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Open letter to KITE: On the use of proprietary apps and services for online classes in schools
Hon' Minister for Education,
Govt of Kerala.
Kerala Govt has always been a leader in adoption of Free Software (free as in freedom) in the country. Most importantly it started with introduction of Free Software in the schools. Leadership shown by teacher community in Kerala is also commendable.
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the adoption of online mode of education1, we found that proprietary software is being promoted within the educational system. We learned that official documents by the offices under the Govt. of Kerala calls for use of proprietary software exclusively for educational purposes2. Promotion of proprietary software such as WhatsApp is particularly problematic on two grounds. It is explicitly going back from the Government's position to use Free Software and secondly it promotes a monopoly power.
The WhatsApp Trap
Many people do not realize the trap of WhatsApp as they only see that the service is free of cost and everyone around them is using it. One reason for this is their lack of understanding about the trade-offs they are making when using WhatsApp. Most people using WhatsApp do not realize how their data is being collected, stored and analyzed by WhatsApp. Making our students use this software at a time when they can not make an informed decision is like a drug dealer providing a sample pack. The State is creating consumers for a monopoly business. Use of WhatsApp as the channel to exchange educational content discriminates against those who would prefer not to use WhatsApp but other options. WhatsApp is a subsidiary of Facebook3 which is infamous for its carelessness and complete disregard for its user's privacy4.
We suggest that Kerala Government adopt free software alternatives such as https://quicksy.im which works exactly like WhatsApp from a user's perspective, but without lock-in to a single company. After installing the Quicksy app, the user has to provide their phone number and it is verified by an OTP sent to their phone. It then finds all users listed in the Quicksy directory matching with the local phone's address book entries5. A Quicksy user can communicate with users of any app or service that uses the XMPP protocol, not just users of Quicksy app and service. The state government may easily setup a server on its own and provide this facility to every student in the state. Apart from Quicksy, there are other free software alternatives that government may consider6.
Standards and interoperability
XMPP is similar to the SMTP protocol used for email and the GSM standard used to ensure interoperability between mobile service providers. A mobile subscriber has the option to buy a SIM card from any service provider and port their number to a different provider without losing the ability to talk to their existing contacts if they are unhappy with the service. In the case of WhatsApp, they have no choice to move to a different messaging service provider if they want to talk to other WhatsApp users. So, moving away from WhatsApp is often not a practical option due to this lock-in. In the case of XMPP, the users can choose their preferred service provider and change it if they are not happy with a service provider.
We would like make following recommedations to the government.
KITE under the Department of Education should be directed to setup free software based e-learning and communication infrastructure for state government. This can include instant messaging, file-sharing systems, and e-learning platforms.
Free software community expertise can be leveraged to setup infrastructure and train teachers. More than 25 people from the Free Software community have already volunteered to support the teachers7.
Currently the videos are uploaded only on Youtube and Facebook. KITE should also consider offering PeerTube as another option, which is Free Software powered and offers better privacy to users. Additionally it saves cost of live streaming via KITE website by sharing bandwidth among the users8. If needed PeerTube instance at https://videos.fsci.in operated by Free Software Community of India can be used provided the content is licensed under Creative Commons license which allows sharing freely.
It was noted that the teachers who give classes through first bell program are recommending proprietary services as tools for communication. This will create confusion for both students and parents that they might think they are required for the student's education. This confusion should be prevented.
A long-term plan for software and infrastructure adoption should be discussed. This will help to avoid being depended on proprietary solutions in an emergency as we will be well prepared. Such discussions, with the adoption of free software solutions, can design an advanced, inclusive IT-enabled education system. Free Software Communities can be involved for support and development of such system.
https://www.doolnews.com/online-learning-parents-and-teachers-need-attention-education-department-guidelines-454.html (we have a copy of the document referenced in this article)