iSchools advocates Open Source amid Pressures, DepEd’s Microsoft involvemen

by: Angelo Kairos Torres Dela Cruz

The iSchools Project — the country’s most comprehensive government funded ICT-in-education program – affirms its ever growing support and advocacy for open source software despite external pressures to use proprietary programs such as Microsoft Windows and MS Office. The project is responsible for empowering 1,000 public high schools (PHS) with top-of-the-line computer laboratories installed with the much-debated EdUbuntu, an open source operating system.

What’s the debate all about?

Since word hit that the iSchools Project opted to go open source, different institutions have pressured the project to reconsider and review this policy. Are their comments an indictment of the project’s choice to go open source? Is the project intimidated? No. Instead, iSchools would just like to share the reasons behind the project’s decision to stand by open source as its flagship software choice.

As a part of the project’s very own checks and balance design, the Monitoring and Evaluation Team (M&E) conducted a series of focused group discussions (FGD) as the project approaches its turn over in December 2011. The FGD series closed in on key points such as the project’s continuing advocacy to use open source software to improving ICT education integration in the Philippines.

The project’s latest FGD series is composed of three runs for Luzon and Mindanao. The runs were participated in by 70 randomly selected ICT coordinators and principals from iSchools recipient schools.

It is no secret, iSchools Project is having problems with Microsoft’s (a leading proprietary software developer) involvement with its major government partner, the Department of Education (DepEd). In all FGD runs, the participants said the pressure to use proprietary software comes from the Microsoft-specific curriculum designed for DepEd. The participants pointed out that DepEd policies, recommendations, even some of its rules require the participants to use Microsoft operating system and office programs.

The participants made it clear that DepEd’s policy of molding their ICT curriculum solely around Microsoft Windows renders EdUbuntu and other free open source programs incompatible with the learning skills of both the teacher and students.

In the same runs, the participants shared that regardless of iSchools provided trainings in utilizing open source programs, teachers and students are still choosing to use proprietary programs because internet shops in their communities are using proprietary software, which are dominantly Microsoft. The worst cases reveal that participants say that some of their co-workers see open source software as inefficient and impossible to learn given that they are exposed to proprietary software all their lives.

The iSchools PMO realized that something needs to be done to break away from a policy threatening to stagnate the gains made towards an ICT-enabled public education system. A teacher from Vigan highlighted the situation with a statement,“Since gumagastos naman na kayo ng 500,000 pesos bakit di pa kayo nagsama ng license?” (Why can’t you provide licensed software, given that you are already spending P500,000?).

The participant alluded to the estimated cost of an iSchools computer laboratory, while furthering the growing misconception that proprietary software such as Microsoft is better than open source software.

His revelation challenged the project to stand steadfast in its decision to use open source. In the same way, his comments strengthened the project’s resolve that Filipinos need to be informed about the benefits of using open source software.

“If teachers and students are having problems using open source word processing software such as OpenOffice or LibreOffice and claim that they are proficient in Microsoft Word, they are not learned in word processing; they are simply loyal to the brand and not to the concept and skills of word processing”, according to former CICT Commissioner Boying Lallana, in the latest Software Freedom Day celebration.

This truth bothers people who push for a universal adaptation of Microsoft-specific software. FGD participants admitted that they have no choice but to use pirated software just for the sake of complying with directives.

They are committing crimes in situations with other plausible solutions. If only they knew open source software.

Through the FGD results, iSchools proudly walks with ICT giants as one of the most pronounced government advocate of open source. As a result, the project saved at least P42 million from EdUbuntu alone. This computation is still conservative. Savings from other programs such as anti-virus and media processing applications are not yet included.

Still the project is anxious with the future of this advocacy as it approaches turnover to DepEd. iSchools PMO can only hope that DepEd would at least consider the advantages of using open source for its future ICT for education endeavors.