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Open Source Challenges Vista at U.K. Education Show
BETT starts debate on 'personalised learning'
William Pollard (will789)     Print Article 
Published 2007-01-16 05:36 (KST)   
Although Microsoft had one of the largest spaces at BETT, the leading educational technology show in the U.K., there was a strong case made for open source software. Becta, an advice organisation supported by government, published a report that advised against any sudden move to upgrade Windows pending more evaluation promised for next year. Discussion on "personalized learning" followed another report that recognized some limitations in a tightly controlled system of tests.

The Interim Report on Microsoft Vista and Office 2007 concludes that there are no "must have" features in the product that would justify early deployment in schools. While Office 2007 has new features, many are for business and offer no obvious educational value. Concern was expressed about the current lack of support for Microsoft's new file formats in competitor products.

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"Becta is therefore calling on the ICT industry to ensure that computers for the education marketplace are delivered with a choice of Office productivity suites available, which ideally should include an open-source offering."

There is a call for Microsoft to improve support for the ODF standard. The Open Document Format is based on XML and used in Open Office and other software. Tests by Oakleigh commissioned by Becta showed that interoperability issues are most prevalent between versions of Microsoft Office applications. This may be because Office is so widely used. There is not much emphasis in the report on the support for ODF in Open Office and Star Office. It is recognized that Microsoft have a case in promoting Open XML, their own version of an XML standard. However the decision to also offer an ODF translator as part of Office 2007 is welcomed.

According to Oakleigh, "Microsoft's commitment to the ODF interoperability standard changed during the course of this assignment." At the beginning of the assignment, Microsoft's commitment to ODF was assessed by Oakleigh as being "in denial." At the end of the assignment it was assessed by them as "grudging acceptance" of the ODF standard. This, Oakleigh, argued indicates an unstable, dynamic commitment to interoperability from Microsoft and that until a provably stable position has been established this area is treated with caution."

"We recommend that education establishments should consider a move to Office 2007 only when it offers via its default file formats at least the current level of compatibility with competitor products as do earlier versions of the Microsoft Office suite."

Open Source on this balcony
©2007 will789

In November nineteen Members of Parliament expressed concern that Becta "through the use of outdated purchasing frameworks, are effectively denying schools the option of benefiting from both free and open source software." ZD Net reported that they also commended universities for their use of open source. Universities are not bound by Becta frameworks. It was claimed that "Acceptance onto the framework is by the assessment of the capabilities of a supplier to deliver and support a comprehensive suite of technologies, and not by providing a single, specific product." Richard Thurston's report for ZDNet points out that this could rule out a number of open source solutions, which are often provided by smaller suppliers.

At BETT the Open Forum Europe gave away CDs from Edubuntu with the Ubuntu version of the Linux operating system and a selection of software including Open Office and Scribus for desk top publishing. Both support the Open Document Format. Ubuntu is supported by Canonical who are able to offer support on a commercial basis. The business model of free software and charges for support has been shown to be viable and answers some of the concerns that encourage some schools to look to suppliers connected to established software solutions. The Moodle learning environment is now supported by four companies that contribute something to development costs. Moodle also benefits from sites such as the Open University where particular requirements are funded and then included in the main offer. In December the Open University was awarded a Mellon Award for Technology Collaboration following the work with Moodle.

The Open University is using Moodle for the OpenLearn project, making learning resources freely available on the web. Their aims include support for "non-formal learning communities" and to make a "significant impact on both the quality and reach of open content delivery at an international level." There is no requirement to be a formal student and the resources can be used by people at schools, whether or not they are suggested by teachers. The material is available under a form of copyright formalized by the Creative Commons -- attribution is required but content can be shared on a non-commercial basis.

There is a connection between an "open source" approach to software and a "creative commons" approach to content. Both assume that the users of the software or content will take more responsibility for selection than in a more controlled software situation with uniform content. In the week before BETT, the 2020 Review Group issued a report on teaching that learning that looked at "personalized learning" and the Internet context of "near-universal access to personal, multi-functional devices, smarter software integrated with global standards and increasing amounts of information being available to search on line (with faster search engines)." Use of this technology would be "natural for most pupils and for an increasing majority of teachers." It is suggested that "personalized learning" is centered on knowledge and assessment but also on the learner. "Learners are active and curious: they create their own hypotheses, ask their own questions, coach one another, set goals for themselves, monitor their progress and experiment with ideas for taking risks, knowing that mistakes and 'being stuck' are part of learning."

Any new approach will follow pilot projects in ten local authorities. New tests will be available to be taken earlier than usual, though existing tests will continue. This has led some to question how great a change is intended in the current system. A Guardian editorial described the plan as " a commonsense recognition of the reality that children learn at different rates." New Labor badge this as personalized learning rather than child-centred education. This is a move away from "one-size-fits-all traditionalism" but not a return to the freewheeling '70s. "Schools will face targets in terms of individual progression of each child, and there will be extra cash for those willing to sign up for big improvements on the new measures."

There is a related discussion for the leadership of U.K. education. Minister for lifelong learning, further and higher education, Bill Rammell told a recent conference that "IT can also transform the productivity of educational institutions by supporting smarter management, information and communications systems..Our aim is to put learners and employers at heart of the FE system, to give people the knowledge, skills and attitude they need for a successful and rewarding life." There is research on how theories around communities of practice could be modified given the weakness of links on the internet but there are no documented case studies of how this impacts on organizations.

Neverwinter Nights
©2007 will789
At BETT very few stands considered direct access to the Web as part of the options for students. Azzuri launched Talmos Brittanica, a new version of the encyclopedia with access to a limited number of websites. Teachers can control whether there is any web access at all or limit it to chosen sites or even include Wikipedia. There are collaboration features for staff in preparing lesson materials from the Brittanica sources. Collaboration for students is now being added, with options for groups to edit a web page. Later in the year there will be some video-conferencing.

Adobe also promoted Web video as part of Acrobat Connect, previously Breeze from Macromedia. Again the web access could be limited to a controlled environment. Connect includes voice and instant messaging as well as Flash presentations. With the latest release of Acrobat it is possible to enable PDF files for commenting in the free Reader. The collaboration around a document may seem a bit limited if video conferencing takes off. However, the text document remains at the center of academic life. My impression was that the multimedia aspects were strongest in the earlier years of education. Something about getting closer to university brought the emphasis back to text.

For example "Neverwinter Nights," the classic graphic adventure, has been modified for educational content by Altered Learning but is promoted as an option for those who are not getting on with the normal route. How unfortunate for the gifted students that they will never get a chance to try it.

Texting on mobiles was seen as a threat, not a learning opportunity. The Times Educational Supplement(TES), given away at the show, warned that the textng craze is "worse" in South Korea where KTF has set up a special scheme for four-year-olds. According to the TES it is believed that young people in South Korea are now a sub-species, the "digital natives" who find it easier to communicate using their thumbs than their tongues.

Questions for Digital Natives
©2007 will789


However the term "digital natives" was used by Andrew Watt from Edinburgh City Council when claiming that most students in schools already use the internet at home and that there need to be some fundamental changes in content and methods of assessment. He suggested that the idea of an annual exam was based on technology available in the late nineteenth century. This was not in opposition to assessment, more to point out it could be more frequent and part of a more responsive system. Like other speakers on the Studywiz stand, Watt believed that "Ipodagogy" is emerging as a new area of study.

Study in iPodagogy
©2007 will789


Quark launched new educational pricing for their desktop publishing. The printed page is still a large part of education though they also promoted the new Interactive Designer that extends to the web. Adobe did not promote the new Mars plug-in for Acrobat that transforms PDF pages into SVG. This could be a major topic for a future BETT. One of the features of Vista that will eventually become better known is an XML Paper System ( XPS ) that is claimed to compare with PDF as a document format and is intended to conform with open standards. The Adobe interest in SVG is longstanding but the release of Mars may be connected with XPS. SVG is an open standard based on XML so both Mars and XPS should be easy to connect with XML data. This assumes that what are claimed as open standards continue to function as such.

Adobe is also promoting Apollo, an interface based on Flash that is intended to be rich in graphics. At BETT , Microsoft launched Grava as authoring for educational material. This seems to be based on the Expression approach that may compete with Adobe software such as Dreamweaver. there could be competition between Apollo and whatever WPF/E is eventually called, something like "Windows everywhere". The new graphics environment assumes more expensive equipment than is currently available and there has yet to be a compelling educational case made for the budget required.

Meanwhile many people may consider Open Office as supporting the formats and functionality they are used to and meet most of their requirements. Open Office can save a document as PDF, just as in the original intention for Office 2007 that now requires a download. Linux can run on hardware originally intended for operating systems that are no longer widely supported. The Edubuntu support page suggests that on a network a desktop client needs a processor between 233 MHz and 400 MHz with 128 meg of RAM. The server needs around 256 MB for the system and 128 MB per user. Processor speed can only help.

OpenForum Europe have issued a statement after BETT welcoming the new Becta approach to open source and the Microsoft support for ODF in Office 2007. "The BECTA report is a milestone in recognition within the U.K. public sector that lock in to one proprietary solution can be highly damaging -- both by limiting future choice, stifling innovation, and losing the opportunity for cost savings." On the 23rd January "Certified Open" will be announced at a conference on public procurement . This is intended as a framework to manage a choice of suppliers in support of open source and to avoid the problem of lock-in.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter William Pollard

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