Govt defends education software decision

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The Department of Basic Education (DBE) has defended its decision to standardise the software tools to implement the computer applications technology (CAT) and IT curriculum in high schools in response to "negative sentiments raised on social media".

A circular issued by the department drew widespread criticism from the ICT industry this week, with commentators saying the selection of Microsoft Office and Delphi for use in teaching at schools takes South Africa backward, limits choice and goes against government's open source policy.

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". The circular adds the programming language that will be used to teach the IT curriculum will be standardised "using" Delphi.

In a statement sent to education shareholders this morning, the DBE says "from the response in the social media", the impression is given that the department has totally banned open source software while the announcement only affects two curriculum subjects in Grades 10 to 12 where these tools are used to implement a national curriculum and assess a national examination.

"It does not affect other activities the DBE is involved with, such as e-learning or ICT integration in other subjects and grades. Only 0.9% of Grade 12 learners take IT and 9% of Grade 12 learners take CAT," says the statement.

The document goes on to explain that the decision was made in consultation with structures that represent provinces and teacher unions, where advice was given that a circular be issued. It is based on "educationally sound and pedagogical considerations" informed by research regarding the future of the two subjects, it says.

"The decision was made considering matters that impact on curriculum delivery and national examinations where different software tools and versions impact on the delivery and fairness of these matters. Matters that negatively affect learners such as migration between provinces or schools that use different tools, the cost to develop resources for different tools and versions, as well as the fact that the vast majority of schools currently use MS Office were also considered."

The DBE says literature suggests choosing software tools for curriculum programmes is a contentious issue, but it is "imperative for the DBE to lead decision-making for the interest of the curriculum and the learners".

ICT veteran, Adrian Schofield, has responded to the DBE statement, saying it highlights the real root of the problem. "In a world where technology is acknowledged to be the enabling ingredient for almost all other activities, is it not an indictment on our education system that 'only 0.9% of Grade 12 learners take IT and 9% of Grade 12 learners take CAT' - How can South Africa hope to build a 'knowledge economy' - our government's oft-repeated phrase - with such low numbers as the foundation?"

Schofield notes many of the department's reasons listed as justifying the decision are debatable, such as using the migration of teachers and learners between provinces as a reason for standardisation given that less than 1% do move. "Has the DBE applied the same principle to the teaching of South African languages? Although the DBE claims that the [programming] language is not specified in the IT curriculum assessment policy statement, it is widely known that the criteria were written to ensure that Delphi was the prescribed language. The arguments put forward by DBE can equally be used to support Python, for example, if there was less emphasis on the database aspect and more on the broad foundation.

"The fact is that the DBE did not consult with the teachers in the trenches or the subject advisers in the provinces," says Schofield. "As far as we can tell, neither did they consult with the industry that should ultimately provide learners with opportunities to become economically viable, using the skills acquired during the education phase of their lives."

Industry stakeholders are reviewing the department's response before providing input.

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