Should FLOSS be the only option?

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?

25 Comments

  1. Amanda says:

    You’re absolutely right. The OU are in a slightly unique position of not knowing what the student has installed on the PC they’ll be using for studying, and so what they might need to support.
    I’m quite happy with the set up the OU have presented to me. What OS I have is of no concern to the OU. They accept file formats than can be created on either one.
    Actually – the only way I can thing of improving the OU offering is for the OU to accept Google Docs.. is that even possible?

  2. Hi
    I enjoyed reading your thorough and well balanced post and I can certainly appreciate your dilemma. Firstly, I should say that although I am not currently a member of the Open Source Consortium (OSC) I do generally support their point of view and I work in open source business software but my opinion on open source software in education comes primarily from my role as a parent of two young children going through the education system and hopefully, if they would like, onto higher education.
    My first point would be to say that letter suggested a ‘live’ CD/DVD so no install would be required if the student did not want to install. This sounds like a good idea to me especially if there is a shared computer meaning all the course work could be completed leaving no changes to the PC. It’s a small point but to my knowledge ‘OUnix’ does not exist and presumably the OSC are suggesting a GNU/Linux operating system especially adapted for OU use. A minor point maybe but as the name suggests ‘GNU is Not Unix’ and when talking about modern window interface systems like Ubuntu it would not be useful for people to be thinking of a command line UNIX system. Personally I would think it fantastic if I signed up for a distance learning course and along with all my materials I even got a whole operating system tailored for my course and or University that would just work by putting a CD in my PC.
    As many have said before me I am looking for education to teach transferable skills throughout all ages and groups and not to teach proprietary products. From a commercial angle and as an employer I am looking for employees who can adapt and cope with change. Teaching children from a young age that a spreadsheet is Excel and brainwashing employers to think that they must purchase Microsoft products because that is what students have experience with does not make us a competitive nation. I think the next generation will not struggle with this idea at all. TV’s /Games consoles/Mobile phones/PC’s are all just connected devices with different interfaces and the young just appear to switch between them seamlessly.
    This said, I appreciate that you are dealing with a large group of people from different backgrounds and ages but still feel that we need to address the two main points of the OSC letter which appear to be not about a GNU/Linux install but instead the promotion of Microsoft Office and the use of open standards. The use of open standards or in the case of office software the use of the OpenDocument formats truly allows choice to a wider group of students. OpenDocument formats are even supported by Google docs and Zoho (online office suites as mentioned by Amanda in her comment) so could even be used by a student who has no access to there own or shared PC except maybe an Internet cafe or library. My preference is of course for OpenOffice as it offers the widest choice of platforms as it will run on a Mac, Linux and a PC and as standard saves in OpenDocument format so the OS could truly be no concern to the OU. If a student has a PC with Microsoft Office installed on it legally somewhere along the line they have paid for it but there is still nothing stopping them installing Openoffice as well. Microsoft Office does not support OpenDocument formats as standard but should do from Service Pack 2 in early 2009 which in itself is a step forward.
    I can certainly accept that any wholesale change in any educational institutions IT approach is going to be hard to digest so I would try to promote small but significant steps in the right direction. The most important steps in my opinion are the adoption of open standards and the support of basic generic software like Openoffice which can really start to offer students freedom and choice.
    My general opinion is that this needs to start at a lower level of education, with primary and secondary schools, where there should no dilemma such as the OU’s as there are no commercial considerations. The issue here is that unlike yourself, who clearly has a grasp of the subject, most teachers in schools have no awareness of open source software or open standards. There are many organisations such as schoolforge and the openschoolsalliance who are working hard in this area and I am really looking forward to the FLOSSIE (Free Libre Open Source Software In Education) conference which will be held in Birmingham in February 2009.
    Full respect to you for opening a discussion on this hugely important topic and I do not envy your position. It is easy for someone like myself to be critical when I do not work in education but as a parent and and as person who hopes to return to education one day (possibly even with the OU) I can only encourage that all levels of education discuss these issues and face up to the responsibility of providing education that is truly free (as in freedom) to all. Hopefully the OU will continue their already significant support of open source software in this way.

  3. Martin says:

    @Amanda – I’m a big Google Docs user too (I hate it when an email comes round with a word attachment which everyone then edits separately). I think the problem for the OU in accepting these lies with assessment procedures – they need to have something that has been entered in to the system at a certain date and we can prove it hasn’t been altered, etc. My view is that this is because we (and higher education in general) are still operating in an outdated framework for what constitutes assessment, but that’s for another day..
    @Philip – thanks for the lengthy, and thoughtful response. On the defensive side first, my understanding is that this MS offer was being given to _all_ students in HE, and our students were complaining that because they aren’t in full time education they didn’t get it. So for us there was a question of fairness. And more generally, I feel that the OS community has something bordering on obsession about MS. Although they may claim they would have objected, I strongly suspect that had we been passing on an offer from Apple, the OSC wouldn’t have got in touch. Their letter says nothing about, for instance, the OU (and Stanford, Harvard, etc) using iTunesU. Yet Apple’s record regarding openness is not a shining one. And this becomes even more blurred if you consider free services, but not OS ones – consider YouTube, Twitter, Slideshare, Flickr, etc. On a strict FLOSS only policy we shouldn’t use these either, yet I think they are very valuable services to expose students to.
    Now, onto agreeing with you 😉 Yes, I think you’re right – there are small steps we (and I mean all HE institutions) could take. I agree that OSC weren’t suggesting a command line interface, and that a Ubuntu type linux system has significantly changed the landscape in terms of usability. As I mentioned in the post, the Asus will be seen as a breakthrough. So I think we should be making efforts to certainly support OS as much as we can (and we do this to a large extent), but I still maintain that a rigorous OS only approach would not be in student’s best interests.

  4. brian says:

    There is more to open source than Linux. A better comparison would have been the use of Open Office, not Linux. OpenOffice is usable by anyone and installs on a wide range of operating systems.
    For students the advantage is that OpenOffice is free.
    For the OU the advantage is that the file format is well documented and fully accessible thus allowing easy programmatic interpretation of the data. Microsoft file formats (even OOXML) are far more difficult to interpret.
    A further advantage for the OU would be that it would not have to rewrite all its software everytime Microsoft changes the file formats.
    OpenOffice, not Linux or Windows, is the real argument here.

  5. Martin says:

    @brian – well, Office was actually the main argument from OSC. And we give it to all our students anyway.

  6. brian says:

    Martin said: “well, Office was actually the main argument from OSC. And we give it to all our students anyway”
    From the blog entry, I got the impression that replacing Linux with Windows was the main thrust – thus the reference to “OUnix”. For most users Open Source will be Firefox and Open Office.
    I’m glad that you give a copy of Open Office to each student, but is the OU leveraging Open Office’s openness to ensure that it is not permanently updating software (as with the mathematical forumla example given) just because MS-Office has changed file formats?
    Does the OU encourage the use of Firefox or Opera as web browsers as these are generally more secure than IE7 and a lot more secure than IE6? Does the OU encourage the use of Thunderbird as an email client as it is more resistant to “drive by downloads” than Outlook or Outlook Express?
    These are legitimate questions about the computing experience that all students undergo. Given the choice of improved security – even if that improvement is marginal – how many students would say “no thanks”?
    I grant you that there is a “political” or “activist” view point that gets expressed about open source, but there are other reasons for pursing it as well
    – Reduced cost
    – Runs well on low spec or older machines
    – Is cross platform
    – Is more standards compliant
    – Is easily adaptable (source code is available)
    – Can be more secure than mainstream options
    I grant that the users will not want to fiddle with the source code, but the OU programming dept. could manage without too much trouble.
    The potential is there to build a great software stack of open, reliable, stable and adaptable applications as well as promoting the importance of standards, security and stability. The OU, by its nature, sends a “political” message when it makes a choice and that is what is ruffling so many feathers at present.

  7. Martin says:

    I think all the pro-arguments you give are valid Brian, but I’d reiterate my points that we don’t own the students computer, and that this is often a shared machine and that many students are not very technically minded. The range of potential difficulties is not insurmountable, but it is larger than the OSC would concede, and as I stated we need to be careful we don’t lose students for non-study reasons. So we support all the tools you suggest, but the question is to what extent we should _demand_ it.

  8. brian says:

    Martin said: “So we support all the tools you suggest,”
    That’s good
    “but the question is to what extent we should _demand_ it.”
    Simple answer – never! “Demand” is the wrong approach
    “we don’t own the students computer”
    I understand that, but there are two sides to this – the student and the university. For the student, with ultra portables like the Acer Aspire (available in Linux *and* Windows!!!!) the OU could image them and hand them out as study PCs or sell them at a discount (they retail at under £200 inc VAT) could be preset and ready to go with all apps installed.
    For the University, the main feature would be control and stability over the back-end software with the ability to develop and customise it in a concise and controllable way.

  9. Geoff says:

    It’s good to see you discuss this, but I think you have some misunderstandings so I’d like to address a couple.
    Martin: “I strongly suspect that had we been passing on an offer from Apple, the OSC wouldn’t have got in touch”
    Exposing your own personal obsession? Key issues are:
    – the lack of interoperability when there are alternatives that do provide interoperability
    – the OU’s implicit support (in this case) for the tool that perpetrates this.
    Martin: “it is worth saying that the OU has done a massive amount to support open source, particularly in the case of Moodle … our FLOSS credentials are pretty good.”
    This is a great vindication of the OU’s founding principles. Endorsement of Word 2007, however implicit, seems to be a betrayal of them. Especially since there are clear alternatives.
    Martin: “I feel that the OS community has something bordering on obsession about MS.”
    Based on past history. Becta, for example, advised that there should be “no widespread deployment of Office 2007″ until educational establishments can deal with “interopability and potential digital divide issues” (source http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/01/11/becta_vista/).
    Amanda: “What OS I have is of no concern to the OU. They accept file formats than can be created on either one.”
    Except in the case being discussed?
    (Disclosure: I’m on the OSC Council.)

  10. A key question to ask here is do you want to deny a person access to a course because they don’t have Microsoft Windows installed on their computer? After all you don’t *need* MS Office to create a document or spreadsheet, you might prefer it, which is fair enough, but OpenOffice will do a perfectly fine job. There might be cases where highly specialised software is needed for a course that is not available on more than one platform, if that is the case, why not clearly indicate this in the course details so people can avoid that course if they wish?
    The OU does not necessarily need to produce grand gestures to improve its accessibility to those who use FLOSS software, most of the changes it could make are fairly subtle such as not distributing only Windows versions of software where other versions exist or making the use of proprietary software compulsory even when unnecessary. The most significant change though is to accept the diversity in technical skills of students and to trust those who chose not to follow the Microsoft path.
    Lastly I think Philip makes a very important point about coping with change. I have seen people in the workplace become very confused and disorientated even when switching between different versions of Windows. If we are to be competitive as a country our education system must give people the confidence to cope with such changes.

  11. andreas says:

    First of all, a good discussion!
    “On the defensive side first, my understanding is that this MS offer was being given to _all_ students in HE, and our students were complaining that because they aren’t in full time education they didn’t get it. So for us there was a question of fairness.”
    Though I agree on this I still think we need a more balanced effort towards promotion & training of both proprietary and open source products. I can’t remember getting a round mail that would say “OpenOffice X.XX has been launched, get it now for free”, or even more importantly one saying “Training courses available on multimedia presentations” – you know one of this 10+ mails you receive per month for available MS office training courses.
    So in particular once it comes to training this is an issue, and even more if this training is paid out of OU accounts. This is not only an OU issue, but one that is often raised by open source advocates: Why do we teach people (MS) products, not applications?
    And those trainings I am referring to are often (or only?) targeted at OU staff working on OU machines – so a shared family PC is not an argument here. Having said this, which is the OS, office software, mail client, web browser, pdf maker, image editing programme (etcetc) preinstalled on OU machines just btw?
    But now to be fair with the OU: I see such letters like the OSC one as a chance as it makes us thinking about what we are doing and why we do it. I guess a lot of the staff at the OU negotiating deals with software producers, drafting promotions or organizing trainings out of a habit. This is to say, we offered MS training at a time it was reasonable a decade ago, and we kept on doing this out of a habit.
    So this public pressure put on the OU through the OSC letter might be a chance to reflect on our habits and adapt them to a changed environment on a more OU strategic level – because as you pointed out there are very good examples for an individual and departmental commitment to open source. And by doing so we might be surprised that with our own “total cost of ownership” calculation we will find out that we could save a bunch of money – this sounds like a good argument to me at least.
    “And more generally, I feel that the OS community has something bordering on obsession about MS. Although they may claim they would have objected, I strongly suspect that had we been passing on an offer from Apple, the OSC wouldn’t have got in touch.”
    This is indeed a phenomenon and I bet MS would love to learn how Apple managed to do this. On the other hand this obsession is also understandable since the MS policy is – let’s say – not really based on fairness. E.g. the Portuguese government placed a nationwide notebook order for a K12 model – a multimillion contract – and without seeing any public tender MS got the software contract (I bet someone now has a full wallet).
    Now to the Asus case: This is a pretty good example and there is a clear netbook hype, a market that favours Linux distros – so as you suggest we might see things changing here.
    BUT WAIT: Last night I was trying to get the new eee 901 over Germany, but Asus opted for selling XP only versions at the German market, albeit there is a strong demand for the Linux one. As a result the eee 901 prices with Linux at ebay Germany (grey market) ARE HIGHER than the ones for the XP version. It also was at the German news over the last days that MS sees netbooks as a real threat, so no wonder they will pressure manufacturers to put out MS netbooks only, or at least first – so there is already a low market demand once it comes to Linux.
    And this are only two examples, so – yes – if a company is behaving this way for years, one can understand that people develop such an obsession. I think this is just natural, and besides open source Stalinists, I believe the open source scene still can distinguish between their ideal world (open source only), a fair and balanced world (where the different models coexist, but treat each other more or less fair) and the worst case (the FUD operated one).
    “If we are to be competitive as a country…”
    Keeping an eye on what other countries are doing, I won’t be surprised by a slightly changing north / south axis within the coming years.
    I personally have a high respect on what is e.g. going on in Spain where more and more regions adopt open source only policies for the public sector. And they don’t stop at the policy level, but also provide free trainings to their citizens, help local software companies to develop required but not yet available open source products, negotiate with manufacturers, provide free public wireless etc. etc.
    Though this might seem to be the other extreme at first, but at a market that has failed and where there is no fair competition… which other way to go.
    Now, and by having gone this extreme way, the region of Extremadura, one of the poorest regions of Spain just by the way, is working towards a ratio of ONE FREE NOTEBOOK PER STUDENT for secondary high schools connected to the internet and to a region wide educational intranet that provides free educational resources.
    Once I am talking with teachers in Germany about this, where I am from, they are speechless and at the best can point to the existence of a computer room per school.
    And finally, and as a response to the OWC letter: it is not only a matter of a single university like the OU, the real problem is at the national / regional policy level. The OU certainly could (and I believe it should) without much efforts implement a more balanced software strategy, but as long as there is no fair market competition an even bigger responsibility of higher education would be to raise their voice.
    Best
    Andreas

  12. Martin says:

    Phew – what a lot of good comments.
    I think the path towards the acceptance of OS has been a gradual one for the OU, like all universities. The decision to go with Moodle was significant in this respect, as it marked an acceptance by senior management that OS was viable. But I’d agree that wé aren’t at end point in that journey and there is further to go.
    @Liam – we don’t exclude people who haven’t got Windows, but that has been only fairly recent I admit. I think as Andreas suggests opting for MS was a sensible decision, that kind of became habit.
    @Geoff – maybe I do have a mild Apple obsession;) But I think my point still holds about the MS obsession (which undoubtedly has good reason, but shouldn’t be a reason not to look at wider issues). To move it beyond MS the principles OSC suggest would still apply, and I think the pedagogic suitability argument might be stronger here – eg if I was a lecturer in Graphic Design I might well want to teach students on a) Apple Macs and b) using Photoshop, because those were the best tools. I mean this as a genuine question – should any university prioritise the OS decision over pedagogic suitability?
    @Andreas – yes, I think the one laptop per child/free laptops/cheap Asus things will fundamentally shift the ground anyway, and as you suggest there is room to really push forward here, and maybe the OU should take a lead here?

  13. Laura says:

    I think one of the issues is educating people about Open Source and the options available. Just wanted to add a link to a great collection of opencourseware on open source:
    http://www.bschool.com/blog/2008/100-free-open-courseware-classes-about-open-source-everything/

  14. brian says:

    Martin said ” if I was a lecturer in Graphic Design I might well want to teach students on a) Apple Macs and b) using Photoshop, because those were the best tools.”
    Slightly off-topic but this is what I see as a generic educational problem. To use your example if you were teaching Graphic Design you should be teaching the priciples of graphic design and not “how to do graphic design on a Mac”.
    I see this with programmers. Many have been taught to program Visual Basic – they have not been taught the general principles of programming, algorithmic design, database design, etc etc.
    We are already starting “how to do xxxx on technology yyyy” rather then learning about the subject.

  15. andreas says:

    A valid and much discussed point indeed that Brian raises.
    We certainly could argue that employers expect those skills, but as Martin said “…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.”
    @Andreas – yes, I think the one laptop per child/free laptops/cheap Asus things will fundamentally shift the ground anyway, and as you suggest there is room to really push forward here, and maybe the OU should take a lead here?
    @ Martin: The OU might have the size to negotiate at least a fair offer for their students for a machine running a customized OUL(inux) version – equipped with free software only.

  16. @Martin – while users of non-Windows operating systems may not be “excluded” as such, it is strongly discouraged. The OU’s website PC4Study states: “If you decide to use a system other than a Windows-based PC, you may have problems accessing the software and data files supplied with course materials” (seen at: http://www.open.ac.uk/pc4study/ou-computer-use/macs-and-other-operating-systems.php), a very vague statement that leaves people with the impression that the safe thing to do is to stick with Windows. What I would like to see is courses incompatible with FLOSS clearly labeled so students can make an informed decision and we can start to work on reducing the number of courses inaccessible to non-Windows users. Your Photoshop example is interesting, if I was being trained for the workplace then yes a Photoshop course would be useful, for general education though I’d want to be taught the principles. If we all had to stick to the hardware and software that we were taught on we’d still be using BBC-Bs!
    @others I’m a keen open source user, but I must disagree with the idea of “OUnix”, this isn’t a good idea at all. The OU should never get into the business of producing a Linux distribution, there are many distros out there, all developing at a rapid rate. The OU is an education and research institution and as such it could never give a Linux distribution the focus it needed to keep up. Also, expecting people to load a whole new operating system in cases where they just want to type an essay does seem overkill. I’ve always thought it would be much better if the OU could package its software to make it easily available to the leading Linux distributions, e.g. by having Ubuntu and Fedora repositories etc. and cooperating with the community so that people can bring these pieces of software to their distributions.

  17. Tony Hirst says:

    It’s maybe worth pointing out that the OU provides an “Online Applications CD” (?or DVD now?) that contains installers for several open applications, including Firefox and Star Office (which is sort of open;-) Btw, anyone else noticed Star Office has disappeared from Google Pack? http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/staroffice_no_longer_part_of_g.php )
    With the move to online apps, and apps that straddle online and offline use using platform neutral VMs such as Adobe Air, Silverlight and Google Gears (Java appears to have had it’s day consumer wise?) I think recommending software that can work *in a browser* is probably the way forward?
    To this extent, I think that we could make an interesting contribution (and maybe get some media exposure?;-) by sponsoring a customised browser edition, such as as edu, open-ed, or OER edition of flock (cf. the flock eco edition: http://browser.flock.com/eco/ )

  18. I don’t think a focus on learning principles rather than software means that it’s not sensible to use software that students are most likely to want to use later. It takes time and effort to learn software and it’s annoying to put that time and effort in on software you know you are never going to touch again.
    For instance (to deliberately use an example inverted from an open source perspective!), I took a database course. It taught all the principles fine, but I’d still have liked it if had used MySQL or Postgres instead of some obscure proprietary database software.
    I’ve perfectly happily learned how to use MySQL and Postgres myself but it was frustrating that the course didn’t take the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.

  19. brian says:

    @Juliette: Your database course taught you the principles involved in database handling and design and you obviously managed to apply this to a particular technology. I’d say that was a “win”. I’ve seen people trained on one technology and they are rarely trained well and have considerable difficulty in transferring skills.
    The other problem with training to a particular technology is that software changes. If you taught student MySQL 3.23 and then threw them into MySQL 5.1 with views, triggers, subselects (MySQL 3 did not support them!) then that would be bad. Worse still would be if you trained them up in version 5 and their first “real world” application was maintaining a legacy MySQL 3 database.
    You would screams, methinks…… :-O

  20. Martin says:

    As Brian says this is a bit off-topic, but while we’re here… this tension does exist in education (and particularly in more vocational type subject areas). But generally it is resolved, as Brian says in higher ed you should be learning the principles, but within a degree you would also expect to put those principles into practice. And when you did you would probably expect to use the best tool for the job and/or one which would be useful when you went to get a job. I must confess I don’t know what’s taught in graphic design courses, but I would think that a graphic designer who didn’t know how to use Photoshop and a Mac would probably be at a disadvantage when applying for jobs. So, it is usually possible to combine the two – take research students for example, they need to know statistics, and all the associated theory, but they also need to know how to use common statistical software packages – the first informs the second.

  21. Jamie says:

    One very simple thing that the OU could do is accept documents in Open Office’s native format, odt. Since Open/Star Office is given out to students anyway (presumably to stop people having to buy an expensive copy of MS Office), why force students to use it to produce .doc format files? (rtf files are also acceptable on my course but I need features that can’t cover). Surely its not too much to ask to give tutors as well as students a copy of Open/Star Office and allow students to send work in as .odt files?

  22. Martin says:

    @Jamie – with the usual proviso that it’s not in my capability to do such a thing, I think you’re right, this is the type of small step we could take fairly easily.

  23. cacofonix says:

    Nobody is reasonably suggesting OU not support the many conformists who just opt for the proprietary solution, i.e. common MS-centric should be acceptable alongside common open standards. However, the OU should not force students to use proprietary software when perfectly functional free and open-source solutions exist that any OU tutor can easily install on their computer. Neither should the OU enforce Windows-only software when perfectly reasonable cross-platform options exist. This is particularly poignant as Web 2 technologies can easily replace old-school desktop-bound clients. To encourage open source the OU should help the development of cross-platform educational software. This approach will not disadvantage those who choose to use M$ solutions, but will offer students more options and prevent people from acquiring a student’s edition of M$ Office just to do their OU coursework. I did mine using OpenOffice on Linux four years ago, and no-one bat an eyelid.

  24. TG says:

    Your Stalinist comment is ABSOLUTELY DESPICABLE and you should be ashamed of yourself!
    I don’t know if you thought you were being funny, but nobody is laughing.
    I know that the proprietary software companies have been busy for years spreading propaganda that tries to make Richard Stallman look like some sort of trotskyite or other communist nastiness in the public press, but for an educated person like yourself to jump on that bandwagon is really, really disgusting.
    I’m surprised you didn’t go with Nazis just to discredit yourself completely.
    As for the rest of your post, you’re right that the world is not black and white; specialist software is a good argument that open source can’t always accomplish what’s necessary.
    On the other hand there is absolutely NO EXCUSE for promoting MS Office, when Star Office or Open Office is freely available. Especially for the literary students in your example who don’t really want to deal with computers in the first place. Encouraging these people in the slightest manner to acquire MS Office is blatant favoritism, and bad advice.
    I would not suggest that students should change the OS on their laptops or home computers, but apart from that, there shouldn’t be a single application needed for schoolwork that has to be closed source.
    This may not be achievable by tomorrow, but it is certainly a goal to work towards, and for the OU to suggest that this shouldn’t be a high priority goes against every ideal it was founded on.

  25. Pavel Antonov says:

    Excellent discussion indeed. I have just started as a resident PhD student at Open University (OU) and did not realize earlier that OU excludes non-proprietary software users. Prior to my arrival to the OU I have worked with the http://www.apc.org and greatly support open source as a concept. But all institutions I have previously worked and studied at have had their arguments to employ Microsoft – very similar to the ones of Martin and the OU. As a result, being a non-specialist user, I have been continuously discouraged to switch to open source, fearing lack of adequate support, limited access to useful applications, and problems with online services configured for Mircosoft users only.
    Indeed, it is no surprise if online salesmen, corporations, banks, and even international organisations, limit their users to Microsoft. But OU was the last place I would expect to face the same. A university that calls itself Open needs to stand for openness, I would expect.
    I liked the idea of studying here largely because I associate with its mission and philosophy. A free choice between platforms is the least that a university with this name and mission should be able to offer.

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