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Does Microsoft have a future in educational technology?

The short answer to that question is, of course - any company with that much cash, influence, and market share must have a place just about everywhere, ed tech included. A less pat answer is worthy of some discussion, though.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor on

The short answer to that question is, of course - any company with that much cash, influence, and market share must have a place just about everywhere, ed tech included. A less pat answer is worthy of some discussion, though. I use a variety of platforms: Linux on my personal laptop and home computers, Microsoft Terminal Services, Office, Server 2003, XP, and soon to be Vista (at least on a few machines) at the school. As Linux matures and more applications are ported to it (a process that is remarkably speedy), I must admit that I have a growing bias towards open source software.

Microsoft products remain largely solid offerings, though, and, from an educational perspective, still represent the majority of what our students will see when they head off for industry and higher education. They are easy to use (by and large), have a massive install and support base, offering cheap, easy to find technical support and a familiar face for most users. These are all good things and, from an IT standpoint, represent a fair amount of value, even if they aren't free.

However, and this is increasingly a really big however, education is about collaboration, innovation, and discovery, rather than a single company's vision of how we should create and manage digital content. The more I pondered my last post, Science and Nature both reject MS Office 2007 file format, the more irritated I became with the idea of any sort of proprietary formatting in education. Microsoft has given us a lot of really amazing tools; in many respects, I would actually count Office 2007 among them. Yet their insistence upon "Microsoftness" impedes collaboration and runs counter to the ideals of educational institutions.

While Office 2007 represents the state of the art in terms of personal productivity software, it does not represent the state of the art in terms of collaborative productivity software. Which leads to the question with which I started this post. Sure, native Microsoft Office formats are now XML documents, but that hardly makes them an open standard. The FDA requires all electronic data supporting drug approvals to be submitted in an XML format, but only one clearly documented (at least clearly by US government standards) with easily decipherable, industry-standard data definitions. An open standard for documents already exists in the form of Open Document Format. Why then would we tie ourselves to Microsoft's particular incarnation of XML?

As one reader put it responding to my last post:

MS-OOXML is nothing but a Microsoft product specification. ODF is built for the future, free, and not encumbered by Microsoft's legacy formats and coding errors (still written into MS-OOXML!). Anyone using a Microsoft product from this point forward must justify its use and its cost, in the face of open source alternatives like OpenOffice and any number of Linux distros.

I'm not paying higher taxes just so some 5th grader at the local school can have Office 2007. Let mommy and daddy buy that, not me.

Perhaps not the most objective point of view, but well-taken. I don't regret licensing Office 2007 at my school. I'm glad my students are exposed to this particular set of productivity tools. I also don't regret limiting the adoption of Office 2007 to student labs, teaching XML fundamentals, and installing OpenOffice everywhere throughout the building. Our students will see both suites, understand both, and be ready to use either. I can't help but think, though, as we become increasingly focused on interconnectedness, globalization, and collaboration, that the proprietary nature of Microsoft products will make them an increasingly unpopular choice in academia.

How about you? [poll id=4]

Talk back below and take the poll to let us know where you're headed.

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