Much has been said about the “deal” between Microsoft and the South African Department of Education (DOE). In essence, the deal involves a “re-commitment” of an agreement signed between the DOE and Microsoft in 2002. However, the deal had a sunset clause … that it would come to an end in 2007/8. The latest deal (2008) apparently promises free software “for as long as it takes”.

A quick search on the internet will give you an idea why such a deal would not be struck with governments in the United Kingdom, the European Union and the United States. The controversy in these countries centres around giving “preferential treatment” to a particular software company/vendor in their education systems. Activists in these countries have raised the issues of “freedom of choice”, arguing that the role of education in Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) is to school pupils in the range of communication tools and applications options available – including Open Source -.

In the European Union, where Microsoft has locked horns with its parliament over a number of issues, governments actively encourage local councils and government departments to switch to Open Source ICT solutions. In South Africa, where a decision was announced (made?) to commit to the use of FOSS (Free Open Source Software in the public service (which would include schools?) . Striking a deal with Microsoft, accepting its “gift” sends the message to future users that computer … sorry, Microsoft “skills” are essential.

Even more baffling is the South African government’s decision to adopt the Open Document Format (ODF) as a national  official (SABS) standard for its documents. Microsoft, instead of joining the drive towards an open international standard, chose to make a bid to patent its own “international open” standard.

No doubt the decision to accept the “gift” could, and have been, explained in terms of “the needs in the country as an emerging economy” … that the “challenges with poverty” we face outweigh the cost of enabling ICT literacy at public schools.  Read some of the official reponses here  at Educationweb http://www.educationweb.co.za/ew/?p=166.

Lofty as it sounds, the cynic and activist in me can’t help but be uncomfortable with the idea of such viral (pun intended) marketing being allowed into our public schooling system. As long as government departments (meaning politicians), school administrators and teachers show by example that Microsoft is the “only” and “best” way to get ahead in this world, generations of (young) new users are being programmed to follow suit.

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