Does choosing software that is the standard of business help educate children?

When I was teaching in the middle school, using a lab of Macintosh computers to engage and challenge children in my computer skills classes, a member of the district’s finance committee visited the lab. He informed me and the school principal that his committee would not support any further purchases of anything but PC computers. That meant, of course, computers which ran Windows operating system (Win95 at the time, I think). That meant using Microsoft products for the productivity software. His rationale was that Windows and Microsoft products were the business standard, and that students should develop their skills with those tools, giving them a leg up when they got to the business world and needed to be productive.

At the time, our high school was already using PCs with Microsoft software, and the business department was always asking for budget to purchase the newest versions of all of their software so they would be more compatible with what was being used in businesses.

When I asked my students to write with Clarisworks on the Macintosh computers, I wasn’t teaching them keypress sequences or menu locations. I was expecting them to be creative in their writing and to develop editing skills like  delete-insert, spell checking, find-and-replace, selecting fonts, making appropriate use of bold and italic text, etc. It was my contention that the children could learn those skills using any software on any operating system. I still think that is true.

My argument was that the skills were the standard we should use as our focus and that the computers we used really didn’t matter. The software wasn’t the real issue, either. That argument fell flat. The plan for the next purchase was “Buy Microsoft” (though that phrase wasn’t actually said).

Have times changed?

This blog recommends the use of GNU/Linux and free, open source software (FOSS) that isn’t commonly used on desktop computers in business. Microsoft OS and productivity tools are the business standard. But do students who use the computers learn better, get a better education because they use the defacto standard tools?

When schools install expensive learning tools on school computers, are they making it easier for the students or more difficult? By purchasing Microsoft Office when we purchased our computers, the school where I worked was able to spend around $60 a copy. Students needed to buy their own copies. The school couldn’t send the software discs home for students to use, assuming they had a computer at home. We also used other software, of course. If students wanted to do more at home, they needed to spend more money. Did they? Do parents tell you at your annual parents’ night that they try to have all the school’s software installed at home so “Johnny” can practice better?

What is your educational standard? Does it depend on the brand of software you use? Do you feel better if your software costs more than someone else’s?

Do you buy software because it is stylish?

“I use Photoshop to crop my photos. Oh, you use brand X.”

Is brand loyalty for software really just consistent with buying clothess labelled Aeropostale, Hilfiger, Gap, Nike, etc. so you are part of the stylish crowd?

Is that your standard?

There is another way to look at standards. There are standards which support a broad community but are not defined by brand names. The success of the web on the internet is probably the most well-known example. HTML isn’t a houshold word, in spite of being a standard which allowed the web to go from a dream to international common ground for sharing, publishing, documenting, buying, selling and more. It happened in a single decade. HTML isn’t owned by Microsoft, Apple, General Motors, the United States. It isn’t owned by anybody. It is an international standard for information exchange. It is the “language” of browser software, and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer uses it. HTML is well documented and is highly standardized. Apple computers provide a browser called Safari. Many computer users even install a alternative browsers on both their PC and Mac. Firefox, Chrome, and Opera are some of the alternative browsers in regular use.

There is no vendor lock-in with true standards. As the HTML language expands, all browsers improve as they attempt to be the best tool for display of the web.

FOSS is tied closely with the effort to develop and support international standards which are not dependent on one vendor.

What do your tech people have to say about standards?
What does your school administration and school committee have to say about standards?

What about you?
What are your standards?