The IT industry is up in arms this morning over a decision by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) to scrap the use of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) in schools, and to drop Java in favour of Delphi as the programming language of choice.

Circular S9 of 2013 refers to the standardisation of software tools to implement and assess computer applications technology (CAT) and information technology (IT).

For CAT, from January 2014, the department will standardise on the latest version of Microsoft Office, with MS Office 2010 and MD Office 2013 being implemented across the board.

The programming language to implement the IT curriculum will be standardised using Delphi. For those provinces currently using Java, the shift will take place in January 2015 for Grade 11s and 2016 for Grade 12s. As from November 2016, only Delphi will be used for NSC examinations.

The Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA) has issued a statement that these decision will have a massive impact in IT learning, as well as for the South African industry as a whole.

“The decision is considered by many to be a giant step backwards, rather than being a bold step into the future for IT education in our schools,” it states.

The IITPA states that some of the implications include:

* Teachers currently in training might have to change the programming language they are being taught mid-stream.

* Teachers in those schools where Java is being taught will need to be retrained during 2014 so that they are ready to teach Delphi in Grade 11 in 2015. Some may resist, as they know they will be retiring in the next year or so. Who will provide this training?

* Many schools have had problems with sustaining IT as a subject. This from a cost perspective and also from the difficulty they have had in finding a suitably qualified teacher. They may decide that enough is enough and decide to start phasing the subject out from next year. In other words, this year’s Grade 10 class could be their last class.
This could severely impact on the subject in the rural areas, which will be hard pressed to find suitably qualified teachers.

* Most tertiary institutions are teaching C++, Java, Python or other similar languages. Can you see universities switching to teaching Delphi? So where will the trained teachers required in future years come from?

* The SA Computer Olympiad finalists have, in the main, either been self-taught or have come from schools where Java has been taught. This will change and may start to impact on SA’s standing in the International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI) and elsewhere. Over the past number of years, only Pascal and C++ have been used in the IOI, but there is a strong possibility that Java will be used as from 2014.

* In South Africa, we are taking a step backwards into the past as far as the teaching of IT in schools is concerned. In the rest of the world, the move is to Java and now possibly Python. Delphi is hardly taught in any school system elsewhere in the world.

* The Delphi bias is towards teaching “commercial computing”; in other words, there is always a database of some form behind what is being taught. We are not training learners about “scientific computing”, which this country desperately needs. Where does the STEM focus slot into this decision?

* The dropping of the provision for open source software seems to be contrary to the government’s declaration that state departments use open source unless they can show reason why open source products will not work.
Many school systems around the world are seeing the benefits of using open source. Learners are using Android and iOS on their handheld devices – why shouldn’t they be exposed to using other operating systems, such as Ubuntu?

* Many schools currently teaching CAT will not have the funding to move from MS Office 2003, MS Office 2007 or LibreOffice to the versions prescribed in the circular, and so could drop the subject. This could mean the numbers of learners taking CAT will start to decrease – and SA desperately needs IT-literate citizens.

IITPSA urges the DBE to reconsider the decision, which we believe was taken because they were not fully aware of all the implications, and were essentially uninformed or, at worst misinformed.

Derek Keats, owner of Kenga Solutions, blogs that the “worst aspect” of Delphi is that it does not work on open source operating systems such as GNU/Linux.

“This creates totally unnecessary pressure on schools to have Microsoft operating systems, and gives that particular software license rental company unfair advantage in our schools to the detriment of our children.”