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Education's software choice 'embarrassing'

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Industry commentators have called the Department of Basic Education's decision to standardise software tools in public high schools a "giant step backwards".
Industry commentators have called the Department of Basic Education's decision to standardise software tools in public high schools a "giant step backwards".

A recent circular issued by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) has drawn widespread criticism from the ICT industry.

The sector says the selection of Microsoft Office and Delphi for use in teaching at schools takes South Africa backward, limits choice and goes against the government's open source policy.

Circular S9 of 2013 stipulates the standardisation of software and the programming language for computer applications technology (CAT) and IT taught in high schools.

According to the circular, "from January 2014 and November 2014, the DBE will only use Microsoft Office to respectively implement the CAT curriculum and assess CAT as part of the National Senior Certificate (NSC) examinations. Furthermore, only the latest two versions of MS Office will be used, ie, MS Office 2010 and MS Office 2013."

The circular adds the programming language that will be used to teach the IT curriculum will be standardised "using" Delphi. Implementation for Grade 11 will take place in January 2015 and in January 2016 for Grade 12.

According to the circular, standardisation of the software tools will help to deliver the full curriculum as intended, and impact learner and teacher migration as well as developing resources. It also affects different software tools and versions in the NSC examinations, the department says.

Giant step backwards

ICT veteran, Adrian Schofield, does not understand why the DBE would insist that a single proprietary software product be used. He explains the different office products are so similar that it does not make any difference which one learners use. He also notes the use of MS Office will inevitably be more expensive than having the freedom to choose open source products.

Schofield points out that Delphi is of little use to learners after leaving school and the capacity to teach it is fast disappearing. "I think the decision-makers at the department should withdraw the circular before it creates too much damage, and rather speak to someone who knows better."

The decision-makers at the department should withdraw the circular before it creates too much damage, and rather speak to someone who knows better.

Adrian Schofield

The Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA) has also reacted to the "seemingly out of the blue" circular by noting the DBE's decision has massive implications, not only for the subjects concerned, but for the IT industry and SA.

"This decision is considered by many to be a giant step backwards rather than being a bold step into the future for IT education in our schools," says the institute in a statement.

"Teachers in those schools where Java is being taught will need to be retrained during 2014 so that they are ready to teach Delphi in Grade 11 in 2015. Some may resist as they know that they will be retiring in the next year or so. Who will provide this training?"

The statement further points out that most tertiary institutions are teaching C++, Java, Python or other similar languages, creating an imbalance in education. "In the rest of the world, the move is to Java and now possibly Python. Delphi is hardly taught in any school system elsewhere in the world."

The decision to implement Delphi is a bit like mandating Latin as the language for literature, says Derek Keats.
The decision to implement Delphi is a bit like mandating Latin as the language for literature, says Derek Keats.

Many schools currently teaching CAT will not have the funding to move from MS Office 2003, MS Office 2007 or LibreOffice to the versions prescribed in the circular and so could drop the subject, says the IITPSA. "This could mean that the numbers of learners taking CAT will start to decrease, and SA desperately needs IT-literate citizens."

Industry commentator Derek Keats has called the DBE's decision "a shocking embarrassment to our nation". He notes it serves as a disadvantage to every school learner, and creates "a whole generation of technology slavery", and denies school learners the opportunity to learn programming technologies that are in use.

"The decision to implement Delphi is a bit like mandating Latin as the language for literature. The press will probably not go into a feeding frenzy because the IT disaster is less obvious to the uninformed than the much less important [Limpopo] textbook debacle," says Keats.

The Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry has similarly bemoaned the DBE decision, saying the decision is a major setback for computing and education in South Africa, and is completely unjustified from a cost perspective.

Policy contrast

A number of commentators point out that the DBE circular is a direct contrast with government's free and open source software (FOSS) policy.

The FOSS policy and strategy, approved by Cabinet in February 2007, states FOSS should become the accepted practice in all spheres of government, and that citizens should have comprehensive access to FOSS.

The implementation of the strategy is driven by a "FOSS programme office" that is overseen by a steering committee consisting of DGs from the departments of public service and administration, science and technology, education, and trade and industry, as well as CEOs from the Council for Industrial and Scientific Research and the State IT Agency.

In the rest of the world, the move is to Java and now possibly Python. Delphi is hardly taught in any school system elsewhere in the world.

Institute of Information Technology Professionals SA

However, government has seen limited implementation since the policy's inception, which has been pinned on insufficient skills needed to service and maintain FOSS systems, the costs associated with migration, lack of capacity and skills for the implementation of the policy, and lack of co-ordination.

A long-time advocate of FOSS, Keats points out that the use of MS Office only for CAT "is anti-competitive, and denies school learners exposure to a variety of viable alternatives, and also denies other companies access to the school environment".

Many school systems around the world are seeing the benefits of using open source, says the IITPSA. "Learners are using Android and iOS on their handheld devices - why shouldn't they be exposed to using other operating systems, such as Ubuntu?"

"[The decision by the DBE is] quite baffling in the light of South Africa's commitment to FOSS. This decision will impact South Africa's competitiveness and must be reversed or else the entire mainstream public education will become irrelevant," says Roderick Lim Banda, chairman of the Digital Portfolio Committee of the Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The IITPSA also urged the DBE to reconsider the decision, which it says was taken because the department was not fully aware of all the implications and was essentially uninformed or misinformed.

The DBE did not respond to ITWeb's request for comment.

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