The OU has been taken to task by the Open Source Consortium for supporting Microsoft Office. The OU has sent an official response, but here's my unofficial take on it.
I ought to say upfront that I love open source. Not necessarily the software (I'm pretty agnostic about software), but the fact that it's there and it works, when all conventional thought said it shouldn't. The very existence of open source gives me hope for the world. And I find the manner in which it is created fascinating, and probably the most interesting business, social and technological development of the past twenty years. But even so, this letter causes something of a dilemma for me, which I'll try to articulate.
Firstly, it is worth saying that the OU has done a massive amount to support open source, particularly in the case of Moodle. Adopting this as our VLE was a major boost to the profile of open source in education, and we have contributed a lot to that community. On a smaller scale we have developed a number of open source products (eg Compendium, Cohere, Sled, etc), and use a range on our courses. So our FLOSS credentials are pretty good. And as the letter concedes, we do distribute Star Office to all students.
Let's look at some arguments as to why the OU, and all universities might support non-FLOSS solutions.
The first argument is a pragmatic one. I don't want to stereotype students, but let's imagine a student of Victorian literature. They don't really like using a computer, but have bought a laptop because the course has a website and they submit assignments online. They just want to be able to use the system they have, which has MS Office installed. Getting this student to install 'OUnix' as the letter suggests (particularly for distance students), is probably not going to fly. I think the OSC don't appreciate the context and range of students we support. For a start, these are not university computers, but the students' own ones, so making them install OU specific software should be limited. Secondly, they are often shared machines, either in a family or at work. Converting the family machine to a unix box may not be popular.
Negative impact on students. The technical bias of open source proponents I think sometimes blinds them to the reality of a normal distribution curve of users. It is no surprise that the OSC letter uses a computing course as an example, and not say, a social sciences one, because these do not appear on their radar. The OU spends a good deal of time and effort in getting students to that first assignment, as we know from experience that if they do this they will probably go on to complete the course. At the start, many students lack confidence and aren't sure if study is for them. It would concern me if the first thing we made a nervous, technophobic student do was to perform a complicated installation and reconfiguration of their family PC, which they don't want to do, and can fail at. We will lose them before we even start the course.
A related argument is that of suitability. As much as we like it ideologically, open source solutions aren't always the best solutions. Particularly for some very specialist software, the OU often strikes very good deals with providers to give students 'free' proprietary software which is best suited to their needs. I feel that pedagogic suitability should be the priority for a university in selecting software, although FLOSS or not may be a significant contributing factor.
The last argument in favour of proprietary solutions is that we could be seen to be providing students in certain subject areas with experience of the commercial applications they will meet in the workplace. The Cisco courses are a specific example of this, although I think it is a weaker argument for generic software, such as Office – if someone can use Star Office they should be able to use MS Office.
I have one further concern about the letter, which is that it has a rather Stalinist resonance. We are more open than you, and we will out anyone who is not open. Comrades, report anyone who does not fully embrace openness to the central committee for openness! Weller has been overheard praising proprietary software – send him to the SourceForge Gulag! I think this is a dangerous route to go down, as arguments are always more nuanced than the simple FLOSS/proprietary binary choice.
Now onto the pro-FLOSS arguments (not in general, they've been done elsewhere, but why universities should promote them):
Positive action is required. The letter makes a good point about the hamster wheel – we support proprietary solutions because they have the biggest user base, so it is a pragmatic decision. Why do they have the biggest user base? Because people support them because they have the biggest user base. If (and the if is a strategic decision for universities to take) you want to move to more widespread FLOSS adoption then you need to take deliberate steps to make this happen. As the letter suggests the OS tools on the Asus has been one such significant breakthrough, and universities could use this as a springboard for further FLOSS uptake.
The role of universities. To
what extent should the OU, and indeed, all universities, force students
to adopt Open Source solutions? Should universities act as a force for
social change? One can see the argument here: if all universities did
this, then all students would graduate as a user base for open source,
which they'd take in to the workplace, forcing change there. Within a
few years, it's all open source, problem solved.
FLOSS as educational process. For me, the process of FLOSS is the most interesting element. In the FLOSScom project we looked at how these approaches could be adapted to education. I think there is a lot of value in this: students as co-creators, being part of a community, engaging in meaningful tasks, etc. To take my own argument, technology can be seen as a metaphor for how universities operate, so you could suggest that in order to adopt FLOSS like practices into general education practice the first step is to adopt FLOSS software.
So there you are – you can see my dilemma. I can see both sides, but ultimately I think the pragmatic and pedagogic suitability arguments are the strongest ones for a university, and so I think the OU probably has it about right in this case. Maybe it comes down to your definition of 'open'. As I've discussed before, for the OU openness primarily means open access. This means being open to students using commonly installed software. For the Open Source Consortium, open primarily means open source. These are often mutually supportive, as the OU's adoption of Moodle demonstrates, but maybe not always?