There are some stories that you have to write because you are going to burst otherwise through sheer exasperation. I have just returned from an event that ate two hours of my life which I will never get back. To be fair, it was a Microsoft event so I should have known better – what was I expecting?
The event in question was the launch of a government backed IT literacy scheme which all sounds great. David Lammy MP, minister for skills was on hand to talk about how much the government is committed to closing the so-called digital divide in the UK. Apparently some 17 million people are excluded from the benefits which the computer-literate take for granted.
So how to address this problem I hear you ask – a concerted grass-roots push involving schools, higher education authorities, using PC terminals in libraries to reach people who can't afford their own machine? Pushing the rise of open source software and the numerous free online productivity apps which won't cost the digitally excluded a cent to interact with aside from bandwidth costs?
Unfortunately not. The answer it seems to how to bring the existing digitally excluded up to speed and ensure that future generations are tech-savvy enough to compete in a world that demands IT literacy is…drum-roll…Microsoft! Or more specifically the Microsoft Digital Literacy curriculum.
Yes, the key to unlocking the potential of millions of people who can't get there heads around IT is to teach them how to use Microsoft products. Yep – good old Microsoft has decided to donate around £3 to 6 million (that's a big range - which is it Microsoft?) worth of its software to another commercial operation Learndirect so that the £17 million digitally excluded can all become Microsoft customers, sorry, I mean computer literate.
Following a series of speeches by Lammy, who claimed that Microsoft's "involvement was essential and that government can't do things like this on its own", and others including Microsoft UK MD Gordon Frazer, I made a bee-line for the demos at the back of the room showing-off Microsoft's Digital Curriculum to find out whether there was any attempt to teach students, say about a broad range of applications?
I was told by a Microsoft marketing person the curriculum is online and thus doesn't require anyone to buy any Microsoft products to make it work – which is nice of them. However, as far as I could find out, this panacea to the collective shortcomings of the UK IT education system only references and includes examples of Microsoft products. What a surprise.
I realise that Microsoft is a commercial company and that it would not get involved in this kind of scheme if it didn't have something to gain – but does the UK government really need to be involved in such a blatant piece of commercialism as this? Funding is good but most of the open source alternatives to Microsoft products are available free and wouldn't require the government to mortgage educational projects in this manner to commercial companies who are only interested in guaranteeing they have a healthy stock of future customers.