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Opening the Universitat Oberta

Model of complaint message to the UOC

If you have already read Opening the Universitat Oberta and you want to share your opinion on the fact that the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya is requiring its students to use Intel processor based computers, Microsoft Windows 95, Microsoft Office and Netscape Navigator, I would like your opinion to be truly yours, not mine. It might be better if you write an e-mail message your way.

Anyway, some people has asked me for a model of the message to send. I've written a proposal and you have it below. I've tried and made independent sections, I first explain the importance of the UOC, then the pitfalls of its current situation and I finally suggest a possible solution. It's a long letter, and it is written in bits and pieces, I hope that helps you to cut off or change what you don't like, or copy a fragment and write the rest yourself, or anything you please. The idea is that it should be a customizable template for your opinion, not a fixed document to sign. You could also just send the UOC the titles of the parts you agree with and reference this web page, I've never been good at summarizing, you must have guessed so by now, so if someone finds a way to say the same with less (or better) prose, I'll be glad he or she tells me.

An address where you can send your opinion on this matters (besides the obrimuoc forum) is       (UOC rector)

And there is an address for questions about the UOC in general (such as confirming that the requirements I criticize are for real)            (information about the UOC)

NOTE:  I once suggested to send feedback to both UOC addresses, but the UOC information bureau (at the latter address) has told me that they are forwarding any comment right to the rector.

Mmes. and Messrs. of the UOC, Mr. Rector,

firstly I'd like to congratulate you for your work of creating and promoting an open university in Catalonia and for such a marvellous growth it has enjoyed.

The Universitat Oberta de Catalunya inspires many hopes, has a great potential and works hard to achieve many and very exciting goals:

- To take higher education closer to geographical and social areas that have a difficult access to it (as soon as the inexcusable popularization of telecommunications  takes place, both in price and use).

- To deliver knowledge workers acquainted with the use of the new information technologies, able to offer valuable products and services in the forthcoming networked economy.

- To allow for continued education for active professionals and some not less needed cultural enrichment for the whole population.

- To foster the use of communication networks and the improvement of society by building communities more open to the world, more solidary, with individuals having a greater ability to express themselves and less controlled by the media.

Secondly, I want to address a number of complaints to you that I think your policy deserves when it comes to your demands for use of certain kind of hardware and certain brands of software in your academic relations with students.

- Insufficient authority
I can't see what authority assist you in influencing the choice of computer systems that are the property of the students. No other university requires from its students neither the use of paper or pencils of any particular brand, nor books from a single publisher, let alone software from a single vendor.

- Discrimination
Users of computer systems other that the one you choose shouldn't be discriminated in their access to their right to education.

- Endogamy and proselitism
The study at your open university is closed in fixed brands, and thus your students may acquire working habits developed on a hypothesis of hardware and software homogeneity. I'm afraid that, by banning co-operation with users of other systems, the graduates from UOC may fail in their professional life when, after leaving university, the hypothesis no longer holds. They might even fail to notice the artificiality in this homogeneity and therefore they might pretend to demand such a homogeneity from those with whom they are to cooperate, in effect spreading the intolerance beyond the UOC itself.

- Favouritism
Your decision is partial to the chosen vendors, in that it offers them the dearest present in the software business: users trained in their products.

- Servitude
By requiring some products from the students, the university constrains itself to accept them in the future in order not to damage the students' investment. This bond limits their chances of taking advantage of technological innovation by any other product; the university community remains "married" to the chosen vendors.

- Ineffectiveness
The declared goal of your measure is to ease co-operation and communication among the university people (students, teachers and non-academic staff). I don't think that the mere choice of certain products fulfils this goal. There are issues left, such as incompatibilities between versions of the products and system configuration conflicts (e.g. installed fonts), that hold the user in a very similar position to that he or she would experience without the imposition of the products.

- Lack of need
Your requirement is clearly unnecessary. Students in other universities work together in groups and use word processors and other office software painlessly. The fact that students in the UOC communicate through electronic mail instead of by exchanging disks at class makes no difference.

- Betrayal to the spirit of the internet
The internet is precisely the solution that emerged with the explicit goal of "cross platform" communication (and many other goals, of course) and it produced the tools and protocols needed to make it possible. Some time later, Microsoft joined this revolution (and this was good, by the way) but the company pretended to become hegemonic and cast out more and more users of other systems, thus betraying the wonderful original intent that consisted in sharing information in the most free and open possible way. Any other vendor may be tempted to the same behaviour if it has a chance, so it is wise for universities and other public administration to stay away from trademarks.

It is a pity that the outstanding success of such a well thought out university suffers from so many pitfalls from a single unfortunate decision, much more so when it would seem to benefit from not so difficult measures such as the ones that I henceforth suggest:

- Abrogation
You should abolish the requirement for a fixed kind of computer and software products, and make this decision publicly announced for everyone to know.

- Adaptation of teaching materials
The resources that the UOC makes available to the students should be modified so that they are accessible from any computer system that complies with a small set of standards widely supported in the market instead of single vendor ventures. An example would be HTML and Java. This step may only require reworking the teaching materials distributed in CDROMs to make them independent of the operating system.

- Requirements specification
It would be convenient to take away the document titled "La informàtica a la UOC, requeriments del punt de treball" (Computers in the UOC, workplace requirements) and replace it with a specification stating the set of standards required and the task they are required for. For instance: "The student papers will only be accepted in HTML format" or "the teaching materials provided require an HTML 4 browser with Java 1.0 in order to be properly viewed".

- Focus shift in "Informatica i Multimèdia a la UOC"
This compulsory course common to all degrees should be planned again from a more platform agnostic point of view, as to introduce the students to the diversity of available platforms, the commonalties to exploit and the need to follow standards or to negotiate the tools to be used in each project with each work group. This change would lead the course away from single product descriptions complete with all user interface details, and focus it on the common activities local to the UOC campus (navigation, e-mail, web document creation, etc.). This change may seem to put more workload on the students, but it isn't that bad. Since the students in other universities use office software spontaneously in their papers, taking no university training, it isn't so hard for the newcomers to the UOC to learn how to create simple cross-platform digital documents, after taking a course on the subject.

- Planning for the cultural shift.
The most difficult step could be the change of attitudes in the university community. Obviously the students and professors that are now using the required systems shouldn't be left without any support overnight, but I am confident that the university is able to plan a smooth change. After all the products that now are being required would still be allowed, users just need be informed on how to use them so that they give no problems to users of other systems. It wouldn't be so much more difficult than the transition from one version to another of the products currently imposed. But there is no doubt that the later the change begins and the more the university grows in number of students and in their experience within the current policy, the more painful it will be. Now the UOC is still a young university and is able to correct this situation, later on it could only be worse.

These are only some possible steps to avoid the current shortcomings in your policy which I find so hard to comprehend. I have no doubt that you are perfectly able to find alternative solutions that satisfy users of any kind of hardware and software who are willing to study with you,  you wouldn't have got so far with this project otherwise.

Finally, I wish to adhere to the manifest "Opening the Universitat Oberta" that Xavier Durdis Ferran has posted at <>.

My best regards.


This letter contains some fragments written by Josep Giribet and some by Xavier Drudis Ferran, but it shows my opinion, not only theirs.