THE OPEN UNIVERSITY has breached its founding principles by supporting Microsoft software and should make amends by helping its students switch to free software, said the UK's Open Source Consortium in a letter last month. Last week, the OU replied: yeah but, no but, no.
The debate between them offers a text book example of the difficulties Open Source advocates face in their attempts to break open Microsoft's $60 billion software empire. On one side there is the Open Source community, the revolutionary source of free software founded on the principle that technology could be combined with an open ethos to starve starve the tributaries of privilege and inequality. On the other side is the Open University, the revolutionary seat of education that was founded on the principle that that technology could be combined with an open ethos to starve starve the tributaries of privilege and inequality.
You would have thought that these two grand movements of noble words and deeds would get on like a house on fire. Not at all.
The OU's student services show a distinct bias not to Open Source software, but to Microsoft, the convicted monopolist whose influence in education has been so restrictive that Becta, the UK's education technology quango, this year complained to the European Commission and advised schools not to upgrade to Microsoft's latest Vista operating system and Office 2007 application software.
Gerry Gavigan, chairman of the UK's Open Source Consortium, wrote a letter to OU vice chancellor Brenda Gourley almost exactly a month ago, suggesting that the OU would honour its founding principles if it encouraged its 220,000 students to adopt Open Source alternatives to Microsoft software. The switch would do more than that, it would save them money.
Last week, OU vice chancellor Professor Brenda Gourley wrote back with the s ame argument that is used to defend vested interests everywhere: as most students use Microsoft, so the OU couldn't do any more to encourage them to use Open Source instead. And anyway, said Gourley, the OU has already "made a significant contribution to the open source movement".
The OU's most significant support for Open Source was its 2005 investment of nearly £5 million in the development of a virtual learning environment (VLE), or online school library, using Moodle, the world-renowned free educational software, as its foundation. On the launch of the library, called OpenLearn, in November 2006, Gourley gushed praise for Open Source software and how sweetly it sat on the OU's founding principles.
"The philosophy of open access is a perfect fit with our founding principles; the marvellous resonance of the whole open source, open innovation, open educational resources movement with our very name makes it feel like our destiny!" she said in the Independent newspaper.
She matched "open access" to education with "open source" software as though the one depended on the other. "Closed systems are dead," she said, "open is the new standard."
The OU provides students with technical support, but only if they use Microsoft software. It advises students that if they don't use a Windows PC they "may have problems accessing the software and data files supplied with course materials". It has produced a 31-page guide to using Microsoft software and extensive demonstrations. It has produced upgrade advice for Microsoft's Vista operating system and even gone as far as promoting a Microsoft discount offer to its students.
The OU does distribute copies of the Open Source Star Office to all students, but that endorsement pales in comparison to its backing of Microsoft. It has given no such advice, support or endorsement of Ubuntu, the free operating system lauded as the Open Source movement's viable alternative to Windows.
And yet Gourley said in her response to Gavigan: "The Open University is not in the business of promoting either proprietary or open source solutions per se, and adopting a programme of encouragement of only one or the other sort would be a distraction from our educational objectives."
Gourley failed to address the main point of Gavigan's argument, however, which was that the OU's founding principles obliged it to encourage students to use Open Source software, and to introduce free alternatives to proprietary software wherever it was viable.
The idea is that Microsoft software is expensive and proprietary, that it's heavy use on computer resources require people to buy more expensive computers to run it, that the free alternatives to Microsoft software are not in widespread use because Microsoft's business practices lock them out of the market, and that Microsoft's grip on the software market sustains its own lucrative position at the expense of innovation and competition in the software sector.
This argument should be a red rag to the OU, which by its own reckoning "was the first institution to break the insidious link between exclusivity and excellence".
Principles? Clothes shop, innit?
The OU emerged from an initiative of Harold Wilson's 1964 Labour government to make university education accessible to all, regardless of their income or gender. The idea attracted such "hostility and criticism" that Jennie Lee, the Labour minister who implemented the plan, vowed the OU must make "no concessions " to entrenched power.
"I knew the conservatism and vested interests of the academic world. I didn't believe we could get it through if we lowered our standards," she said. The OU now reckons Lee's tenacity "gradually wore down the mountains of hostility and indifference that she faced".
Something like hostility and indifference is what Gavigan has got in return for his suggestion that the OU would open their access to students further by officially adopting cheap alternatives to Microsoft software.
Professor Martin Weller, the OU's Professor of educational technology, who was forwarded by the university as its resident expert on the topic, claimed in a blog post last week that Gavigan wanted the OU to " force" students to use Open Source software and that this sounded "Stalinist".
He mocked the free software mindset: "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!"
He did also make some helpful additions to the debate, such as the idea that students might not want to reconfigure their family PCs, that Open Source software isn't always the most viable option, and that some courses require specialist software. But he also failed to address the simple proposition forwarded by Gavigan: that the OU would be true to its founding principles if it more roundly endorsed Open Source software in the name of those students on lower incomes. There is still a digital divide in Britain. The cost of Microsoft software does nothing to break it down. What would someone on a lower income who bought a cheap Open Source computer do when they joined the Open University? Be forced to reconfigure their family PC?
And how closely has the OU stuck to its founding principles? Gavigan told the INQ that it's use of Moodle, the free software running its online learning materials, was nothing but "internal plumbing". The OU made a meal of Moodle, an arrangement that suited its own financial interests. But what of the financial interests of its students?
"More than three decades on," says the OU's promotional blurb, "the Open University has managed to convince sceptics that academic excellence need not be compromised by openness". Has it indeed. µ
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