THE OPEN UNIVERSITY has conceded that it should do more to support Open Source software after being challenged by the UK's Open Source Consortium to reduce its dependence on Microsoft.
But the OU has refused to precipitate the wholesale switch of students from bought Microsoft software to (where appropriate) free open source alternatives because it would require too much effort and the costs would be too high at a time when the governments is squeezing student funding.
Professor Brenda Gourley, vice chancellor of the Open University promised in a letter to the OSC last week to do more to promote Open Source software across the university.
"We have achieved a position where most students can complete their studies using Open Source tools if they wish. This trend will continue - including raising the profile of Open Source options - and we are likely to expand provision of FLOSS software where suitable opportunities arise," she said.
Moreover, Andy Lane, director of Open Learn, the OU's open educational resources, has made further commitments to increase the use of open technology in the university.
"In open educational resources, moving to open standards will be the way we can effect change most readily without upping the costs involved," he told The INQUIRER.
"It's being considered in our open education resource work and the implication of that because we are wanting to embed the development of open educational resources much more fully within our normal material production systems, [is] that it will inevitably come about," he said.
But policies regarding types of software licence or standards could not be made by diktat. They were made by numerous committees that thought first about their educational objectives. That is why he promised in an INQ comment last month to at least continue lobbying for Open Source within the OU. He had already based Open Learn on Moodle, the popular Open Source learning platform.
However, both Gourley and Lane said switching to open source would bring an "overhead" cost and for this reason it could not be implemented as a university-wide policy.
Yet the challenge levelled at the OU by OSC chairman Gerry Gavigan - and which prompted this spate of public pronouncements about Open Source by the OU - had not been for wholesale adoption of Open Source. It had merely been for the OU to back Open Source in principle, encouraging and supporting its use and offering free software when it was a viable alternative to a proprietary system.
Even supporting both Microsoft and Open Source might be too expensive for the university to handle, said Lane - though the OU had produced no estimates.
Still Gourley repeated the same line she wrote in her last letter: "The Open University is not in the business of promoting either proprietary or open source solutions per se."
This meant in practice that the OU would continue to provide more support for Microsoft software than for any other because most students used it: "Reliance on systems that students already have, or are most likely to buy, inevitably favours Windows domination of the marketplace," she said.
Our last article on this matter described how the OU provides widespread support for Microsoft, but not Open Source. Gourley said this was to the benefit of the OU's students: "Working within this situation... enables us to meet our primary educational objectives more readily than by systematically challenging in the way you propose," she continued.
Thus the OU was still ducking Gavigan's complaint: that open software was the spiritual ally of the OU, in that it chimed with its own founding mission in the 60s to bring education to all, regardless of income.
But today's OU has more prosaic problems than its founding principles. It has a support budget on an account sheet. It faces a £30m cut in grants to mature students who already have a degree. It exists in the social and economic context of a time when to the victor go the spoils and too few champions like those of its founding mother, Jennie Lee, are around to challenge entrenched interests.
The OU also has a lot of weight to shift. As Lane said, switching to open source is not just a matter of providing support for different software. People would have to be trained, associate lecturers would have to be considered, then there were the 20,000 foreign students to think about, and partners like the University of Saudi Arabia, and people's preference of home PC, and so on.
Such things required the OU, said Lane, "to look at things on a case-by-case basis and migrate slowly".
Yes, lots of weight to shift. Or as Jennie Lee once called it, "entrenched interests". µ
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