|This is not a PC, this is a weapon to enslave your child forever.|
The MicroSoft Corporation's Chairman Mr. Bill Gates has recently announced a bounty of Rs. 2,000/- Crores for the teaching of ``Information Technology'' in Indian schools. Quite ``naturally'' this is tied to the use of MicroSoft's software in Indian schools. In this article I will critically examine the latter aspect of this gift from the perspective of one interested in seeing his daughter and other children around the world educated well.1I do not see the possibility of our spurning or ignoring this award. Yet, I wish to show here why we should approach this gift with some caution and use it carefully.
I have been an advocate of Free (as in Freedom) Software for a long time. Thus I have my own biases. However, I feel that the reasons outlined below are sufficient to show that the exclusive use of MicroSoft software in schools will be harmful to children--in India and elsewhere. While MicroSoft is not alone in having the flaws outlined below, there is software outside of MicroSoft that does not have these flaws. Unfortunately, (and such is the power of this financial behemoth) these flaws are being seen as things to emulate by some of MicroSoft's competitors.
Before going ahead I wish to state my underlying assumption. Education means helping children to grow into creative adults. Not necessarily as ``artists'' or ``scientists'' in the accepted sense of these terms, but in the sense of being creative in adapting to the changing environment. This would be a natural assumption for those who dictate educational policy. One ignores at one's own peril, however, the voice of those who see education as a means of certification to obtain lucrative jobs. To such a viewpoint I offer the thought that re-engineering oneself is critical in today's rapidly changing job market. While teaching the trendy adult skills applicable in today's (adult) job market, should we ignore the possiblity that these skills will be commonplace or even useless tomorrow?2
The theory of treating children as ``little people'' was thoroughly discredited many years ago. However, much of today's user-friendly software is designed with today's computer illiterate adult in mind. With the commercial desire to sell computers as a commodity it became imperative for the manufacturers to find some way to get the folks who are hardened in their ways (i. e. adults) to use it. The MicroSoft tools are a shining example of this philosophy. It is perhaps not surprising that most computer literate adults are non-MicroSoft users and vice versa! Thus we should definitely think about whether the MicroSoft tools encourage computer literacy or put one in a strait-jacket confined by the needs of today's adult.
The tools developed and promoted by MicroSoft encourage the child to interact with the computer through ``point and click''. Thus the computer becomes a purely ``spatial'' tool. Indeed because of the use of those pictograms (called ``icons'') or very graphic games (called ``computer video games'') it is a very crude such tool at that. Spatial skills are best learnt by handling real objects; physical skills and reflexes are best learnt by playing real sports. The computer is primarily a tool for abstraction. Children should be exposed to the verbal and the visual aspect of the use of the computer; just like we teach them to draw and write. The latter are techniques by which a child learns to abstract things and put them on paper; the computer should be seen likewise. The skill of holding a pen or brush correctly has little to do with the imagination or logical thought (as in prespective or geometrical drawings) that are required to write and draw corectly.
On the other hand, the ``point and click'' interface encourages the ``ad hoc'' as opposed to the ``logical''. The use of ``readymades'' discourages the use of the imagination. MicroSoft tools always emphasize the ``presentation'' aspect of writing/creating over its logical structure (why program the computer when MicroSoft gives you little installable ``applets''?), or its imaginative content (which you are encouraged to download from the internet!).
The third reason has to do with discipline through ``authority'' versus ``self-discipline''. The MicroSoft tools actively discourage you from looking beyond the box or even beyond the interface. There is a big ``do not tamper'' sign which means that children are encouraged to accept authority instead of thinking for themselves. The few children who try to get the computer and its software to do things that are beyond the obvious run the risk of being (pejoratively) termed ``hackers'' and perhaps even disbarred from use of the computer by school authorities, who will be afraid of being charged by the ``Video/Software Piracy Unit'' of the local police department. Isn't it altogether better to teach children how to ``explore'' without ``tampering'', how to fix things when they don't work as desired or ``break''?3
The final reason has to do with ``social'' versus ``selfish''. The entire philosophy of the MicroSoft toolset emphasizes only the individualistic aspect of creativity. From the ``non-sharing'' principle built into the licensing terms of their software, to the ``non-shareable'' aspect of most files and documents that are created by the MicroSoft tools. Once one uses MicroSoft tools all of one's (digital) creations--documents, pictures, audio, video--could get tied down to the use of MicroSoft tools ``forever''. For every such digital creation MicroSoft has worked away from the consensus that rules the rest of the internet. MicroSoft have their own format for each of these--formats that are not part of public knowledge, and can often be used only with MicroSoft tools.
MicroSoft has never been (and by all indications will probably never be) a ``team player''. One's own philosophy is often dictated by the tools one uses. It is not unnatural therefore for a child to adopt this ``I, me, mine'' principle from MicroSoft. Do we teach a child that she can be in the cricket team if she buys the school its cricketing gear?
More importantly, this has a financial angle to it. If we teach our children only the use of MicroSoft tools, they will find it very difficult to migrate to the use of other (non-MicroSoft) tools. If you ask system administrators the world over, interoperability with MicroSoft is one of the biggest headaches that faces computer users; perhaps even dwarfing the so-called ``security threats''. A lot money has to be spent (and paid to MicroSoft) to keep buying tools for reading and viewing files created with MicroSoft tools.
Can a country as large as India afford to commit itself ``forever'' to the purchase of MS tools for a younger generation trained to work only within these boundaries? I think not.
It would indeed be foolish of us to refuse this booty of Rs. 2000 crores. At the same time I hope it is clear to those who have read this far that it is equally foolish to allow this horse become a ``white elephant''! It is possible for us to make use of a bare-bones MicroSoft Windows system with non-MicroSoft tools (e. g. see www.imsc.res.in/~kapil/gnuwin/). As numerous writers have explained elsewhere4 it is even possible (if we so desire) to avoid MicroSoft software entirely. Not even the sky is the limit5 if we make full use of the bounty that is available on the internet rather than the small part that is visible only through MicroSoft's Windows!