[Linux-aus] [Lias] Recent comments made to Education and Health Committee

Jonathan Woithe jwoithe at just42.net
Wed May 9 16:49:55 EST 2012

Apologies for the excessive length.

On 09/05/12 12:49, Shaun Nykvist wrote:
> > ...such a typical discussion that I hear over and over in the education
> > sector!
> A pity when teachers refuse to learn something new

In my experience it's not the teachers who are the problem.  School
administrators and the higher-level boards under which they function usually
dictate the IT that is to be used in schools.  Their decisions are in turn
undoubtedly influenced by lobbyists and commercial incentives which
predictably give rise to the sorts of ill-informed comments reported at the
start of this thread.

It's not that teachers don't want to learn new things; in a vast majority of
cases they simply don't have the time to do so.  The demands on teachers are
increasing every year as more and more stuff is crammed into the curriculum.
Significant unpaid out of hours work is the norm (when else do they get a
chance to mark work?) which leaves precious little time for casual learning. 
Of course there are organised teachers conferences and professional
development (PD) days.  This is where the majority of teacher education
happens, and in recent years more and more of the presentations have
involved computers.  These PD sessions represent the most likely place that
teachers can learn about FOSS.  In my opinion, if we want to educate more
teachers about FOSS this is where we need to start.  Needless to say that
presentations about FOSS are few and far between at a majority of these
events; instead, proprietary packages are pushed almost exclusively.  Since
most teachers rely on PD sessions for exposure to new ideas, this means that
said teachers remain completely in the dark about the existance of FOSS, let
alone specific FOS software.

You now have the situation where upper high school exams are written around
particular proprietary software packages: if you don't use those packages
you're basically stuffed (even the primary school UNSW "computing"
competition papers are written around work flows within a small number of
proprietary software packages).  Ergo, even if the teachers wanted to teach
something different, the curriculum precludes it.  I've spoken to a number
of teachers who would dearly like to branch out, but they feel their hands
are tied by a system which would ensure that their students were severely
disadvantaged if they did.

Then there's the incredible power of ill-informed parents.  They know next
to nothing about IT and have never heard of FOSS.  They demand that their
little darlings learn "word" and "powerpoint" and "flash" because that's
what they are convinced kids need to learn to make it in the world these
days - even though they have no idea about anything they're saying.  They
insist that IT be used everywhere in the school, even when it's clearly of
no practical benefit to the students.  Although it's hard to believe,
pressure like this does influence school policies.  If schools aren't
providing an "IT" program in line with parental expectations (more likely
called ICT now, since a three letter acronym looks more impressive in the
prospectus) then parents will send their kids elsewhere.  And they do,
particularly in the private sector.

All this has a huge influence on the kids themselves.  Even at primary
school, if the school runs proprietary software then the kids exert
significant pressure on parents to have those same tools on the home
computers to prevent formatting problems with their assignments.  And sadly
schools won't install FOSS equivalents for optional use by students because
their IT support people (who are increasingly outsourced) don't want the
perceived burden of supporting additional software.

Finally, when the kids get to high school, many schools are now supplying
laptops/netbooks for the kids to use for all school work - it "avoids
incompatibilities" they say.  The school "owns" the computers (sometimes
they're leased to the parents, other times it's a loan), and consequently
the school dictates precisely what's installed.  Kids aren't allowed to
install anything that's not on the prescribed list, and this is actively
policed.  The end result is that they do all their senior school work using
proprietary tools.  They then leave school - is it any wonder that most will
continue to blindly use those same tools?

It all adds up to an incredibly frustrating multi-layered problem.

Now of course it's possible to buck the trend and use FOSS extensively in a
school, but it requires an extraordinary level of commitment from an
individual or small group of people in order to successfully pull it off. 
We've all heard of schools where it's been done, but the reality is that
very few parents have that sort of time, and teachers are generally already
run off their feet by the ever increasing content of school curriculums. 
The system really needs to change from the top down, but for that to happen
the education bureaucrats need to be educated.  It's possible to do, but
it'll take time and lots of dedication - as can be seen by the ridiculous
robotic answers and comments we've seen from the inquiry.

Disclaimer: I'm not a teacher but my wife is.  I'm also a parent.


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