The dangers of paperless classrooms

Double-edged sword: Software determines the level of digital freedom, so whoever controls the information also controls the classroom. (Oupa Nkosi, MG)

Double-edged sword: Software determines the level of digital freedom, so whoever controls the information also controls the classroom. (Oupa Nkosi, MG)

Recent weeks brought the news of paperless classrooms where tens of thousands of pupils in Gauteng have tablet computers in schools that have uncapped broadband internet.  

Several media outlets picked up the story. 

None asked questions about the technology itself.  

There is a major struggle for the control of software and information by, on the one hand, big corporations and states and, on the other hand, projects that want sharing, collaboration and free access.  

Though it has not been a matter of public discussion, the software chosen for schools has deep economic, political and social implications. 

The choice facing South Africa will shape who controls our emerging information society. Software is the set of instructions controlling what your computer does and, perhaps more importantly, does not do. 

It not only controls the user’s experience, it controls the information the user can get access to. Software determines the level of digital freedom. 

This insight led Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer programmer Richard Stallman to found the Free Software Movement in 1983. Free software grants essential freedoms to ensure the software can be understood, modified, shared and improved. If free software includes “copyleft” stipulations, these freedoms are also shared with anyone who receives a copy of the software. Copyleft ensures software continues to respect the user’s freedom when it is modified and shared, replenishing the digital commons. 

Much of the software used every day is free software or contains free software components. 

Android and Mac OS X are built on free software, and much of the software powering the web is free. Speaking before the European Union Parliament in 2013, Eben Moglen noted that versions of the copyleft GNU operating system’s General Public Licence (GPL) “are used to license and distribute software of commercial value in ... excess of $120-billion a year” and “services and other forms of IT built on top of that [free and open source software] amount to several hundred additional billion euro a year. The GPL licenses more software than all of Microsoft and Oracle put together.” 

In 2002 and 2004, the National Advisory Council on Innovation (Naci) endorsed “Free/Libre and Open Source” (Floss) software for government use where possible — as opposed to proprietary/non-free software. 

Naci outlined the benefits: Floss reduces licensing and software costs, prevents dependency on foreign companies and vendor lock-in, provides security, stimulates local software development and facilitates local language customisation. 

In 2007, the South African Cabinet signed a policy preference for “Foss/OC” (Free and Open Source Software/Open Content) use in government. 

The value of free software should not be reduced to economic or pragmatic considerations. 

At the heart of the movement is the understanding that human interaction and development is increasingly mediated by computers — as such, the people using computers should have the freedom to control them. 

The absence of user control spells disaster. Google, Facebook and other “service” corporations place pervasive surveillance at the centre of their business model, though these companies frequently use free software. 

Use of Google’s Android in South African schools would provide intimate details about teachers, administrators and students — the last every day from the time of early childhood — to Google and Washington intelligence agencies. 

This is a serious matter for South Africans. At a public speech hosted by the Yale Information Society Project, I asked National Security Agency whistle-blower William Binney if South Africans should be worried that:

• The United States government conducts surveillance on  South Africans;

• Data might be shared between US and South African intelligence services; and  

• South African domestic electronic intelligence could expand into an advanced surveillance state.  

Binney answered: “Yes to all  of them.” 

Other problems arise from using non-free software and platform services. South Africa has a well-recognised innovation deficit. 

The department of education’s 2004 white paper on e-education suggests a need to cultivate youth proficient in information and communications technology (ICT) and “roll out ICT that is specifically suited to Africa”. 

This must include free software, because innovation is based on the freedom to use, study, modify and share code. 

There are three dominant software platforms on end-user devices: Apple’s OS X and iOS, Microsoft Windows and Google’s Android.  

Apple software runs only on Apple hardware and censors the content its users can get access to — including apps it deems politically dis-agreeable. Apple’s business model is a vertically integrated form of vendor lock-in that restricts users to the Apple ecosystem and biases software developers toward it. 

Microsoft software is proprietary, secretive and under the authoritarian control of Microsoft. 

Google’s Android is perhaps the most widely used operating system for tablets in pilot projects in South African schools. 

It also violates the freedom of children. Using Google’s stock version of Android requires a Google account, ensuring pervasive surveillance by Google, the US government and its allies — as well as the intrusion of advertising, the market and the state into the classroom. Android is a “mixed” system with free software components. But Google dominates Android through a consortium called the Open Handset Alliance, which restricts freedom on Android devices. Google also censors the Play Store and biases developers toward creating software in  Google’s restrictions. 

Options from the free software community meet the full range of freedoms appropriate to South Africa’s political, economic and social needs. 

One option is a popular version of the GNU/Linux operating system, the Ubuntu operating system maintained by Mark Shuttleworth and United Kingdom-based software company Canonical, which could provide high-quality support for South African schools. 

But it must not implement any surveillance from third parties, as it did through a partnership with Amazon in Ubuntu’s 12.10 release. 

This month, ministers from the government are convening to work on Operation Phakisa (“hurry up”) for education — a project for the deployment of ICT in public schools. 

Before considering proprietary/non-free software as an option, policymakers must consider recurrent licensing costs, big data surveillance and the political, economic and social effect of restricting pupils from free, collaborative  software production. 

Will classrooms use a model of free software, or rely on big software? The path forward has major implications for schoolchildren, who hold the key to this country’s future. 

Mike Kwet is a Rhodes University doctoral candidate. Contact him at [email protected]

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