There’s a story making its rounds across the ‘net about a woman who missed several online classes, and failed her semester, and she claims this happened because she bought a Dell laptop with Ubuntu on it – instead of Windows. She didn’t know what Ubuntu was, and was surprised to see that her Windows software, such as Microsoft Office, didn’t work. While this isolated case sounds a bit ridiculous, there is still a bigger problem here.
When I first started university, in the summer of 2003, my only laptop was an iBook running Mac OS X. My little iBook was a curiosity, and as it turned out, my entire university was focused solely on Windows and Office – which I always found rather painful seeing my university is the home of Andrew Tanenbaum, and as such, the birthplace of Minix. In any case, I was confronted several times with certain pieces of obligatory software that were Windows-only. I had to resort to my desktop machine, or friends’ laptops, in order to complete some assignments.
Not too long after that, one of my friends, who studies at the Royal Military Academy, also wanted an iBook, and asked for my advice. I was very adamant to explain to him that choosing the iBook and Mac OS X would mean he would have to miss certain pieces of Windows software, and that interacting with his friends who had Windows laptops could prove problematic. He took note of the warnings, and bought an iBook. A few months later, he sold it. He explained he had underestimated the problems I warned him for.
Times have changed now, of course, and awareness of alternatives to Microsoft is bigger than ever. Still, problems arise, and even though support for the Mac has increased at my university, Linux support is still non-existent, and getting your Linux laptop connected to our ridiculously complicated wireless network is an exercise is mental control and anger management. I never succeeded, and stopped trying a few years ago. I don’t blame Linux – I blame my university for not providing the proper guides, tools, and software to aid in connecting Linux laptops to their network.
I believe that a university, especially one as big as my own, should cater to its students. Students are generally on the forefront of technological changes, and are generally quite open to trying new things. Universities should promote such behaviour when it comes to technology – not stifle it.
This brings me back to the story discussed in the introduction. Humans are keen to place the blame somewhere, and some blame Dell for not warning its prospective buyers enough, some blame the woman for being an idiot – but I want to place the blame fully and squarely on the university for not helping its students properly. This is a desperate plea to all universities and other educational institutions (and especially my own): computers have become an integral part of teaching, so please help your students wherever you can, and don’t constrain them by demanding everything in format Xyz. You are harming honest students this way.
The Madison Area Technical College has promised to help the woman to complete her classes, and will accept her material in whatever format she wants.
This woman was obviously ripped off. She got a computer that does not do what she wants. Let’s face it, she wants it to work with windows, and the software that comes with that. If you wanna play geek rebel that is all fine and dandy, but then you do so knowingly. It doesn’t matter if you love or hate windows (I personally hate it), it is the standard today and so is the office package (which I hate all so very much more).
But open source is free! You scream. No it is not. There is no fee for the software, but it is not free, you still need to learn to use it, and for the online educators that is a cost that more than likely is higher than requiring windows. Pushing your agenda on them I feel is not in the spirit of free nor freedom. But to be honest, GPL has never ever been about freedom.
What is important here are two things. Don’t push your agenda on others, and open standards are what is important. I can take a jpeg I take with my digital camera and use it with all major OSes today, and I can sit down and write a piece of jpeg reading software and display it myself if I wanted to, since I am a software engineer. The data isn’t locked into a vendor. This is not true for documents, and that is a problem.
So to sum it up, open and royalty free standards for data is very important. Pushing your fascist agendas are not.