Letter to Northlink FET College

Copy of the letter I hand posted and e-mailed to Northlink FET College on 19 September 2009 – no reply received

19 September 2009

The Chief Executive Officer

Northlink FET College

Private Bag X1



Dear Mr Leon Beech



I was motivated to send this letter for two reasons. The first reason being that 19 September is the international day for celebrating Software Freedom Day, and the second reason being that my girlfriend is studying at Northlink FET College Tygerberg Campus and I was surprised to hear that she must have her own “copy” of Microsoft Office for her Computer Practice subject next year. As an unemployed student how is she supposed to source a legal copy of this software without great expense and how will she install it on her Linux OS PC at home? It would be great if students could be taught the concepts of wordprocessing etc on software that they could freely use and share with family and friends. It would also demonstrate to them that it is about learning concepts and not about learning one particular product. It would show them that there are other options. The South African government has approved an open source and open standards policy at National Cabinet level, and the intent behind this policy was precisely to open up the market to alternative choices, to allow us to collaborate using open standards (and different products), and most importantly to improve our skills in the use of such software to make our workforce more competitive. The vision behind this is to create more local employment by spending government and the private sector’s funding on local services instead of on international licensing costs. Surely FET Colleges would want to see their students employed one day in providing such services? It is Catch 22 to achieve this vision, and as citizens we look to FET Colleges especially to break this deadlock by unleashing such skills into the market.

There are many very mature open source products available, that if our students were able to grasp the essentials of supporting, they would help government and private sector spend their funding rather on support services instead of on the purchase of expensive licensing. Government as well as private sector often say they cannot implement open source because who will they find locally to support it…….. FET Colleges may want to look at Moodle, Open Office, Joomla, Drupal, Alfresco, KnowledgeTree, OpenProj, GIMP, Inkscape, Zimbra, etc. A student could start up a business supporting one or more of these products with little to no financial outlay at all. The barrier to entry into the market is very low.

I hope this letter will be seen as constructive criticism. Personally I’m very impressed with what the FET Colleges are achieving and I believe they are providing a very valuable service to the community and to industry. I sincerely hope the FET Colleges grow in strength and that they are able to only keep building on these successes.

The following part of this letter was sourced from https://web.archive.org/web/20100612223938/http://softwarefreedomday.org/openletter/education/en.

Are we educating or training?

It is appropriate for a business to standardize on a hardware or software platform, but multi-platform computing is ideal in an educational environment. If we want children to learn concepts and not products, we should teach them using diverse platforms (Windows, Mac, and Linux) and diverse software (MS Office, Open Office, Abiword, Apple Works(?)). Teaching concepts is education; teaching products is training.

What’s current is passé

We need to look beyond the currently dominant business practices to determine which products we should have and teach in our schools, and we need to educate our children instead of training them. The very first version of MS Office was released in 1989, and now millions of professionals — who were already out of school then — use it every day. There is no reason not to teach using up-and-coming technologies such as Open Office, which may well dominate the professional world of the future. (The state government of Massachusetts, for example, is committed to migrating by January, 2007 to the document format used by Open Office.) Such a shift in focus from MS Office to Open Office, which is free, can save the district thousands of dollars which can then be put toward obtaining more computers and equipment or personnel. Even if the district doesn’t want to incorporate Open Office in the curriculum at this point, at least computers without MS Office should be supplied with Open Office (fast computers) or the Abi office tools (Abiword and others) to increase access to productivity applications.

Better use of existing resources

MS Windows carries with it a requirement for fast, new hardware. Linux, an alternative operating system, does not carry this same overhead and can therefore be used to resurrect very old hardware and provide much greater amounts of high quality, as-good-as-new computing resources to students and teachers. In particular, thousands of organizations around the world are using the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP) to accomplish this goal. In many cases these organizations are able to make use of “old”, donated computers from businesses, and these machines (whose hard disks can be removed) are put directly into use and into the hands of the people who need them. The maintenance overhead of an LTSP network is minuscule per workstation in comparison to a regular network because the clients can easily have no moving parts whatsoever, so hardware failures are rare. In addition, all the software lives on the LTSP server, so software installation and updates are completely centralized. All of this software is free.

Family involvement

One valuable thing we can do to foster parental involvement is supply free copies of all the school’s educational software to families for use in their homes. This encourages interested students to continue learning at home; this encourages and enables interested parents to become involved by having direct access to the technology their children use at school. Furthermore, this would make it even easier for children to do work at home and then submit that work via email, a floppy disk, a USB drive, or a CDR, because teachers will have the same software on their computers at school. Fortunately, there is a wide variety of Free Open Source Software online to accomplish these goals. For example, TheOpenCD (https://theopencd.org) is available for free download and redistribution, and it includes state-of-the-art software applications such as Open Office (replaces MS Office), the Gnu Image Manipulation Program (replaces Photoshop), and NVU (replaces MS Front Page). If our school district begins to widen the scope of our technology offerings, we can simultaneously increase the involvement of parents and families and decrease the frustrations of document format incompatibilities. (And what parent won’t be thrilled to find that she has no need to spend hundreds of dollars on MS Office, because the school has provided Open Office for free?)

Teaching programming

Using Open Source programming languages in the computer science classroom makes state-of-the-art languages — and code! — available. Students taught to program using any proprietary product (such as Visual Basic) will only be able to do their work at school. Students taught using Open Source languages and environments can take their work home with them. Furthermore, the primary activity of a software engineer isn’t writing brand-new code, it is analysing existing code and modifying it. There is a vast amount of very well-written Free Open Source Software code (anything mentioned in this letter, for example) available to teach programming and engineering the way they are actually done. For example, Jeff Elkner’s been using Python(see https://www.python.org/workshops/2000-01/proceedings/papers/elkner/pyYHS.html) in his classroom since 2000!

Yours Sincerely,

Danie van der Merwe;