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Linux vs. Microsoft is the most useless debate in ICT4D

By Wayan Vota on May 25, 2012

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At an ICT4Edu conference in Kyrgyzstan, I was treated to a yelling match between technologists and educators on the brilliance or foolishness of installing Linux-based computers in the Mega Билим project. All the usual arguments for and against Open Source came up.

Ubuntu Linux is free, virus resistant, and Open Source, which means volunteers could translate the user interface into Kyrgyz language. Yet teachers were trained on Microsoft Windows and students need to know Microsoft Office to get a job.

It doesn’t matter

Typically, the hard-core software developers demanded that schools should use Open Source so that students could learn how the software works and the developers could customize it, all without paying royalties to Microsoft or run afoul of intellectual property rights violations.

None of these reasons are worthy to choose Linux. If students are interested in software code, they can always go to the DOS prompt in Windows or run Scratch. The Kyrgyz Windows 7 Language Interface Pack was released over a year ago, and Windows 7 PC’s are competitively priced in the local computer stores.

No, it really doesn’t matter

Educators stressed that teachers already had extensive training on Windows software and would be confused, even lost, in the Linux environment. Students who learned Linux and LibreOffice would be at a disadvantage in the job marketplace as employers would only hire staff that are fluent in Microsoft applications.

Neither of these are valid reasons to choose Microsoft. All of the adults in the conference learned how to use computers back when Windows 98 was in vogue, some even started with Basic, yet no one complains they cannot use an iPhone, iPad, or even MacBook without training. By the time a elementary or middle school student graduates high school, there may not even be “computers” – iPads didn’t exist 3 years ago.

For students in high school, overall attitude and aptitude matters more than specific applications. No employer is going to turn away an energetic, motivated employee because they didn’t study Microsoft Windows 7 in school. In fact, a truly smart student would seek out experience with multiple software environments (operating systems and applications) regardless of the school’s computing infrastructure.

A better debate is…

Rather than wasting time in Microsoft vs. Linux, we should be focusing on what does matter and what is actually a harder question to answer: how can we create (and show) real educational outcomes with ICT? The big challenge is engaging teachers and students to learn math, language, history, etc, better and more efficiently using technology, not which code base we employ to do it.

So please stop debating proprietary or Open Source software. Let us start debating pedagogy, curriculum, and content, and the technology approaches that will help schools the most.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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6 Comments to “Linux vs. Microsoft is the most useless debate in ICT4D”

  1. Tim Denny says:

    Wayan

    You are spot on again… I long ago tired of the silly fights on such issues. While it would be wonderful to have free, the best of everything, I just do not think that is going to happen.

    There remains very good cause for commercial software and at the same time it is wonderful to have a great deal of FOSS available. I use both depending on the task at hand.

    My personal main interest is with the infrastructure side of things. The software applied really depends on what is available and appropriate for the situation. Sometimes it is a commercial software and sometimes it is FOSS.

    Tim

  2. Jon Camfield says:

    I’m going to do my best to not incite a MS-v-Linux shouting match; but I do believe that open source vs proprietary is a valid debate – when you’re looking at the sustainability aspects of the project. Governments do get uncomfortable visits from their friendly local software licensing lawyers, and there is costly lock-in danger for a lot of non-free software. For a decently funded project that will be re-buying their computers every 5 years, give or take, this may not be a challenge – the new computer will come pre-installed, for a minor extra fee, with all the MS and Office programs you’ll need, and they may even be legal versions.

    For a project that’s buying custom-built computers from the guy around the corner and hoping to get 8-10 years of use out of them, doubling or tripling the cost of that computer to add Windows+Office … and opening up a costly path into anti-virus, anti-malware, and ongoing maintenance to remove the various random toolbars, searchbuddies, and porn popups that magically appear over time.

    Now, I would argue that for a real programming learning environment, MS vs Linux really does matter – coding ASP.NET on Linux is a royal pain, and coding, well, anything else on MS is unpleasant to actively nauseating. But for most education outcomes, the technology doesn’t – and shouldn’t – matter. But for a lean budget and long-term or self-sustaining program, the differences bear more scrutiny.

  3. jke says:

    I agree on the “Gettings things done”-point of view, but I also know from experience that a lot of computers deployed to gov / public institutions just don’t work because of a missing data discipline and/or MS-compatible malware which reduces IT-productivity to zero. Or when the OS has to be “activated” and you’re stuck in the African bush – while you’re already surfing the web via umts with the free & open alternative.

    So maybe we’ll still have to invest much more time in stable operating systems and cool apps and then promote these? If it is based on Windows but doesnt come with all the shit Windows has included, I am just fine with such a solution.

  4. Wayan Vota says:

    Jon gives this great guidance on which technology to choose:

    “look at the realistic project lifespan and budget, look at the ongoing maintenance costs for any platform, and your support networks available. Don’t get caught up in OpenOffice vs LibreOffice vs MS Office vs Google Docs/Drive, or whatever the daily this -vs- that debate is. Focus on outcomes and sustainability over the project’s lifespan.”

    http://joncamfield.com/blog/2012/05/technology_cost_outcomes_the

  5. when you look at the ETHICAL side of things. Finally, a good education system must result in human beings who are physically healthy, emotionally stable, intellectually robust and spiritually aware. Windows is pretty good at gaming and Edubuntu is perfect for a remote village school with children who have never touched a computer.

    We all know (subconsciously) that the real driver of the Internet was and still is porn.. and we also know that Bill Gates called his company MicroSoft because.. well.. ask his wife!

    Will somebody please buy my wife an Apple??

  6. ugomatic says:

    Based on experience, I know that the argument can’t be based only on ethical values, but also on pragmatic aspects. What really matters is a local network of support – a cluster of support. And what is appropriate in one environment might be completely inappropriate in another one.

    If you’re in a remote area, and you’re the only one to use an open source OS (or software), you’ll be likely to experience difficulties when something goes wrong. Because something always goes wrong, whether you use proprietary or floss solutions.

    And in my (limited) experience, a sudden power failure on an Ubuntu desktop is more likely to cause trouble compared to Windows.

    But at the same time, as jke says the advantage of never worrying about viruses, malware, etc is tangible. Also, if you think ahead at the cost of scaling-up of initiatives, well..it makes a lot of sense to compare proprietary vs free and open solutions. To deploy (for example) 5 Apple-based video editing simple workstations might not cost much more than using linux. But if you’re thinking of doing 50 in the future, then it’s a different story.