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Bug of the day

Friday, October 19th, 2007 at 10:20 pm Written by:

Well, the speeding up was too aggressive and it was dropping too many points. This is from a pencil overthickness that went bad and was marked as “critical”.

I did that panel discussion today at the open source in education event. I didn’t completely suck and was — bizarrely — not nervous at all in spite of the fact that these were high powered people (CEOs, businessmen, MP). I’d been pulled over at lunch to be given a set of complex questions which needed boiling down, and had the interesting ones I’d thought of completely rejected.

Questions like: why has the number of pupils learning how to program (eg computer science A-Level) been declining at a time when there is massive IT going onto schools? In my generation we spent a lot of time writing computer games which we then tried to sell. No student these days is trying to write educational software, in spite of tonnes of money (wasted) in it, and the applications being considerably more trivial.

The issue is that closed source computers discourage programming by users. Having some chance of a few good programmers coming out of the education system, given all this kit, is one reason open source is justified.

The Becta guy (Stephen Lucey) surprised me by stating categorically that Becta do not recommend or accredit software.

They are called the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency and after further research it would seem that they recommend and accredit companies. The products are not really the issue to them.

My question which I got in was: “Given that closed source companies have more money (they can keep a cash cows in the way that open source companies can’t) which they can spend on marketing — is marketing more important to success than the quality of the software?”

The answer is then yes, because Becta don’t assess or recommend software, so the schools have to make their decision based on the salesmen pressure. There is no organization equivalent to National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence to guide them. Becta merely ensures that the companies on its list are financially secure — which means on their terms they are (a) big, and (b) good at extracting money from customers without giving a lot back.

With open source the criteria is completely irrelevant because the software doesn’t belong to the suppliers. When you have many suppliers of the same product it doesn’t matter if one of them goes bust. On the other hand, since a closed source company is the only supplier of its products, they have the power to threaten you with withdrawal of its products if you don’t keep feeding them cash. In other words, bankruptcy is not the only threat to the availability of a software product. There’s also greed.

We had the guy from Moodle there giving an outline of his business model, of one tiny company in western Australia simply coordinating all the users and contributors to the codebase and not having many employees of its own. This brought to mind what the Chairman of Becta’s vision to cleanse the industry of the hopelessly fragmented open source supply when he explained :

There are tens of thousands of little, real little garage operations, producing software and bits of kit, and very very few, in fact no big firms, only about half a dozen mid-size firms, responding in the UK industry and generally around the world.

Now, part of that is in response to the very disparate buying power largely in the hands of individuals in schools who spend small amounts of money, who are almost hobbyists, in the way that they have enthusiasm and a passion about. Typically they would be people who have a real passion about Open Source — as if open source is any different from any other software — it’s just the pricing structure is different, that’s all. But they have a passion. It’s a religion, it’s a real belief, and again they have a belief about bits of technology that are going to change things. What they don’t do, however, is organize things properly…

How do we organize education to be much more effective, much more efficient, to use the investment that it’s got, to change the way it does things, to become more disciplined about the way it organizes itself, in some respects, to subsume the individual professionalism into the greater good of a larger institutional professionalism, to produce better organizations, rather than vying to be just individually better teachers…

Teachers like being stars, they like being in front of the classroom, they like relating to the kids, they have a passionate belief in it. But they are not necessarily are people who are going to organize everybody else around them to produce a production line with the outputs that everyone agrees on.

I recognize that the response to his critique comes from the following observation:

You do not need to own/control/employ people in order to organize them.

In fact people like to be organized if it helps them achieve their goals. However, if an organizer is doing it only to suit the profit motive for himself and not any shared long-term aims, he should not be surprised if he receives less than whole-hearted cooperation.

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