Τετάρτη, 26 Δεκεμβρίου 2012

Regarding Greek Ministry of education's public advisory about a school laptops program

A subject that caused quite a reaction in the Greek FOSS community lately, is the latest public advisory (in Greek) from the Ministry of Education, regarding an upcoming call for tenders for purchasing 26400 laptops for the 1760 high schools of the country.

After initial reactions in the mailing lists, some Greek FOSS organizations namely EELLAK (letter, in Greek) and GreekLUG (letter, in Greek) posted their comments, protesting mainly about the following:



The process of the public advisory itself.

Instead of using already established facilities for public advisories (http://www.opengov.gr/en/) the ministry prefered to just put the proposed text on its page and ask for comments by email and FAX(!!). The promise was that the comments will be uploaded to the same webpage but "after the fact", i.e., there was no way to respond to a comment before the advisory ends. This didn't inspire any confidence that the process will be fair and that input from the citizens will really be taken into account.
(Luckily at least they did keep this promise as you can see in the advisory page, which did lead into some interesting insights we will mention later and in the next post).

The fact that there was no planning and no public consultation with the teachers before the proposal. 

For example the only reasonable argument that I could find for buying laptops, is a response to a comment in an online newspaper article (in Greek and the comment is hidden even):

"η προμήθεια σχολικών Η/Υ και μάλιστα φορητών είναι απαραίτητη γιατί από του χρόνου το μάθημα της πληροφορικής θα γίνει 2ώρο εβδομαδιαία πράγμα που σημαίνει ότι θα χρειαστούν νέες αίθουσες - εργαστήρια, πράγμα ανέφικτο στα περισσότερα σχολικά κτίρια."

Translation: "Buying portable school computers is necessary, because from next year the lesson of informatics is going to be weekly (2 hours) which means that new rooms will be needed as labs, which is impossible to achieve in most school buildings right now".

Of course this is just a comment from someone who appears to be a highschool teacher and not an official statement, but at least it sounds believable. Still it doesn't appear to be the case for the area I live in and no statistics were offered to prove this.

The problem is that the budget for this project is 15.382.113,82 € before tax and will provide 26400 computers for 1760 highschools. So, 15 computers per school and ~583 euros average cost per computer without tax, in which we include the extra equipment laptops need (special cabinets to store them, wifi networking equipment etc) and needed software.

Now, according to Greek law and related order the theoretical limit in number of students per class appears to be 25 + 10% tolerance and according to 2011 statistics (unfortunately the official statistics are hard to find thus the link is to an article of a Greek newspaper commenting on them) 742 from 4263 classes in Attica (17.4%) have more than 26 students and 2.746 (64,4%) have from 21-25 students. This means that just in the area of the capital, 81.8% of the classes have more than 21 students.

So, with simple math, those 15.4 million won't allow one computer per student in the high schools of Greece. This is a significant reason why we are shouting as a community.

In addition, this concept of "mobile IT labs" was tested recently in primary schools and not all experiences have been positive apparently. According to a comment in another article for the same subject, by Andreas, apparently also a teacher:

"Κατα την ταπεινή μου άποψη άλλα και εφαρμογή του προγράμματος στα δημοτικά σχολεία συνεχίζεται μια αποτυχημένη προσέγγιση στον εξοπλισμό των σχολείων
Και εξηγώ:
1)την πρώτη χρονιά γύρναγα από αίθουσα σε αίθουσα με το ερμάριο και σε όλους τους ορόφους όταν ήμουν τυχερός και δούλευε το ασανσέρ. Αλήθεια έχουν όλα τα γυμνάσια ασανσερ και αν ναι λειτουργεί;
2)αρκετά λεπτά της εκπαιδευτικής διαδικασίας χαμένα για στησιμο - ξεστήσιμο
3)είναι εξαιρετικά δύσκολο να προγραμματίσεις τη σωστή φόρτιση της μπαταρίας ώστε όλοι οι υπολογιστές να είναι διαθέσιμοι τις διδακτικές ώρες. Αποτέλεσμα: ο χρόνος ζωής της μπαταρίας μικρός και το κόστος αντικαταστασής της υψηλό. Την δεύτερη χρονία σε δημοτικό οι μπαταρίες δεν αντεχαν πάνω από μιση με μια ώρα οπότε αναγκάστηκα να στήσω τα μηχανήματα σε σταθερή τροφοδοσία σε μια μικρή αίθουσα που ευτυχώς βρέθηκε στο σχολείο
4)σε πολλά δημοτικά που έχουν την τυχη να έχουν σταθερό εργαστήριο σε οργανωμένη αίθουσα τα laptop μαραζώνουν κλειδωμένα στα ερμάρια
και αλλα πολλα ....."

Translation:
"In my humble opinion and experience of applying this to primary schools, this is the continuation of a failed approach in school equipment. In more detail:
1) The first year I was going from classroom to classroom pulling the computer cabinet in every floor when I was lucky and elevator was working. Do all the highschools [in Greece] have working elevators I wonder ...

2) Several minutes from learning process were wasted in setup/teardown of equipment.

3) It becomes exceptionally difficult to plan the correct battery charge so that all computers will be fully available during class hours. The result is that the battery lifetime is small and the cost to replace them is high. The second year in my primary school the batteries wouldn't last over half to one hour so I had to plug the laptops permanently in a small room that we luckily found at the school.

4) In several of the primary schools that were in fact lucky enough to have a "fixed" computer lab in a proper classroom the laptops are just collecting dust locked inside the cabinets

And many more [similar arguments] ..."

Other arguments were that laptops don't have any Greek-built added value in general (they are assembled in Asia / Eastern Europe most of the time) and that they are typically hard to repair. Most of the time if something breaks the cheapest solution is to replace the whole computer which according to the above calculations, is not such a cheap proposition (especially with current Greek economy).

That the specifications seemed overly biased towards Microsoft-oriented solutions despite requirement for dual-boot.

Specifically, there was a mention that the office suite must include an email application. This clearly points to MS Office, I can't see any sane reason for which an Office suit needs to include a mail client and a separate one like Thunderbird/Evolution wouldn't do, even if one considers e.g., mail merge functionality. Please don't bring the "but I 'm locked-in to MS Exchange" argument here, since it does not apply in this case.

Secondly, there was no mention about hardware compatibility, no requirement for FOSS drivers for example and all mentioned benchmarking is to be performed under Windows. This again is certainly for no technical reason since we have a benchmarking suite in Linux too and there are even publically available results to compare with.

Thirdly, there was no requirement for upstream support for the Linux distribution to be installed. We should have learned this much from the fiasco of 2009 (an odyssey indeed). Those computers were again dual boot but with no detailed specifications for the Linux part. As expected, providers improvised and mostly put a hacked version of a non-LTS edubuntu (9.04) to those laptops. (Imagine horrible hacks, like setups where when windows were starting for first time they were deleting Linux, installing Linux through Wubi or hacking the "recovery" option in Ubuntu boot menu and replacing it with their own "recovery" idea which meant deleting everything in the Linux partition(!!) and replacing it with a stock version. So if somebody had lost their root password it was possible they would delete all their data by following typical recovery instructions available online!!).

When now (2012), many of those netbooks have become completely unusable in windows (because of viruses, end of support for their peripherals by vendors etc) and people try to use the Linux in them, the 9.04 version of ubuntu is not even in the official archives and even the next version, 9.10 has reached end-of-life now (it is out of the official archives) so they can't easily upgrade anymore ... (and of course re-installing also sounds difficult without screwing up windows in the dual-boot when you are a non-technical person.)

This kind of problem would never have existed if anyone even asked the Greek FOSS societies about these matters before producing specifications. You know, our dear Greek politicians, it is US WHO SUPPORT/HELP THOSE POOR PEOPLE WITH THE PROBLEMS YOU CAUSE WHILE YOU ARE SPENDING OUR (AKA TAXPAYERS') MONEY.

All the above problems caused Linux to remain unused in the laptops of 2009 and even for a bad perception regarding the functionality/stability of this OS to be formed in non-technical public, for purely artificial reasons. We don't want this to happen again, so this time we will shout.

Apparently, it seems that the protest at least was recorded in joinup, the European repository of FOSS-related documents and software, even if I personally find the article there a little lacking wrt details hence this post here.

Our hope is to get a better version of the "call for tenders" text based on the simple principles:
  • Free / Open Source software only, or at the very least not spending any more public money in the proprietary software parts of the deal for licenses. In Greece we already have a school-optimized Linux distribution, officially supported by our teachers with all necessary documentation also available and a vibrant community, used already in about 400 schools, some of which are shown in this map. These schools owe no money to Microsoft or any other multinational for licenses.
  • Evaluate more technologies (desktops, especially refurbished ones, ARM-based thin clients, multi-seat technologies etc) to make sure the optimal deal is achieved (the one with best possible coverage of the students for the given budget, we believe it is possible to achieve 1:1 country-wide with this money). 
  • Split the package into per periphery or per city packages. Since we are just talking about computer sales / installation and support services essentially, there is no fundamental reason for requiring a single supplier. Instead it would be enough to just make detailed specs and let small companies join the competition, after all most of companies in Greece are small (even IT-related ones) so the competition will be much higher among them than among 1-2 big "national suppliers" (therefore you can get better offers and faster implementation). This is easy to support by mentioning the comments of one of those big suppliers, infoquest which essentially asks for more money, more time, or less schools to benefit from the program:
(quoting their comments:

1. "Η χρονική διάρκεια υλοποίησης του έργου είναι αρκετά μικρή 
δεδομένης της γεωγραφικής διασποράς, του πλήθους των σχολικών μονάδων ανά περιφέρεια στις οποίες θα εγκατασταθεί ο ζητούμενος εξοπλισμός, καθώς και των διακοπών και αργιών κατά την διάρκεια της σχολικής χρονιάς. Επιπλέον,οι εγκαταστάσεις θα είναι καλό να πραγματοποιούνται κατά την διάρκεια που δεν πραγματοποιείται μάθημα στις σχολικές μονάδες,κάτι που συνεπάγεται ότι θα χρειαστεί  χρονικό διάστημα μεγαλύτερο της μίας ημέρας για να ολοκληρωθεί η εγκατάσταση σε κάθε μία από αυτές.Προτείνουμε την αύξηση της διάρκειας υλοποίησης του έργου κατά 6μήνες", emphasis mine, where they ask for 6 months more time from the 2 years of the inital planning.

2. "Ο προϋπολογισμός του έργου κρίνεται ιδιαίτερα χαμηλός λαμβάνοντας υπόψη τη
ζητούμενη ποσότητα του προσφερόμενου εξοπλισμού , τις απαιτούμενες υπηρεσίες
υλοποίησης καθώς και την γεωγραφική διασπορά του έργου.
Προτείνουμε την αύξηση του προϋπολογισμού ή την μείωση της ζητούμενης
ποσότητας μέσω μείωσης των σχολικών μονάδων στις οποίες θα γίνει η
εγκατάσταση των κινητών εργαστηρίων.", again emphasis mine they ask for either more money or less schools.
)

Of course Microsoft itself wouldn't be absent from the commenting process but their comments deserve a post of their own since this one has already gotten too long. Btw PEKAP, association of IT teachers, also commented supporting the argument that the existing FOSS-based initiatives for Greek schools should be utilized. This is their letter (again in Greek).

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