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U.K. Education Aims at Universal Broadband
Microsoft rejects Becta view on Open Source
William Pollard (will789)     Print Article 
Published 2008-01-21 05:27 (KST)   
There are more than a million children -- and their families -- in the United Kingdom without access to a computer at home. Jim Knight, U.K. schools minister, has proposed that access to the Internet should be available at home for all. At BETT, a technology show in London, he spoke about computers. "Children can use them at school. Families can get online at the local library, but that's not enough.We have to find a way to make access universal, or else it's not fair." As families engage with the Web, there is increasing familiarity with choices such as open source and social networking. A report released at BETT from Becta, who offer advice to schools, suggests waiting before upgrading to Windows Vista and appears more open to alternatives than in 2007.

The BECTA stand.
©2008 William Pollard
The project "Computers for Pupils" was first announced in 2004 with 50 million British pounds intended for the 10 percent of U.K. areas identified as most deprived. Projects are implemented by local authorities with some discretion on technology choices. So far 108 local authorities have been involved reaching 100,000 homes. At BETT, Knight announced a further 30 million British pounds for "Computers for Pupils" and also a 600,000 British pounds pilot scheme through Becta "to test a series of different ways to deliver universal home access with the help of more than 50 schools around the country." There will be a report in April from the Home Access Task Force with involvement from industry, the voluntary sector, government and education.

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Knight is keen to encourage parents to see the advantages of the Web to improve communication with schools. He announced that "by September 2010, all secondary schools will be expected to offer parents real-time access to information covering achievement, progress, attendance, behavior and special needs, and where it is appropriate secure online access. This will mean parents and children can look at it when and where they like." He gave examples of current practice. "More than 450 schools such as St. Aloysius in North London have been texting parents or calling their mobiles when their children are absent from school."

However, the National Union of Teachers statement claimed that "Until a proper, independently evaluated pilot happens, Knight cannot claim that there will be no increase in workload." Margaret Morrissey, of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, told The Times that e-mail updates from teachers to parents sometimes contained little information about the individual pupil. "We need to be cautious about information sent around everywhere. It puts pressure on parents to receive them, and a lot don't have the ability. Parents will be asking if this is the end to the annual report, although some will prefer frequent updates, if they have the time."

In an earlier interview with The Guardian Knight suggested that parents now have a responsibility to provide Web access at home. "We need to get to a point where in the same way when they start school the expectation is you've [the parent] got to find a school uniform, provide them with something to write with and probably these days a calculator, and in secondary school some sports gear -- well, you add to that some IT." The statement came in an interview with Will Woodward who reports that "parents could be required to provide their children with high-speed Internet access under plans being drawn up by ministers in partnership with some of the country's leading IT firms."

In my opinion the adoption of broadband will depend on benefits other than access to tables of test results. There could be more connection with the learning potential of the Web in general. Current U.K. policy concentrates on skills rather than general adult education so my impression is that many people find more resources online than through traditional resources such as a local college.

There is also the problem that U.K. parents cannot reasonably take on the task of compensating for the limitations of U.K. broadband. There is still a role for government. Stephen Timms, minister for competitiveness, speaks on YouTube about U.K. "leadership." However, the BBC reported recent meetings as being about how to stop the U.K. dropping into the Internet "slow lane."

Knight claims that there will be some cost advantages for homes signing up for broadband through the scheme. "I believe that the market will respond with an affordable solution in exchange for simpler procurement, and access to an expanded customer base." There is some significant involvement in the Home Access Task Force.

Andy Bruen, homework program manager for PC World Education, which is running a pilot with BT and Toshiba in five schools, told Computer Reseller News: "We all have to look at making the price points as realistic as possible. The great thing about running schemes for schools is that we can engage with the local authority, enabling lower price points." Phil Hemmings, head of corporate affairs at Research Machines, said: "The Home Computing Initiative went through PC World and smaller system builders, so I think it will be that tier of suppliers that will be in a position to put together a response to the policy."

Some of the discussion around these issues starts from recognizing the extent of the technology that is already in use. A Web page describes the situation for Digital Birmingham:

With children increasingly using an assortment of ICT devices from PCs, laptops, PDAs to interactive digital television, digital cameras, and portable hard drives (MP3s and iPods) as part of their daily lives, schools are missing out on the opportunity to build on existing home access at the risk of marginalizing a significant minority that have no access. A digital divide is being entrenched rather than confronted. The Digital Birmingham initiative, led by Birmingham City Council involving partners from commercial organizations such as BT, the universities and local agencies and voluntary groups, is taking the lead in shaping the future direction of the city to help close this digital divide and ensure that everyone living, working, learning and visiting Birmingham gains the benefits that access to digital technologies can have on their everyday lives.
In an e-mail response for this story, Andy Jackson added that "This program is being enhanced by Birmingham City Council through their Computers for Pupils grant in an attempt to provide Universal Home Access, making more achievable the vision of the Home Access Task Force. This includes a parental contribution scheme to provide low cost devices and connectivity into all secondary pupils' homes over a period of time."

Also at BETT there was a major announcement from Becta on a report evaluating Microsoft Vista and Office 2007. As reported in the New York Times, the advice was against upgrading to Vista unless this was part of entirely new hardware. The cost of upgrading Britain's schools to Vista would be 175 million British pounds (US$350 million), around a third of which would go to Microsoft. The rest would go on deployment costs, testing and hardware upgrades. Becta warned against Open Office XML, a format in Office 2007, as it failed to meet expectations for interoperability. Becta suggests saving in earlier versions of Office formats. The New York Times reported that Becta "slammed Microsoft for dragging its feet with incorporating support for ODF in Office 2007." The Open Document Format is an ISO standard supported in Open Office, Google Docs and other productivity software. According to the Becta report on Office 2007, "While the product includes the functionality to read virtually every other relevant file format "out of the box," the processes for dealing with ODF files are very cumbersome."

There is also concern about the nature of the licenses available to U.K. schools. As reported by ZD Net U.K.in October 2007 Becta complained about Microsoft to the Office of Fair Trading claiming "alleged anti-competitive practices by Microsoft in the schools software marketplace and in relation to Microsoft's approach to document interoperability."

The Becta Web site explains this further:

Becta's primary concern regarding Microsoft's School Agreement licensing model relate to the "all or nothing" nature of the coverage that schools who want to move to subscription licensing must pay for. This has a number of unacceptable implications including driving up costs, and making it increasing difficult for suppliers of alternative products to get a foothold in the schools marketplace.

For example:

* If a school is using some Apple computers that are not running any Microsoft software, they must still pay Microsoft annual license fees for those computers, even though they are running software supplied by Microsoft's competitor.

* If a school wants Vista on some computers under its subscription agreement but decides to set up an Internet access lab using computers that were purchased in (say) 2002 and that cannot run Vista, the school must still pay Microsoft annually as if it was actually running Vista on those older computers.

* If a school sets up a small network in its computer science department running an open source operating system such as Linux, to ensure that pupils have as wide a range of ICT skills as possible, it will have to pay Microsoft annual license fees for each of the Linux PCs in the school.
An industry source commented that Microsoft would be very unlikely to vary the contract condition that a license is required for each desktop on a site. This has been a condition of supply of Windows for vendors of computers for many years. So if any model of PC is supplied with Windows there is a strong reason for each one to include Windows. This arrangement is criticized by other software companies.

ZD Net U.K. reported that Microsoft "was dismissive of Becta's report, saying that what matters is the opinions of schools themselves." Steve Beswick, director of education for Microsoft U.K., said, "We think our software is value for money. Do we see a lot of open-source technology on the desktop in education? We don't."

Open Forum Europe.
©2008 William Pollard
In an e-mail reply to an enquiry for this story, Stephen Aitken from Open Forum Europe wrote that

The biggest benefits on Open Source Software are not understood and ignored. People focus on the fact that the licenses are free but the bigger saving come because it consumes less hardware resource (especially since the launch of Vista), so lower hardware cost, less electricity bills and less impact on the environment and because Linux is so reliable systems require less maintenance resource.

This means

We can recycle old PCs from business and give them to schools and excluded families with Linux, Firefox and Open Office in stalled.

We can install Linux and Open Source Applications driven thin client systems in schools with about 10 percent of the energy consumption of commercial software systems.

We can save about 3 maintenance staff per secondary school as Linux systems require 1 staff versus 4 for Microsoft.

We can provide all the education applications schools might need from the open source repositories (see below) and we can encourage those students that want to program to access to the open source code and, more important, the open source software communities so they can develop and use their creativity.
The open source repositories include Edubuntu, a version of Linux with educational software; Open Source Victoria, in Australia; Open Source as Alternative, showing comparisons with commercial software; SourceForgeNet, a resource for development and a learning environment; Freshmeat, an index of "eye candy."

The ZD U.K. report quotes "a source at Becta, who works closely with its technology suppliers and asked not to be named" as saying, "We are promoting open source to schools. There are good benefits for schools. We would like there to be more volume." Richard Thurston comments that the Becta view will come as a surprise for "many in the open-source community who have criticized Becta for being too closely aligned with Microsoft."

Open Source was well represented at BETT, with stands including Open Forum Europe and Moodle, a virtual learning environment that is now widely used. In a Guardian interview Ian Lynch, spokesman for the Open Schools Alliance, insisted that Moodle is rapidly becoming the world de facto standard for virtual learning environments. "It's not about tick lists; it's about volume take-up. Which other VLE is localized in 75 languages and in operation in 170-plus countries? Who outside the U.K. has heard of most of the offerings on Becta's list? "Standards are globally determined, not by Becta, the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) nor any individual national government. Why would I choose something that costs me money and is unknown outside the U.K.? Why would I want to be dependent for support on a company that could go bust tomorrow? There is absolutely no commercial sense in taking that risk."

Moodle, open source system for content.
©2008 William Pollard
Although Jim Knight has stated there is research evidence for the positive effects of home access to the Web, there is still scope for further work by academics. In a BETT presentation,Vanessa Pittard and Moritz Bilagher from Becta spoke about existing evidence. There is a statistically significant positive association between pupils' home use of ICT for educational purposes and improved attainment in national tests: mathematics at Key Stages 2, 3 and 4; English Key Stage 4 (Valentine et al 2005). Where computers are used for educational purposes (as well as leisure) pupils with home access perform significantly better in PISA tests than those without (Fuchs and Woessmann 2004). However, there is a downside, described as the "computer games effect." Computer use for leisure activities can contribute to lower PISA scores for maths and reading.

My impression is that this concern could be limited to the reading of text. Understanding of film and video might be enhanced.

Future issues for research are evident from discussion of the wider Web context. At a Becta conference on "Harnessing Technology" in November Diana Oblinger, vice president of EDUCAUSE, spoke in a keynote about the 'Net generation. Her presentation is available online and shows patterns of media use for different generations. There was a comment in an ALT newsletter by Bob Banks from Tribal:

The "Web 2.0" theme pervaded the conference. Diana Oblinger referred to the emergence of "DIY learning," and the ever-increasing importance of "know-who" (and social networks) for success in life. Mike Sharples pointed out that the "3 Cs of learning": construction, conversation and control (held by the learner) are arguably what Web 2.0 is all about.

Still -- as far as formal education goes -- Web 2.0 is largely a future prospect.
Much educational design has been intended to restrict access to unreliable information and to avoid time wasting through networking. Products at BETT included Autology, based on corporate technology from Autonomy, which is limited to 12,000 Web sites believed to be "credible." As reported in Personal Computer World, Bloxx will demonstrate how to "block bandwidth-hogging social-networking sites" and also block "proxy servers that allow crafty students to get on the Web."

There are concerns about the danger of computer resources being a distraction in class. A report in the Daily Telegraph claimed that the technology took over as the main focus even for lessons about Shakespeare. The issues were discussed in a Guardian Education Talk topic.

At BETT, Mike Sharples from the University of Nottingham spoke about "Disruptive Mobile Learning." The slides are available through Slideshare. He asks the question why schools have changed so little over the last 100 years and suggests it is because the educations system is internally consistent and self-sustaining but is not connected with the rest of learning. His slides show "life-long learning" over a complete life, taking the rhetoric as genuine. Mobile devices are presented in this context. In my opinion this approach is likely to encourage adults to invest in broadband and more gadgets. The rhetoric around "lifelong learning" has not surfaced recently in the U.K. as far as I can find through Web searches. The term "adult education" is also used less often as colleges concentrate on skills.

The BETT displays included a space for "Learner Voice," in association with Heppell.net. The theme is described on the Web site:

"Technology has brought a host of Learner Voice solutions: texting, photo-blogging and podcasting, presenting, voting and more. The Learner Voice feature provides an opportunity for invited school students to showcase their "voice" experiences and for visitors to hear their views on education in the future, and on the technology they use." The stand also featured suggestions for adults including iGoogle.

Alex Savage at Learner Voice.
©2008 William Pollard
Enquiries at the Apple stand confirmed that there are no plans to extend iTunes U to universities outside the USA. Currently it includes educational resources from a wide range of sources but limited to one country. It was pointed out that any university can upload to iTunes but this will not result in comparable visibility. The word "tune" now includes most forms of content including PDF.

A manifesto on "Networked Learning" was published in 2002, based on work funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. The only reference available online was a lecture by Seymour Papert at Imperial College in 1998. This covers "Child Power: Keys to the New Learning of the Digital Century" and "Education's 19th-Century Thinking in a 21st-Century World." Networked Learning theory seems to be about adults and universities but there appears to be little recent research on the actual nature of online social networks.

On the Adobe stand at BETT, Stephen Partridge promoted the PDF format for portfolios but also pointed out that social networking sites are also a form of portfolio. He mentioned MySpace, YouTube, Blogger and Flickr and claimed that 85 percent of US college students use Facebook. He asked why not use Facebook as a portfolio and then suggested a link to a U.K. survey in PDF from SPIRE, based at the Department of Continuing Education, Oxford. This finds comparable activity across all age groups. Apart from under 18s, the percentage of people using Wikipedia increases with age, especially over 65, possibly due to available time in retirement. However, figures for overall use of tools and services shows a much higher score for younger age groups. The report suggests that "it is likely that the take-up among the young will remain strong and will ripple through as individuals move through the age groups."

Also on the Adobe stand Ian Usher from Buckinghamshire County Council spoke about Acrobat Connect, a Flash based approach to video collaboration previously known as Macromedia Breeze. Having bought Macromedia, Adobe is working on integrating the video aspects of Flash with the page-based approach of PDF. There was a video conference with Chalfont Community College that worked well, including text exchange. I am gradually getting used to the Flash aspects of Acrobat. Last year I saw a presentation by Kathryn Macaulay on Acrobat for PDF and Connect. I was persuaded by her enthusiasm for Connect starting from an experience base in "classic publishing" as Adobe now describes the world of Postscript. Adobe continues to promote Flash as they seem confident in the future of a Web based mostly on video. Ian Usher also demonstrated how Moodle could be used alongside Connect. He blogs about this at Changing the Game.

Microsoft has new software -- Silverlight -- that is seen as competition for Flash. Last year at BETT they announced Grava, a set of development tools and an application to create learning resources for Silverlight. There was no announcement this year, but on the stand I was told that there will be a new Beta available for download in February. Updates will continue over the year. A target for a final release in February 2009 is highly likely to be met as publishers would need to work on releases for the autumn start to the educational year. My guess is that the fairly slow pace may reflect the expected adoption of Vista, where Silverlight is supported.

So by the next BETT there may be more about the video Web, including strong presentations from Microsoft and Adobe. My view is that if Jim Knight expects adults to invest in broadband the scope of education should include video and demonstrate involvement in lifelong learning.

Rhetoric about "lifelong learning" and adult education appears less often than in the '90s when the Web was at an earlier stage. In the U.K., policy concentrates more on skills and competitiveness. Alan Tuckett, director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education recently reported in The Guardian that there has been a "drop of 1,400,000 adult learners from publicly funded education in just two years, and there has been a decimation of provision for adults over 40." The "Harnessing Technology" strategy document starts with the aim "to build the common ground that brings all our education and children's services to the critical baseline of being able to use the technology effectively." It is much further on in the text that there is mention of "14-19 and lifelong learning, HE and Children's services sectors."

The current Learning and Teaching Strategy Document from the Open University concentrates on pragmatic issues given the current positioning in a market where many more universities are aware of online learning. An earlier version published in 2001 included as aims "Widening participation in the learning society" and "Preparing students for the knowledge society." These aims now seem to be in background.

At a conference titled "The Learning Age: Towards a Europe of Knowledge" held in Manchester in 1998, Lord Sainsbury then representing the University for Industry quoted three aims from a Green Paper on the Learning Age:

* To create a society where continuous learning is the norm.

* To enable everyone to take responsibility and have the opportunity to create a better future for themselves.

* To ensure that U.K. industry is able to continue to compete with the best in the world.

This order of priority may have a wider appeal than technical support from home for formal education as such. The European aspect may contribute as there is still rhetoric around the Lisbon agenda and claims about knowledge. The eTEN site links to a recent press release about media literacy. "In a digital era, media literacy is crucial for achieving full and active citizenship," said Information Society and Media Commissioner Viviane Reding. "The ability to read and write -- or traditional literacy -- is no longer sufficient in this day and age." eTEN is a project to support European networks. At BETT the Open Forum Europe stand displayed the eTEN logo as the project Certified Open was developed with involvement from eTEN projects. So the European policy statements do have a practical consequence.

Detail from Open Forum Europe stand.
©2008 William Pollard
These European aspects will be covered at other meetings, including the iLearning Forum in February. Computing has quoted Seb Schmoller, chief executive of the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) as saying, "Internet access in a developed economy must be a citizen's entitlement, like getting a drink of mains water. The challenge for the government is to bring it about." The ALT conference in September will discuss the digital divide and government policy as well as the role of parents. In his speech Jim Knight announced that there will be also be a conference before the next BETT in 2009. There will be a lot to discuss, including the range experiences from places with various combinations of learning and broadband.
Some coverage continues on the learn9 blog.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter William Pollard

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