Τετάρτη, 26 Δεκεμβρίου 2012

Debating Microsoft comments for Greek Ministry of Education 26400 laptops program

This post hopefully completes my view on the issue of the "public advisory" for purchasing 26400 laptops for the high schools of Greece, so that I can return to my regular projects.

As I mentioned in the previous post, Microsoft also commented (in Greek) in this public advisory. Unfortunately, due to the regrettably closed process of this advisory, it was impossible to respond timely to these comments, so the only option left is to do it now, through this post and hopefully others will join the discussion as well.

Quoting MS:
"Προτού προχωρήσουμε στην παράθεση των σχολίων μας , θα θέλαμε
να προτείνουμε την πραγματοποίηση συνάντησης μεταξύ των στελεχών
του Υπουργείου και της Microsoft Ελλάς για να συζητηθεί περαιτέρω η
πρόταση μας που μπορεί να αποφέρει σημαντικά οικονομικά οφέλη στο
Υπουργείο Παιδείας και σημαντικά πλεονεκτήματα στην ορθή και
αποτελεσματική χρήση της τεχνολογίας στην εκπαιδευτική διαδικασία για την
επίτευξη του βέλτιστου παιδαγωγικού αποτελέσματος. Είναι προφανές ότι για ένα
τέτοιο τεράστιας σημασίας έργο με αντικείμενο την προμήθεια εξοπλισμού /
λογισμικού που θα αποτελέσει την βάση στην στην άσκηση της εκπαιδευτικής
πολιτικής τα επόμενα χρόνια , η απλή παράθεση σχολίων δεν μπορεί να
αντικαταστήσει το διάλογο και να αποδώσει στο μέγιστο τις οποιαδήποτε προτάσεις."

"Before we proceed with our comments, we would like to suggest
a meeting between the executives of the Ministry and Microsoft Hellas
to further discuss our proposal that can bring significant financial
benefits to the Ministry of Education as well as significant advantages
to the proper and effective use of technology in the educational
process in order to achieve the optimal educational outcome. It is
obvious that for a project of such huge importance regarding the
supply of hardware and software which will be the basis of of
educational policy the next years, just offering comments cannot
substitute dialogue and to present optimally whichever suggestions".

Now, I don't want to make any a priori judgement of our current government since I don't have any facts whether this meeting actually happened or not. But, it certainly can't be debated that at least in terms of citizen's perception of government corruption (corruption perception index / CPI) Greece is in a regrettably high position in the list. I would like to ask every intelligent reader of this blog, what do you think, did this request of Microsoft Hellas without any public response from the Ministry so far increase your perception of corruption in the Greek government or not?

If the advisory process was an open one like we asked and had the ministry responded with a BIG FAT NO to Microsoft's "closed doors" meeting request proposing instead a public, recorded and open debate with other parties that might ask to participate, the overall citizen perception of corruption would have been that much lower. You know, it is called public advisory for a reason. We are the country where democracy was invented for god's sake.

But let's move on with the comments, shall we? Let's see what Microsoft complains

"A3. Aποκλεισμός του Microsoft Office 

Το πρώτο σημαντικό θέμα είναι ότι με τις τρέχουσες προτεινόμενες προδιαγραφές, αποκλείεται – με έμμεσο τρόπο - η δυνατότητα παροχής του Microsoft Office στους μαθητές και καθηγητές της ελληνικής πρωτοβάθμιας και δευτεροβάθμιας εκπαίδευσης. Λόγω της μειοδοτικής φύσης των
διαγωνισμών και του τρόπου διατύπωσης των προδιαγραφών οι υποψήφιοι ανάδοχοι θα οδηγηθούν αποκλειστικά σε προσφορές λογισμικού αυτοματισμού γραφείου ΕΛ/ΛΑΚ τόσο στο boot/partition των Windows 7 όσο και στο boot/partition του ανοιχτού λογισμικού (Linux)."

"A3. Exclusion of Microsoft Office
The first important issue is that with current proposed specs, the ability to offer Microsoft Office to the students and teachers of the Greek first and second-level education is hindered - indirectly. Specifically, because the criterion is the lowest price and because of the way the specs were written the candidate suppliers will be lead exclusively into offers of FOSS office automation software both in the boot/partition of Windows 7 and in the boot/partition of open source software (Linux)."

(Of course the advisory is about high-schools so only second level. Why Microsoft thinks primary schools are included is beyond me).

So, despite the fact that there was the already almost photographic requirement that an email client should be included in the Office suite (again, please come up with a technically valid, non-photographic reason for this requirement) Microsoft is complaining for unfairness because the competition's price is lower and the specifications not photographic enough!!! Hint to MS: Why don't you just also lower your prices instead of complaining?.

"Πιστεύουμε ότι το λογισμικό Microsoft Office, το οποίο αποτελεί το πιο συχνά χρησιμοποιούμενο λογισμικό αυτοματισμού γραφείου στην ελληνική και παγκόσμια αγορά εργασίας & στον εκπαιδευτικό χώρο, αλλά και επιλογή του Υπουργείου τα προηγούμενα έτη με σημαντική επένδυση στην επιμόρφωση χιλιάδων καθηγητών, μπορεί να προσφέρει σημαντικά χαρακτηριστικά ενίσχυσης της εκπαιδευτικής διαδικασίας."

"We believe that Microsoft Office software, which is the most often used office automation software in Greek and worldwide employment market & education and also has been the choice of the Ministry the previous years with a significant investment in education of thousands of teachers, can offer significant characteristics in advancing educational process."

This is well known in the FOSS community as the Microsoft FUD argument (fear, uncertainty, doubt). First of all, in technology and especially in computing, since everything tends to change so fast, what is the currently most popular solution for something is of relatively small significance. What counts much more are the trends. And the trend in this case is that Microsoft products are becoming irrelevant. This is important in this case since it will take (at least) 2 years to even start using those laptops at schools. Most likely it will be 2.5 or 3. Yet the payment will be now. I don't make any ridiculous claims that Microsoft will be dead as a company by then of course, they are too big for this. But do we really want to pay extra for their products in this case? MS Office being the most popular right now doesn't mean for example LibreOffice can't do the same work for the specific use cases that the Ministry of Education has in mind, or that we can't hack it into shape if there are any important missing features and 2 years is quite ample time for FOSS to improve (the updates are free in LibreOffice so the ones who will have already installed it will also get the most improved version for no extra cost).

As for the "significant investment in training of thousands of teachers", just ask the Greek teachers and let them tell you what they think. The complaint of their organization was that the ministry should take advantage of their initiatives in improving and promoting Linux, not that they want to use MS Office because of their training.

"Αξίζει να σημειωθεί, ότι η χώρα που έχει πετύχει την μεγαλύτερη βελτίωση των δεικτών χρήσης τεχνολογίας στην εκπαίδευση σύμφωνα με τον OECD και τα Pisa Results (Source: www.pisa.oecd.org ), είναι η Πορτογαλία, μέσα από το Project Magellan, το οποίο πραγματοποίησε σε συνεργασία με την Microsoft, χρησιμοποιώντας Windows και Microsoft Office."

"It is worth noting that the country which achieved the greatest improvement of technology use indexes in education according to OECD and Pisa Results (Source: www.pisa.oecd.org), is Portugal, through Project Magellan, which they implemented in collaboration with Microsoft using Windows and Microsoft Office"

I wondered what is Project Magellan and I found this link: http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/One-to-One_Laptop_Schools/Portugal. Some important remarks:

  • Magellan Laptop was a tiny 8.9'' netbook, see the photo. It was sold in prices starting from 0 to 20 to 50 euros depending on financial condition of the student. This allowed most of the children to have their own laptop, even the very poor ones, which is indeed a believable contribution to education. Microsoft Hellas is making no such offer. They even complain about the low price of competing solutions.
  • Those classmate PCs were dual boot as well (MS Windows+Office and Caixa Magica Linux + Open Office). So it sounds odd that Microsoft is asserting that whichever improvement in education resulted was due to their software.
  • "The Magellan Initiative is devised to follow the guidelines of two major companies like Intel and Microsoft. This causes great dependancy in terms of the applications and classroom solutions that are provided to the teachers and students."
  • "According to Publico (2009c), the Portuguese Society of Oftalmologia (SPO) alerter that the use of the Magellan computer can increase myopia cases amongst the children due to the size of the portable device and to the very small letters. Other concerns are related to the possible theft of the Magellan laptops in various locations. The newspaper also reported some serious errors of Portuguese spelling in some applications. For this reason, the government requested the company to make corrections before deploying the laptops."
  • "Another major problem is the delay in the deployment of the Magellan laptops to the schools. According to Publico (2009c), from the 354,000 enrolled students to receive the Magellan through the e-escolinhas program, only 200,000 have the portable computer so far. The Confederation of the Associations of Parents have reported the delays and allegue that the process is run badly. The fact that only certain students in some classrooms have received them, may force them to keep them at home to ensure that all students work under the same conditions. Many of the problems are originated due to the incorrect information filled by the parents or failure to complete the whole application with important information."

So, from my view as an outsider, since in 3rd quarter of 2009 the laptops weren't even in the hands of 154000 of the students and the advice was to not use them in the classroom until everyone has them, it is hard to accept that Microsoft software had anything to do with whichever improvements in Portuguese student skills Pisa observed in 2009-2010. If there was any influence of Project Magellan it is more likely because of the amount of laptops given (increased population coverage) than because of Microsoft.

So, since they aren't proposing to offer their software in such a low price that the laptops of this advisory would end up costing 50 euros or less each, the "Project Magellan" argument is irrelevant.
If nothing else, the only mentions of software I saw were complaints about it.

Let's move on to the next part of their FUD:

"Θα θέλαμε επίσης να επισημάνουμε τον κίνδυνο που υπάρχει με τις τρέχουσες προδιαγραφές, να προμηθευτούν τα σχολεία ως και οκτώ διαφορετικές εκδόσεις από σουίτες αυτοματισμού γραφείου ανοιχτού λογισμικού στο boot των Windows (π.χ. OpenOffice, LibreOffice, KOffice κτλ), το οποίο θα κάνει πολύ δύσκολη την επιμόρφωση των εκπαιδευτικών, την τεχνική υποστήριξη και την συντήρηση αυτών σε θέματα ασφαλείας τα επόμενα έτη."

"We would also like to point out the danger that exists with the current specifications, that the schools will be supplied with up to eight different versions of open source office automation suites in the windows partition (e.g., OpenOffice, LibreOffice, KOffice, etc) which will make the education of instructors, the support and the maintainance in terms of security issues very difficult in the coming years"

First of all this advisory was to select a single supplier. This supplier would also have to support the provided hardware and software for five years. So, excuse me but how stupid would said supplier have to be in order to provide "8 different open source Office suites" and have to support all of them Even if the text of the advisory is to be revised according to our suggestions (unlikely and MS couldn't know these suggestions in any case exactly as we didn't know theirs before the advisory ended) and the project is split to regional packages, it only makes sense to decide on the exact software that will be supplied first, in a central level.

The reality is that in terms of Greek Language support the only obvious open source choice is LibreOffice right now and it has pretty good support from both upstream and from the local community. So, it is just LibreOffice you are competing against. Therefore, one more argument of Microsoft proves bogus.

Wait, wait there is more! Let's see the argued "advantages" of MS Office:

"1.Ενιαίο λογισμικό για την σωστή και εύκολη χρήση των ∆ιαδραστικών Πινάκων και συσκευών με Οθόνες Αφής"

"1. Unified software for easy and correct use of Interactive Whiteboards and touch screen devices"

Hello? We don't have such devices and no purchase of Interactive whiteboards or touchscreen devices is proposed in this advisory. Is this a copy-paste from somewhere else?

"2.Χρήση από πρωτοπόρα και παγκοσμίως βραβευμένα ελληνικά σχολεία"

"2. Use from innovative and worldwide award-winning Greek schools"

They mean the private ones. Hint: the allegedly underperforming public schools
were also using Microsoft technologies almost exclusively until recently, so there
is no indication that Microsoft software helped the private ones in any way in
their achievements. Bogus argument once more.

"Αξιοποίηση της επένδυσης όσον αφορά στην επιμόρφωση εκπαιδευτικών σχετικά με την χρήση των ΤΠΕ στην εκπαίδευση και στην δημιουργία των σχολικών εργαστηρίων. Από το 2000 έως και σήμερα, στα πλαίσια έργων τόσο της ΚτΠ όσο και του και ΕΣΠΑ, περίπου 115.000 εκπαιδευτικοί έχουν αποκτήσει βασικές γνώσεις χρήσης Η/Υ, έχοντας εκπαιδευτεί σε προγράμματα όπως Windows XP, MS Word, MS Excel, MS Powerpoint, MS Outlook Express. Οι γνώσεις αυτές έχουν αξιοποιηθεί για την εκμετάλλευση της υπολογιστικής υποδομής των σχολικών εργαστηρίων που έχουν δημιουργηθεί τα τελευταία χρόνια σε όλη την Ελλάδα. Η μη δυνατότητα χρήσης του Microsoft Office στους νέους υπολογιστές απαξιώνει τις επενδύσεις που έχουν γίνει στην εκπαίδευση των καθηγητών και στερεί από την πλειοψηφία των εκπαιδευτικών, που αναμφισβήτητα έχουν γνώσεις MS Office, την δυνατότητα να παράγουν αποτελεσματικό εκπαιδευτικό υλικό για τους μαθητές τους."

"Valuing the investment wrt training the instructors regarding basic use of ICT in education and creation of school labs. From 2000 until today during projects of both "Information Society" and National Development Framework (ESPA) about 115000 teachers have been trained in basic computer use by receiving training in software such as Windows XP, MS Word, MS Excel, MS Powerpoint, MS Outlook Express. This knowledge has been used to take advantage of the computing infrastructure of school labs that were created the last years throughout Greece. Not being able to use Microsoft Office in the new computers devalues the existing investments in teacher training and removes from the majority of educators - who undoubtedly have knowledge of MS Office, the ability to produce effective training materials for their students".

FUD, FUD, FUD continues. The very simple argument is that all this training was for MS Office 2000-2003 and Microsoft is now suggesting Microsoft Office 2010 which is more different that MS Office 2000 than LibreOffice is. So, it is with Microsoft that the training is wasted, much more than with LibreOffice.

The narration goes on and on like this with in my opinion bogus arguments (please ask for any of them that you want debated in the comments) and they even ask that the ministry should also specify some central monitoring system for 45000 and then 150000 computers (this advisory is for 26400 laptops, how they calculated the 150000 number is again a mystery, in my view they just ask more money).

So, let's get to the "juicy stuff". How do they suggest that the text should be amended wrt Office suites:

"Για το Λειτουργικό σύστημα I
Ελληνικό λογισμικό εφαρμογών αυτοματισμού γραφείου MS-Office ProPlus
Academic ή ισοδύναμο, με πλήρη υποστήριξη ελληνικών (συλλαβισμός,
ορθογραφικός έλεγχος, θησαυρός), με δυνατότητα μεταφερσιμότητας σε
άλλο υπολογιστή για το σύνολο των προσφερόμενων αδειών."

"For Operating system I (translator's note: they mean for the windows partition)
Greek software of office automation applications MS-Office ProPlus Academic or
equivalent, with full support of Greek (spellchecking, hyphenation, thesaurus),
with ability to transfer the full set of offered licenses to another computer.

So, they want the text to prescribe their software, which I believe is illegal.
"Or equivalent" is a legal loophole in EU that certainly doesn't apply in this case,
you can read more about this  in the speech of Mathieu Paapst from this year's EOLE event.

Unfortunately as mentioned above, there was no official response to any of the
comments from the ministry and given the above illustrated high CPI in Greece,
my confidence as a citizen that such a response is forthcoming is low. My hope
is that by writing those two posts in English will help us draw attention of the
subject as this is the only way we have available for improving the situation
in Greece right now.

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