Normally I would avoid to post something political here, and I would avoid it twice when this concerns just one single country, in this case my country Greece.
In a country that suffers from huge financial problems, the choice of the Greek Ministry of Education to buy MS products for schools and leave some students without computers (without proper education) just because the money is not enough, is outrageous.
The original post was published in osarena.net which is the most popular site for open source in Greece and maintains good relationships with all Greek FOSS Communities. The author is Pantelis Koukousoulas member of the Ubuntu Greek Community, among others.
We republish because we support his initiative to go against the “flow” and we hope this isn’t just one more opinion in the wall.
1. 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 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):
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:
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:
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).
2. 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.
“Before we proceed with our comments, we would like to suggesta 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 Hellaswithout 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 about:
“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?.
“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.
“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: 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: 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:
“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. 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. 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.
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:
“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.