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Weaning Ourselves off of Redmond July 31, 2007

Posted by davidit in Education, Linux, Microsoft Schools Agreement, Novell, School Tech 07, Software Assurance, Web 2.0.

I was at the second day of the TUANZ SchoolTech 07 conference last week.  I missed day one becuase I had to be in meetings to put the final touches to our ICT PD Cluster proposal.  They were good  and productive meetings and the proposal is now in the hands of the Ministry, we wait….

Anyway back to my conference geek fix.  My primary objective for day two was to learn about virtualisation.  This has been something that I have come accross over the last few months in my conversations with fellow corporate network administrators.  They rave about it, but they also have the budgets that most schools can only dream of.  It turned out that even at the educational level virtualisation is an expensive option.  I learnt that, for the moment, virtualisation is not for us, although I am still interested in the whole concept.

 As with most conferences it is the conversations that you have with exhibitors and fellow delegates that can often prove to be the most interesting and School Tech 07 was no different.  The topic of the latest round of the Microsoft Schools’ Agreement came up in several places.  This latest round of negotiations that will take us to 2010 is rumoured to be the last in its current guise.  In the next iteration of the agreement, the Ministry will negotiate a price on our behalf with Microsoft, but it will be up to schools to pay.  My understanding is that the Ministry will then distribute pro rata funds to schools to pay for the licences.  With limited funds all round, this payment could fall short in future years and then it would fall to schools to make up the difference to stay on the legal side of licencing.

My big beef with the whole Microsoft deal has been that it is nothing more than software assurance.  Whilst software is expensive to purchase, it does not exactly have a shelf life like a computer does.  One of my corporate network administrator friends still insists on distributing Office 97 to all the clients on his network.  Now this is not as daft or arcane as it sounds.  For all of its recent iterations, how fundamentally different is Office 97 from the current model? Well it looks different and that is about it.  Let’s face it most users, me included, only really scratch the surface of the capabilities of this suite of programmes.  So why continually update?  A software assurance deal makes us dependent upon Microsoft, its updates and has the potential for an annual financial impact don’t really need or want.  If we choose not to update via the software assurance model there is a sting in the tail.  MS stops supporting or updating its older software, users who are using old versions can and do find that their software is prone to attack and is not supported.

So what is the alternative?  I think that schools should take the time over the next few years to investigate some fall back plans, just in case the Ministry deal does go the way that I have highlighted above.  It is interesting to note that the Ministry of Justice and the Inland Revenue departments have all just switched over to using Novell Linux.  If it is considered good enough for such data intense Ministries as these, then might it not provide a potential solution for for schools too?

A deal has been signed with the Ministry and all schools can now use this operating system in the same manner as the Microsoft deal.  The current Linux package comes with a raft of open source solutions including Open Office, which has the ability not only to read MS Office files but save to them in to MS Office file extensions too.  This trick would enable users to transition from one platform to another and still access their old Office files while using Open Office.  The great thing is that because it is open source, it is free and therefore there are no software assurance ongoing costs.  It also does not limit you to one source of software provider. It is not the whole answer as I am sure that there will be legacy programmes that have to run on a Windows platform, SMSs for example. But I do envisage a dual platform environment and for every machine that is running Linux, Open Office and a raft of other open source software, that is one less annual licence bill from Bill that a school will have to pay.  To quote a British TV advert.  “Every little helps.”

This solution is not without its pitfalls, my dead computer at home is currently testament to this!  I rather too enthusiastically installed Linux on my main machine at home and am currently paying the price for that enthusiasm!  However, I do think that we need to consider what potential impact (financial) the end of the Microsoft Schools Agreement would have on us if we, individually as schools, had to pick up the tab.  It is time for us to plan a way to reduce our dependency upon the software giants.  Web 2.0, Google and open source software are pointing a way into the future.  It is a path, that I for one, will be exploring.



1. Marnie - July 31, 2007

Great points David – I will watch the progress on this next move for schools to manage their own software licences with great interest. Personally I use open office at home and have found it excellent – you can even convert to PDF straight from the saving menu which is handy. As with everything it will of course have its pitfalls to work through.
Interestingly, since operating my digital classroom and getting into Wed 2.0 tools and a few other software programmes, not one child in my class has used any Microsoft Office programme other than Outlook. As far as I can see Blogging cancels out the typical classroom use of office where children draft their stories using MSWord, and IT integration generally cancels out alot of the activities that currently occur in the computer suite such as making posters etc using Publisher.
Personally I don’t think a shift would have a huge effect on my classroom practice – maybe the only impact would be on teachers and planning which is generally where Office is used in my classroom.

2. David - August 1, 2007

Marnie, this is the point. The software assurance programme is designed to ensure that students become dependent users of MS Office and all things MS for now and into their futures. Teachers will be the stumbling block. The road ahead for Linux and Open Office is not a smooth one, especially in schools where there is not a uniform set of hardware. You have to install different versions of Novell Linux depending on whether you have Intel P series processors or AMD Duron/Athlon series. However, even at this stage I believe that these hurdles are worth surmounting in order to reduce our reliance upon the pervasive MS software model or the hardware lock in solution of Mac, both of which are expensive for schools.

Long live the revolution!

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