Thursday, 28 May 2020

Coronavirus, lockdown, and old machines

Earlier today, the ABC had a post about the difficulties poorer families encountered while trying to homeschool their kids during lockdown.

Naively, one might have thought using older hardware with a lower demand operating system might be a help to them.

Not really, while it's true that using Linux and LibreOffice would give you a low cost and licence free environment, and given that most online schooling is is web based, it should be a no brainer.


There are costs associated with moving to linux. The first, most obviously is that not everyone has the technical skills to install linux onto an old machine, and ideally you need a decent internet connection.

In fact you need someone to do the install for you.

Consider, if you've only got a 10GB a month data allowance the 1.5-2GB download is a big chunk of your monthly allowance.

And remember, if you are renting, and on benefits, as so many people are now, an extra $60 a month for even a basic NBN package is a lot of money, and you may be worried about being able to pay for it over the 24 month contract term.

And surprisingly, a lot of people get by with a phone or an ipad on a monthly cellular contract. One of the reasons that the queue's at Centrelink offices were so long with people filing claims was not only that the system was over capacity, but also the public libraries had been closed - a lot of people rely on the public machines when they need to do something that needs a keyboard.

When I've been doing some research in a public library I've always been amazed at how well used these public access machines are - now I know why.

And of course, there's the question of ongoing support - people will need support. Things go wrong, and sometimes people simply won't have the knowledge to to work round a problem.

There needs to be a support framework.

And also some commitment from the educational system. Telling kids to put their work in an excel spreadsheet or word document isn't helpful.

The teaching materials need to be product agnostic. By all means tell them that if they use LibreOffice they need to save that essay in docx format for upload, or export the spreadsheet as xlsx from Google Sheets, but don't tell them they should be using particular software packages.

Of course, this requires that teachers, educators, and support staff have to be familiar with a range of software and environments, which means training, which probably isn't going to happen any time soon.

But we should take a look at what actually happened during the great home schooling experiment, and think very hard about what we can do to end the digital divide.

It doesn't have to be expensive. It doesn't need a lot of shiny new kit. But it does need some careful thought.

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