Cheap software vs. the ‘Industry Standards’?

One thing that crops up regularly in educational circles is ‘cheap’ software being used in preference to ‘industry standard’ titles such as those produced by the big software houses such as Microsoft and Adobe.  Very often, ‘full fat’ software, such as the MS Office suite, Adobe Creatives Suite and ‘Pro’ editing tools such as ProTools, Final Cut etc. are spoken about as ‘extravagant’, overly-complex and cause Finance Depts across the countries to wince as they see quotes for site licenses roll in that would make your eyes water.  In the ‘age of austerity’, should schools be looking at cheaper alternatives to well known products?  Well, the answer as always is ‘yes and no’.

There are, of course, some neatly-crafted Educational titles, but in a lot of cases they have such limitations that they are only useful for teaching the basics – even then, it’s entirely possible for trends to move on and the point of teaching the skills in question becomes lost.  It’s also possible that these packages are selected because a limited feature set is attractive to the teacher, but are we doing a disservice to the students who will quickly reach the limit of the software’s potential and become frustrated by it?

Firstly – let’s dispel a myth.  ‘Pro’ software is always expensive.  Wrong.  Recent times have seen Microsoft wake up to the fact that schools are not a cash cow, ready to be milked till dry.  Office suite software has never been more affordable for staff or students and specialist media titles very often have cut down versions available with the key features remaining but at a fraction of the cost.

So, does that mean we should be grasping for our chequebooks right away?  No!  There are a lot of excellent, free or low cost alternatives to Office suites – Openoffice being one, and of course Cloud-based services such as Google Apps and the emerging ‘App’ market.  These are fantastic tools, and some truly offer a glimpse into the future where more and more content exists and is developed in the cloud, however, to not expose students to software in common use in industry, is a huge mistake.  When students attend job interviews, familiarity with ‘industry standard’ software is a key requirement, no-one in their right mind is likely to hire an office worker who isn’t familar with Microsoft Office – even on a basic level.

The more specialist the software gets, the more tricky it gets to ‘back a winner’.  Look at Music Technology or Video editing – there are certain programs out there (Protools, Final Cut, Premiere, Vegas, Avid etc. etc.) that it’s crucial we are able to expose interested students to.  If a recently-graduated student appears at an interview with only experience of Windows Movie Maker, they simply won’t stand a chance, regardless of the results they are able to get from it – competition for places is huge.  As an institution, we don’t have to be purchasing site licenses left, right and centre but having access to the technology is critical, lest we purely rely on the students’ home environment to do so, and that’s hardly fair is it?

So, what could support this?

  • Implementing a well thought-out strategy, with links to Gifted and Talented programmes, enrichment and extra-curricular opportunities to enjoy exposure to the technology across and outside of the curriculum.
  • The decision makers should have the ability to act quickly (with limited investment) in new technology – not panic buying, but introducing quality Trial programmes that takes on board teacher and student feedback and are regularly reviewed outside of the technical team.
  • Training time and materials readily available, up to date and engagingly authored to allow staff to feel less isolated from the new equipment.
  • ‘Key concepts’ taught as early as possible – it’s perfectly fine for goals to be as broad as possible early on, allowing for interests to become more refined as the student becomes more responsible for their own learning.  For example, despite my rubbishing of Windows Movie Maker earlier, it can serve to develop a basic understanding of timeline-based video editing. It’s only then that we can show the students what can be achieved with modern techniques and software.
  • Access to technology – there needs to be enough access to technology to make experimentation possible.  Students are happy, in most cases, to fail, to play and experiment with software and hardware until they get SOMETHING out of it.  In lieu of structured learning, this is a great start for encouraging students to go further and could be just enough to spark an interest!
  • Cross-curricular support.  If there’s an interest in Music Technology, why not get students recording presentations, recitals, shows and some of the other exciting events happening throughout school?
  • Don’t do everything, everywhere.  ICT Suites are brilliant, but for many tasks, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work and multi-purpose rooms simply aren’t ideal.  Whether it’s the layout of the furniture in the room, the spec or the setup of the machines in question or simply the amount of competition their is for access to the room, allowing areas of specialisation is crucial to ensuring the technology is able to deliver in a way the user expects.
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