Johannesburg - A decision by the Department of Basic Education to standardise software programs that schools can use for computer-related subjects has been dubbed bizarre and anti-competitive.
A circular the department sent to provincial departments of education, training service providers, independent schools and teacher associations spells out what programs schools must use for computer application technology (CAT) and IT subjects.
Regarding CAT, the circular says from January, the department “will only use Microsoft Office to… implement the CAT curriculum and assess CAT as part of the National Senior Certificate (NSC) examinations (matric exams).”
“The programming language to implement the IT curriculum will be standardised using Delphi,” the circular said.
Currently four provinces – the Western Cape, Northern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga – use Delphi.
The remaining five use Java as their programming language.
This means IT teachers from the five provinces – the Eastern Cape, Limpopo, Gauteng, Free State and the North West – will have to be trained to use Delphi.
Because of the training that is due to take place in these provinces, the introduction of Delphi will happen in phases, starting in January 2015.
By 2016, the matric exams will be done in Delphi.
IT specialist Dr Derek Keats, and co-owner of consulting and software development business Kenga Solutions, said the department’s decision did not make sense because Delphi did not work on a Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) operating systems.
This means schools will not be able to use freely available and varied software programs.
“The worst aspect of Delphi is that it does not work on free software (open source) operating systems… This creates totally unnecessary pressure on schools to have Microsoft operating systems, and gives that particular software license rental company unfair advantage in our schools to the detriment of our children,” he said.
Keats said if the department wanted a standardised approach in the system that can be used, it should choose options that would broaden the system, not narrow it.
“The decision to allow only a single operating system from a single license rental company (Microsoft) is anti-competitive, and denies school learners exposure to a variety of viable alternatives, and also denies other companies access to the school environment,” he said.
Arnold Lamont, founder of the SSir Online School with IT and CAT among the subjects offered, said even though both Delphi and Java were suited to teach computer programming (the practical aspect of IT which counts for 50 percent of the subject), there were more advantages to using Java.
“The point (of a programme language) is to teach students how to think about programming and both programs teach that really well,” he said.
“Java has more advantages in that it allows students to program for the web, phones and these modern gadgets. Delphi doesn’t.”
Lamont said those who were in favour of Java felt that way because pupils could create apps for cellphones and the like. He said internationally, there was a bigger preference for Java.
The department defended its decision, saying “complexities in synchronising two different programming languages” in the IT curriculum have been evident from back in 2006 and became even more of an issue with the introduction of the IT curriculum and assessment policy statement (Caps).
The department also pointed out that using two different languages was problematic for pupils who have had to transfer to schools in different provinces where another programming language was used. This switch has often lead to pupils dropping the subject altogether, the department said.
“Teachers moving between provinces/schools that use different programming languages need training and support to master the differences in syntax, approach, etc.”
“IT teachers are scarce and subject support is specialised. With more than one programming language, the support is split.
“Instead of building strong support and resources in one language, these are split and teachers sometimes struggle to find enough support and resources or to share resources across provinces,” the department said.
“The subject has a small number of learners, teachers and subject advisors. If support and training have to focus on different programming languages to implement the curriculum, it becomes time consuming, impractical and costly. Also, developing material needs to be done in two programming languages, one of the possible reasons for IT not having Grade 11 and 12 Caps textbooks listed on the national catalogue.”
The department maintained that it has not “banned” open source software as its standardisation plan “only affects two curriculum subjects in Grades 10 to 12…”
“It does not affect other activities the (national department) is involved with, such as e-learning/ICT integration in other subjects and grades,” the department said.
Keats disagreed with this, saying: “This does in effect preclude FOSS operating systems – amounting to a ban on FOSS for teaching CAT, since the schools will need to run Microsoft or Apple in order to comply. It would have made much more sense to standardise on technologies that anyone can use.
“FOSS office packages such as LibreOffice and OpenOffice work on all platforms whether they are free or (not).
“The (department’s) decision passes a cost burden on to parents, as in purchasing a laptop for their children will now be required to pay for license fees to Microsoft products, even though viable free alternatives are available,” he said.
Keats said this was no way to stimulate interest in IT as pupils taking the subjects continue to decline.
The Gauteng Department of Finance which together with the provincial department of education runs and manages the e-Learning Solution programme, formerly known as the Gauteng Online Schools Projects (GoL), said standardisation of software would not “affect the implementation of the e-Learning programme in any way”. - The Star