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September 05, 2006


To be frank, it's a conundrum.
I Several years ago, WordPerfect was free for educational purposes, which meant that any school, university, teacher or student could download, copy & share it for free (within these restrictions). This continued right up to the last version of the WordPerfect suite, and yet, many schools don't want to use it, because "It is not what the student will use later in life in an office environment."

By saying this they do several things:
1. They continue the circle of dependence.
2. They waste money on licenses which could have paid for better education, library books etc.
3. they ignore similarities in products, and only teach a single view.
4. many teachers think they are to old to learn new tricks.
4. They force companies to use MS word, because nobody knows anything else. goto 1.

In my view one thing is forgotten:
In all the different office environments I've seen, I've never seen a basic MS Office install.
Almost all companies are dependant on Macros, policy filters, company templates and whats not.

This off course is one of the reasons many companies don't switch. They figure it's cheaper to pay n times license than to replace the macros and have all the people who figured out how to build these in the first place be redundant.

I am the IT guy at a small primary school, we are about to migrate everybody to OpenOffice.Org, then after everybody is comfortable we'll be moving to Linux. We will have to dual boot the computers the pupils use as there are a lot of educational programs that we just can't get to work in Wine.

Having already migrated a small group, I'm anticipating a lot of moaning from teachers, they are just so stuck in their ways.

Of course Publisher and Visio files can't be used with OpenOffice.Org..

Visio was used for flowcharts, so I manually recreated these with Draw.

Publisher was used mostly for things like birthday posters, it's a really nice program for quick little things, I haven't really found anything as good in open source land.. Draw will have to do.

The access database is going to be replaced by an AJAX/MySQL setup, lots of work to do there.

Anyway, it will all be worth is when Microsoft call up next year to ask us to renew our liscences :-)

Another argument that we can do away with is that OpenOffice is not what the students and teachers have at home, or it is incompatible with what they have at home. As we all know, but most schools don't, if the students and teachers don't have OpenOffice at home, they can download it for free, and the school can even hand out install CDs. It is available, in compatible versions for all of the platforms that the users are likely to be running. And it can import and export other commonly used file formats.

Mostly, schools should be able to use OpenOffice.org. However, there are some problems for some schools (I guess colleges mostly).

Pikes Peak Community College teaches a very Microsoft-specific basic computer class which is required for most/all students seeking an associates degree. (Check my web site for more info.) The class is so specific you have to use the latest Office for Windows and the latest Windows itself, but you can't even use the newer Office for Mac. That may be because the book they use is like that, and there aren't many books on OpenOffice.org. Furthermore, I don't think there are any college textbooks on OpenOffice.org, so there definitely aren't any good ones either.

Another problem I see at PPCC is they seem to make money from Microsoft. First, they sell Office, Windows, books, etc. Second, they've had a Microsoft Windows Tablet PC display in the bookstore for a while. I don't think it sells, so I'm guessing Microsoft otherwise makes it worth their while to put that up. Third, the class probably attracts more people who are specifically interested in Microsoft.

Another problem may be integration. I assume some schools use proprietary software that integrates directly into Microsoft Office. Even at our non-profit, we have Office 2000 on one computer because it integrates with Quickbooks.

Another problem is public schools are run by the government, and the government is very slow to change. :)

Another related problem is that schools (unnecessarily) tie themselves into Microsoft Windows by using software like WebCT, Blackboard, and NetTutor. (See my web site for a little more info.)

For the point of a view of a student: I took an intro to statistics class, and I had to turn in my homework in Excel format (which is not a problem with OOo) but using the layout Excel produces in some of its statistic tools. That latter part was tricky. The teacher just wanted it that way.

For context, I'm a full time IT guy at a non-profit where I switched most of us to OOo, and I've been working part-time on my BS degree for 6 years.

Yeah, the issue of "it's not what they'll use in the real world" is really unhelpful. We are supposed to be teaching children how computers work, not how to use Microsoft products. Open source is great for learning what is really going on.

I think the roots are deeper. Education has become a factory of workers. If you can teach them the exact tool they will use in their dead-end day job later, that is the easy option. The entire focus of education is on producing workers for the economic machine, not producing knowledgable people of character. If the focus was right, the best tools for the cost would be used. And of course that would be Open Office, Gimp, Inkscape, Blender, Dia, and one day Scribus.

I have worked at several schools, and each has opted for the MS solution, even the non-profit, volunteer based schools. I did get the computer teacher at the last school to teach using Open Office and Gimp, but the other school areas (offices) remained MS users. It is a shame that it is this way, but I will continue to use Open Office, and people will continue to not notice the difference, but they will pay more for their tool.

Schools pay IT people squat so it's not uncommon to find folks who are well intentioned but not at the bleeding edge of tech working in schools. They are tasked with network, security, email, workstation, software, and training tasks but provided insufficient resources to do any of these jobs well. They're asked to balance network/workstation security with end user flexibility (ie installing new programs), possibly in a heterogenous OS environment. Oh and all the bits need to work together.
No surprise to me that Windows/Mac and Office dominate.

Thanks so much to everyone who posted. You've brought up a lot of interesting ideas.
- Several of you talked about the contrast between training and education, between the simple task of teaching a tool or just one thing, as opposed to teaching students to really understand a variety of software, how computers work, etc. This is an issue that goes way beyond software and of course is related to having too few teachers, some tradition of uniformity, etc. Perhaps with less money spent on MS Office, there would be more money and time to explore deeper understanding of topics across computers and other topics, as well. ;> Of course, we need the former to lead to the latter.

- Pikes Peak -- I think you're just down the road from me, Andrew; I'm near Boulder. Good point about government. When in BBI I learned several very odd rules, like you're not allowed to spend money from a level on training unless it's training on an accompanying hardware product that's bought with the same source of money. (I think that's correct.)

- Macros are a perennial issue. I'm not sure how many schools use them, but a lot of businesses I train do use them.
- I think Visio files can be opened in Draw, there's an Interchange format that I think you can save out of visio, and then open in Draw. Haven't tried it but it seems to ring a bell.

- I like the idea of open source participation as something for class credit. A little tough in elementary school but perhaps an idea for high school.
- True, when you're the only IT person or you and your team are overwhelmed with a complex system, you're just trying to stay afloat. Learning and implementing new technologies, especially ones that meet with resistance, isn't at the top of the priority list.

- It's unfortunate, but we can try to change it, that there's the attitude that MS must be taught since that's what they will learn in the Real World. Nothing stays the same very long in the computer world, and we need to reinforce that. Perhaps along with that, the idea that word procesing programs are very similar and once you know one, it's not hard to learn another. Especially for the young'uns who could surf the net before they could walk. ;>

I'm going to be interviewed on an education-and-open-source site soon so I'll talk about these ideas there as well as what we can do about changing it.

Steve, who's doing the interview, mentions that he has blogged quite a bit about this topic.

He also mentions "we install Linux thin-client for schools under the banner of www.technologyrescue.com." I'm going to check this out -- sounds like a great idea. If we make it easier for people to use open source then of course, more people will.

I've been contemplating doing my part to make it easier for schools to use open source by putting my training materials "on sale", with a really big discount, for a limited time to make it very easy for anyone in K-12 to learn the product. I'm still working out the details but I'm definitely going to do something.

Thanks so much for all the comments, and of course please, continue to post. I want to have lots of ideas for the interview next week.


I know that there is a market for specialized application training, but wouldn't it be better for schools to teach "Word Processing" instead of "Microsoft Word?" I've used practically every word processor thats come along, and the important stuff is transferable. We need more focus on format and style, rather than pointing at buttons and telling what they do (help files for that).

Also, if you're gonna recreate some Visio stuff manually in Linux, consider using Kivio (part of KOffice). It is a flowcharting app very similar to Visio. It can't import Visio files, but it's easier than manually creating them in Draw.

OOo is a great program, but it's not always the best program for the task! The good news is that for most of these other tasks, there is a Linux app to help you.

This article may interest you. It's about Blackboard's patent on online learning, the relationship between Microsoft and Blackboard, and the implication for schools. http://lwn.net/Articles/197535/

I go to two colleges, and both use Blackboard's online learning products (Blackboard itself and WebCT, which was purchased by Blackboard). Neither of these products support Linux. I've been able to get into my classes online, but there were some issues.

I agree with you. My county (kommun in swedish...) is switching to StarOffice this year after many years with MS Office. The cost to upgrade MS Office is to big and we want to break free from companies that wants to tie us to expensive solutions for many years to come. We are also looking at Linux and thin clients at the moment but have hade some problems finding solutions that would work for the entire county. The switch to StarOffice involves about 4000 students and 500 employees.

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