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Explain yourself, educators

By Jon Tullett, 15 October 2013

The Department of Basic Education (DBE) came under fire recently for Circular S9 of 2013, in which it set out software requirements for the Computer Applications (CAT) and Information Technology (IT) curricula for National Senior Certificate (NSC) schools.

Henceforth, the circular states, CAT assessments will be conducted using Microsoft Office 2010 or 2013, and Delphi will be used for the programming components of the IT curriculum.

Some of the more vocal commentators portrayed this as a government ban on open source software, while many more weighed in against narrowing learners' experience to Microsoft software, and the aging Delphi programming environment.

Most of the concerns miss the mark (and some of the more hysterical commentary is making the FOSS community look bad, frankly). But there are some legitimate concerns, and there are some questions the DBE needs to answer. But most of all, there are questions which need to be asked about the underlying curricula.

In a nutshell:

Ban on FOSS? No.

MS Office bad? Debatable.

Delphi bad? Yes.

No ban on FOSS

First up, no, the government has not banned open source software. The circular covers two specific use cases, and schools are welcome to use open source software to their hearts' content outside of those. CAT exams will be conducted on MS Office, to ensure consistency. The curriculum is not being updated to mandate Office, and schools can continue to use whatever software they choose (IT labs are not the only place you'll find PCs in schools). However, a learner who has practiced skills on other packages will need to be able to use those skills in the test environment, which will be MS Office.

Of course, this does encourage schools to deploy MS Office – that is an unavoidable conclusion which fuels the conspiracy theory. And Microsoft will be delighted with the circular, not because it is about to make a fortune in licence fees, but because it cements its exposure to learners. As we all know, interface friction is a very real phenomenon: even Microsoft has experience of that, with its controversial ribbon interface in Office and the Modern start screen in Windows 8, for example.

The cost of the software is less of an issue (see "what flavour of freedom" sidebar), since Microsoft heavily discounts licences for educational institutions and has been active in equipping schools' PC labs and training teachers for years. Many vendors do this: Cisco is also particularly active in driving networking-related skills training, for example.

The specific versions of Microsoft Office mandated by the DBE are also a consideration: the circular notes that MS Office 2010 and 2013 will be the only acceptable versions. For many schools this may mean upgrades, which can be a costly process particularly if aging hardware must be replaced. From a consistency standpoint it makes sense though: Office 2007 introduced the ribbon interface: it was unquestionably a major interface change, and the policy now avoids the risk of interface confusion on exam candidates and assessors, no less than a mix of MS Office and alternative packages. Keeping the number of supported packages (from an examiner's perspective) down, is a good thing.

Why NOT open source?

However, since the South African government does have a policy on free and open source software (FOSS), the department should justify its decision vis-à-vis that policy, in two respects. Firstly, the FOSS policy calls on government departments to use FOSS unless there is a compelling reason why proprietary software is specifically better suited to a given task. So…what were those reasons?

 

Microsoft will be delighted with the circular, not because it is about to make a fortune in licence fees, but because it cements its exposure to learners.

Second, the policy calls on government to encourage the use of FOSS within South Africa, and the Department of Education is uniquely positioned to start that encouragement among citizens at an early age. And there are good reasons to do so, beyond the arguments in favour of one package over another. For example, IT students could benefit from learning about software licensing, for example, especially since they are highly likely to find themselves reusing third-party components in the real world, whether as hobbyists or professionals.

The department does have questions to answer on the open source side, even if the alleged ban on free software is mistaken.

Ask the oracle

As a choice of programming environment, Delphi is a much more questionable call. Delphi has its roots in Pascal, which was invented to teach structured programming. It's hardly modern, or even relevant in most workplaces, but it is stable and mature and good enough to facilitate the programming component of a basic IT curriculum.

Students should be learning skills which can be applied in other packages rather than being trained in specific environments.

Students should be learning skills which can be applied in other packages rather than being trained in specific environments.

There are obvious alternatives. There are literally hundreds of possible languages available, with pros and cons vigorously argued by adherents and detractors, but a handful really emerges as particularly suitable for educational purposes.

The obvious candidate is Java, which is already taught in some provinces (they will now be expected to phase it out for Delphi), widely used in the market and particularly suitable for mobile app development. Java is also popular among other educational institutions worldwide, which not only shows its appeal, but also means there are communities and online resources available for learners who want to take studies further, besides the usual plethora of online tutorials and the like.

Another candidate could be Python, a language which ticks the architectural boxes, has a growing educational presence and is particularly attuned to Web development, which also makes learning immediately useful and above all fun.

 

The department does have questions to answer on the open source side, even if the alleged ban on free software is mistaken.

Or even Microsoft's C# (which would have REALLY given the conspiracy theorists a field day): it's widely used in the market, was developed by the same guy (Anders Hejlsberg) who developed Turbo Pascal and Delphi, and shares many advanced features with Java.

Java, though, was the obvious choice, and it's hard not to see Delphi as a step backwards. The department's lengthy document justifying the use of Delphi does explore some of the reasoning, particularly making the case against Java, which mostly seems to hinge around the latter being "too complicated", and Delphi being regarded as "the world's best RAD tool". Such claims will do nothing to appease the critics.

Are we teaching or training?

The question of which tools are chosen are less important than they might seem. In theory, students should be learning skills which can be applied in other packages just as readily, not being trained in specific environments.

But we know that South Africa has a tremendous IT skills gap – we simply don't have enough learners. The onus is on the DBE to increase the reach of the CAT and IT programmes, and to ensure their curricula are suitable: up to date, relevant, accurate, and objective. And we need resources and competent teachers.

 

Java was the obvious choice, and it’s hard not to see Delphi as a step backwards.

Whether we use MS Office or Delphi does matter, but not as much as getting the core curriculum right, but while it's easy for an armchair pundit to rail about MS Office versus OpenOffice, it's harder to read the actual curricula and comment on them (here they are: CAT and IT).

And, of course, actually getting textbooks to students. That's the crux of it. There may be better languages than Delphi, and there may be arguments for or against Microsoft Office, but those arguments pale in the light of cold harsh reality: the standard of our basic education, particularly in the sciences, is abysmal. We need a deep systemic overhaul, and we need the support of the commercial sector to raise our game. The DPE knows this, and is working to improve ICT education, but it needs closer scrutiny.