in February 2007.
Teachers will receive a R130 grant under the initiative and will have to pay between R250 and R390 a month for the approved laptop and services.
Giving teachers access to technology is a big step forward. Not giving them the option of a free and open source software version of the laptop is not only short-sighted but also against public policy.