Public schools making MS Office mandatory

Guido Arnold guido at
Thu Apr 7 11:14:14 UTC 2016


I produced a summary of a longer debate on the German discussion
list which addressed a lot of aspects that may be relevant to other
European countries. Please comment here on this list or per PM. The
text below is also available as a blog post [0].

The [1] trigger was a letter that a school kid brought home, informing
the parents that a Windows 10 device with MS Office 2013/2016 will be
made mandatory to participate in class.

As outrageous this sounds for Free Software supporters, I fear that
this is getting common practice throughout Europe and that most
parents accept it with a shrug. I’ll be happy for any feedback
dispelling or confirming this fear.

 Is there a template letter to complain about it?

The original poster asked if there was template letter for such cases
that he could use to inform the school that this practice is not what
he expects from a public body.

Wouldn't it be nice to have such a template or maybe even a booklet of
templates? As English is most commonly understood in Europe, it would
be best to start with an English version and move on with
[2]translations into other languages. In fact, [3]creating a section
with sample letters has been on our wish list for years already! Feel
free to plunge in!

There are currently two versions of the draft: [4]one and [5]two, both
German. (By the way: the FSFE maintains a [6]public Etherpad you can
use for such cases.)

As the last post in the discussion so far, Max shared some brief
findings from the [7]European Free Software Policy Meeting in
Brussels, that it is difficult to “convince” in a letter. It is
important not to exaggerate and point out the benefits of the

 Advocating Free Software or demand our rights?

It was discussed whether the focus of the letter should be to convince
the school that Free Software is a great thing or rather that they are
obliged to leave the minority the right to keep using the systems of
their choice.

Some may argue that the majority is using Windows anyway and simply
won’t care. Does that entitle a public school to force those who do
care to give up their freedom and privacy?

Are we in such a weak position that we have to beg the institutions to
let us use Free Software or is there any legal ground where we can
claim the right to do so?

 Use your right to participate!

Either way, we should make our voice heard more often. During the
course of the discussion, Michael encouraged parents to use their
right to participate in decision making processes in their kids’
schools.  This process is highly regulated in Germany and what parents
can actually do is limited but still, they do have a say on school
matters. How is this done elsewhere in Europe?

 Is this practice even legal?

Public schools force their students/pupils to use a certain operating
system with [8]known back doors, with a certain office suite using a
certain cloud software and various kinds of privacy issues, e.g.:
storing personal data in a different jurisdiction.

Is this practice legal? The answer seems to vary depending on which
federal state in Germany you look at. How is it in your area? Do you
know any rules or laws that would prohibit this kind of practice?

A while back in Switzerland, an [9]expert group recommended to use
Free Software after analysing Microsoft's offer called live at edu back
then due to privacy and lock-in concerns. Data protection law would
prohibit the data collection mentioned in the proposed contract.

 Proposed analogies

To make the problem more transparent to the recipient of the letter,
it was proposed to ask: “What would you say if a teacher forced the
kids to come to the gym with a special model of sneakers?”

It was mentioned that a similar practice is accepted, and even the
default, when it comes to school books. The schools decide what books
will be used in class. Why should it be any different with Software?

  “The Chains of Habit Are Too Light To Be Felt Until They Are Too
Heavy To Be Broken.”

		       [10]Source unknown, sometimes used by Warren

I am grateful to Bernd who pointed out that these analogies are
missing a crucial aspect. What shoes I wear will not change the way I
run and I’ll be as fast with a similar pair of shoes as with the ones
I was asked to buy for class. A certain schoolbook will not change the
way I read nor change my ability to read or understand complex texts
in other books.

Software is fundamentally different. Using a certain software program
defines a certain work flow and way of thinking. Learning a certain
work flow and get effective with it takes time and effort (with any
software).  Almost nobody has the motivation or resources to
constantly change the way to get a routine task done, especially not
if one is already comfortable with one. Just ask a vim user to use

The program I use to do my homework will probably be the same I write
my first job applications with. And the file format will most likely
be the same as well as the place where I save them “in the cloud”.
Forcing pupils to use proprietary software, will push them into the
lock-in trap.

 Equality of opportunity

or the widening “Rich-Poor Achievement Gap” may be another argument
against such practices. What burden may it be for a poor family to
purchase a computer that meets the requirements of Windows 10? They
have to buy that computer. There is no way around it. So, they will
have to relinquish something else like healthy food or family time as
they have to spend more time at work.

 Bad publicity or positive campaigning

One thesis in the discussion was that only bad publicity will make the
school at hand reconsider their practice. FSFE usually tries to follow
a different approach. That doesn't mean we'd ignore bad news and don't
deal with them. The question is: [11]What will make people change
their view? I think it is much more sustainable if the people grasp
the idea and benefits of Free Software instead of just “being forced
to allow it”.

 Point out the learning aspect of using Free Software

Geza suggested to mention the pedagogical angle as well. Free Software
offers diversity, allows to experiment and try out various
alternatives (different editors, programming languages, desktop
environments) and thus leads to a competent self determined and
responsible handling of the opportunities available.

Part of the problem is that teachers usually don't know anything else
than MS products themselves as they've been in the same
creature-of-habit cycle as they are about to push their students.

 Sample lesson with OneNote

Bernd pointed us to a tutorial [12]video how OneNote can be used in
class and had to admit that it looks pretty impressive and that there
is probably no Free Software alternative which would allow a similar
work flow.

Bernd is missing an easy to use alternative. Without these
alternatives, it is difficult to object (object in the sense of
“successfully convince others”).

To create a [13]video that starts a thinking process has been on our
ToDo list for a while.

 Wanted: Show case of Free Software solutions that are actually being

It was mentioned that with a list of programs, the same thing could be
achieved, but it is highly questionable if this zoo of different
applications will ever be used in class.

It is clear that a lot of good stuff can be done with Free Software,
but we need to show to the interested audience that it is practical as
well.  We need you! Do you know somebody using Free Software in class
that is willing to create a presentation? Do you know presentations
that have been given before and were recorded (preferably under a free

Are you aware of any educational institution that teaches on/about
Free Software?

Going-to-be teachers need to see what is possible with Free Software.
It needs to be proven that Free Software can deliver exactly what they

Not necessarily what they think they need. It's not my goal to mimic
OneNote or other proprietary products. At the end, the work flow in
the tutorial wasn't that smooth either.  DG said: “Pupils may not be
nerds but shouldn't be the school the place to learn how to use
digital tools creatively without having a company make a product out
of one particular use case? Until this isn't done in school – teaching
how to use digital tools meaningfully and creatively – the perception
that Free Software is only for nerds will stick.”

Looking forward to your contributions!


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Guido Arnold                       Free Software Foundation Europe    []          Edu team & German team
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