OU and MS Office 2007

OU and MS Office 2007

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The Chairman of the OSC, Gerry Gavigan, has written to Professor Brenda Gourley, the Vice Chancellor of the Open University to express disappointment that the OU is supporting an office suite that goes against so much of the tradition of the OU and to encourage the OU to consider implementing ICT policies that are closer to the original objectives of the University.

Full Text

Professor Brenda Gourley
Vice Chancellor
The Open University
Walton Hall
Milton Keynes

13th October 2008

Dear Professor Gourley,

Open University and Microsoft Office 2007

I am writing to express my disappointment that the Open University is doing so much to support [1] (needs OU login) an office suite that goes against so much of the tradition of your institution and to encourage you to consider implementing ICT policies that are closer to the original objectives of the University.

Microsoft Office 2007 may or may not offer advantages over Microsoft Office 2003 or earlier versions of this product. However what it does do is introduce yet another forward incompatible file format that, through promotions such as the current offer to staff and students, create network pressure to upgrade earlier versions.

I am aware that the Open University provides every student a free copy of Star Office, but it is clear that the emphasis of the university is to promote Microsoft products. For example, despite the statement accompanying the Office 2007 offer

Please note that the OU Computing Helpdesk can not provide support for this offer. If you need help please use the Customer Support link at the bottom right hand side of the web site or contact Microsoft UK

The Faculty of Mathematics, Computing and Technology has produced a guide [2] (needs OU login) 31 pages long, giving a full tutorial [3 (needs OU login)] on how to use Microsoft Word 2007. (To the best of my knowledge, no other software receives similar consideration.)

The nub of the matter is contained in the opening paragraph of this guide.

It is important to note that mathematical notation created in Word 2007 will not be preserved if the document is subsequently opened or saved in a previous version of Word.

On the face of it, the underlying process I describe overturns one of the key establishing principles of the University, universal access. I recall that there was a time that it could not be assumed that every student had access to an electronic calculator. This sensitivity to resources of students is reflected in this statement found on several places on the University’s website:

Please note: download times will vary depending on file size and internet connection speed. With a 56 kb/s modem it will take about five minutes to download a 1 MB (1024 KB) file.

It would be impossible to fail to acknowledge that when the University use of computers was introduced, that the cost effective option was to use Microsoft software. However the world had changed since then.

The cost effective option for students now would be to use one of the fully featured netbooks (e.g., Acer Aspire One, Dell Inspiron Mini 9, Asus EEE 901) all at around the £200 mark and all offering full office functionality. This price is possible because the software is all Free Software [4a], [4b] (Open Source, “FLOSS”), with the applications running on GNU/Linux.

As all the software uses unencumbered, open file formats, there would be no problem regarding enforced or leveraged upgrading of any application. (Which, in the case of FLOSS, would be free-of-charge in any event).

There are certain ironies that exist in at least one Open University course. M255 is based on using Java, which is FLOSS, but the course is based on using BlueJ (free but not FLOSS) running on Microsoft Windows.

It would be entirely practical, in only two steps, to enable this course to run on FLOSS:

  1. first, provide official support for BlueJ on GNU/Linux
  2. next, over time, convert the course to use a FLOSS Java environment capable of being used on GNU/Linux

Much as as I would like to advocate that the Open University rips out any requirement that its students must use proprietary software I am aware that there are a number of reasons why this would be dismissed out of hand.

However there is a clear path for the Open University to return to its original remit.

At any point that the supplier of a proprietary application begins an “upgrade” strategy, the Open University should take the opportunity to escape from the hamster wheel and substitute a FLOSS alternative – for example rather than promote Microsoft Office 2007, move Star Office (or even Open Office) to front and centre. For mathematics, science and technology courses, LyX [5a] or LaTeX [5b] are well known high quality FLOSS applications used by other universities. [6]

During any revamping of a course that is dependent upon a proprietary application, consider substituting that application with a FLOSS alternative.

To enable your students, particularly those on technology courses, to benefit from cheaper machines, the University should explore whether compatibility layers such as WINE [7] can be used to run proprietary applications.

For example, in 2003, Codeweavers [8] expressed a willingness to enable the software used in MST209 (and other courses) to run on WINE. This would have been undertaken free-of-charge in return for my obligation to keep them informed if an upgrade in WINE “broke” the software. Unfortunately the licence prevented me pursuing this unofficially. I am inclined to believe that Jeremy White, the CEO of Codeweavers, would be prepared to repeat this offer to the University.

Finally, create a “live” and installable CD-ROM/DVD (May I suggest “OUnix”?) which would provide a complete and free-of-charge environment for PC based hardware.

This would both complement and be consistent with the University’s recent commitment to becoming a Free University [9]; a valuable resource.

If one were exploring ways of enabling a journey such as the one I describe, one might consider reusing the ideas contained on Google’s “summer of code” [10]. Each summer, Google provide paid internships for ICT students to work with Free Software projects. The Open University might consider similar projects as part of the requirement within the University’s ICT curriculum or seek direct participation with Google.

In conclusion, I emphasise that I have nothing to sell you. The Open Source Consortium is a trade association for anyone interested in Free and Open Source software, but as you might have already inferred, all the products used by member organisations are both freely available and are free-of-charge.

It feels appropriate to say that if I’d had more time I would have sent you a postcard. However, I do hope you will feel able to offer a considered reply (by email if you prefer).

Yours sincerely

Gerry Gavigan
Open Source Consortium