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Public schools making MS Office mandatory

There was an extensive debate on the German discussion list which addressed a lot of aspects that may be relevant to other European countries. I wanted to provide a summary to encourage exchange of information and experiences across borders.

The trigger was a letter that a school kid brought home, informing the parents that a Windows 10 device with MS Office 2013/2016 will be made mandatory to participate in class.

As outrageous this sounds for Free Software supporters, I fear that this is getting common practice throughout Europe and that most parents accept it with a shrug. I’ll be happy for any feedback dispelling or confirming this fear.

Is there a template letter to complain about it?

The original poster asked if there was template letter for such cases that he could use to inform the school that this practice is not what he expects from a public body.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have such a template or maybe even a booklet of templates? As English is most commonly understood in Europe, it would be best to start with an English version and move on with translations into other languages. In fact, creating a section with sample letters has been on our wish list for years already! Feel free to plunge in!

There are currently two versions of the draft: one and two, both German. (By the way: the FSFE maintains a public Etherpad you can use for such cases.)

As the last post in the discussion so far, Max shared some brief findings from the European Free Software Policy Meeting in Brussels, that it is difficult to “convince” in a letter. It is important not to exaggerate and point out the benefits of the recipient.

Advocating Free Software or demand our rights?

It was discussed whether the focus of the letter should be to convince the school that Free Software is a great thing or rather that they are obliged to leave the minority the right to keep using the systems of their choice.

Some may argue that the majority is using Windows anyway and simply won’t care. Does that entitle a public school to force those who do care to give up their freedom and privacy?

Are we in such a weak position that we have to beg the institutions to let us use Free Software or is there any legal ground where we can claim the right to do so?

Use your right to participate!

Either way, we should make our voice heard more often. During the course of the discussion, Michael encouraged parents to use their right to participate in decision making processes in their kids’ schools.
This process is highly regulated in Germany and what parents can actually do is limited but still, they do have a say on school matters. How is this done elsewhere in Europe?

Is this practice even legal?

Public schools force their students/pupils to use a certain operating system with known backdoors, with a certain office suite using a certain cloud software and various kinds of privacy issues, e.g.: storing personal data in a different jurisdiction.

Is this practice legal? The answer seems to vary depending on which federal state in Germany you look at. How is it in your area? Do you know any rules or laws that would prohibit this kind of practice?

A while back in Switzerland, an expert group recommended to use Free Software after analysing Microsoft’s offer called live@edu back then due to privacy and lock-in concerns. Data protection law would prohibit the data collection mentioned in the proposed contract.

Proposed analogies

To make the problem more transparent to the recipient of the letter, it was proposed to ask: “What would you say if a teacher forced the kids to come to the gym with a special model of sneakers?”

It was mentioned that a similar practice is accepted, and even the default, when it comes to school books. The schools decide what books will be used in class. Why should it be any different with Software?

“The Chains of Habit Are Too Light To Be Felt Until They Are Too Heavy To Be Broken.”

Source unknown, sometimes used by Warren Buffet

I am grateful to Bernd who pointed out that these analogies are missing a crucial aspect. What shoes I wear will not change the way I run and I’ll be as fast with a similar pair of shoes as with the ones I was asked to buy for class. A certain schoolbook will not change the way I read nor change my ability to read or understand complex texts in other books.

Software is fundamentally different. Using a certain software program defines a certain work flow and way of thinking. Learning a certain work flow and get effective with it takes time and effort (with any software). Almost nobody has the motivation or resources to constantly change the way to get a routine task done, especially not if one is already comfortable with one. Just ask a vim user to use emacs!

The program I use to do my homework will probably be the same I write my first job applications with. And the file format will most likely be the same as well as the place where I save them “in the cloud”. Forcing pupils to use proprietary software, will push them into the lock-in trap.

Equality of opportunity

or the widening “Rich-Poor Achievement Gap” may be another argument against such practices. What burden may it be for a poor family to purchase a computer that meets the requirements of Windows 10? They have to buy that computer. There is no way around it. So, they will have to relinquish something else like healthy food or family time as they have to spend more time at work.

Bad publicity or positive campaigning

One thesis in the discussion was that only bad publicity will make the school at hand reconsider their practice. FSFE usually tries to follow a different approach. That doesn’t mean we’d ignore bad news and don’t deal with them. The question is: What will make people change their view? I think it is much more sustainable if the people grasp the idea and benefits of Free Software instead of just “being forced to allow it”.

Point out the learning aspect of using Free Software

Geza suggested to mention the pedagogical angle as well. Free Software offers diversity, allows to experiment and try out various alternatives (different editors, programming languages, desktop environments) and thus leads to a competent self determined and responsible handling of the opportunities available.

Part of the problem is that teachers usually don’t know anything else than MS products themselves as they’ve been in the same creature-of-habit cycle as they are about to push their students.

Sample lesson with OneNote

Bernd pointed us to a tutorial video how OneNote can be used in class and had to admit that it looks pretty impressive and that there is probably no Free Software alternative which would allow a similar work flow.

Bernd is missing an easy to use alternative. Without these alternatives, it is difficult to object (object in the sense of “successfully convince others”).

To create a video that starts a thinking process has been on our ToDo list for a while.

Wanted: Show case of Free Software solutions that are actually being used

It was mentioned that with a list of programs, the same thing could be achieved, but it is highly questionable if this zoo of different applications will ever be used in class.

It is clear that a lot of good stuff can be done with Free Software, but we need to show to the interested audience that it is practical as well. We need you! Do you know somebody using Free Software in class that is willing to create a presentation? Do you know presentations that have been given before and were recorded (preferably under a free licence)?

Are you aware of any educational institution that teaches on/about Free Software?

Going-to-be teachers need to see what is possible with Free Software. It needs to be proven that Free Software can deliver exactly what they need.

Not necessarily what they think they need. It’s not my goal to mimic OneNote or other proprietary products. At the end, the work flow in the tutorial wasn’t that smooth either.
DG said: “Pupils may not be nerds but shouldn’t be the school the place to learn how to use digital tools creatively without having a company make a product out of one particular use case? Until this isn’t done in school – teaching how to use digital tools meaningfully and creatively – the perception that Free Software is only for nerds will stick.”

I’ll advertise this summary on the English mailing list. Please join the discussion there or drop me a note if you have anything to contribute. Thanks!