In the field of computer engineering, the term "requirement" means "condition that a product to evaluate, acquire or build should fulfil". Standard practice separates the requirements specification from the design, the former is a document on what is the system expected to perform while the later tells how it may be built. In this sense, the booklet is not really about "workplace requirements" as it does not give us the necessary features (such as transmission rate, audio-visual capabilities, volume and formats of data to be handled, tasks to support, standards to follow and so on); it lists a set of components that make a computer system that works as needed (out of all the alternatives) .
This could be corrected by changing the word "requirements" for "example" in the document title, if it wasn't that the content of this paper does not show a model equipment, but it demands the very system described in order to study in the UOC.
What is not so clear is what kind of authority may stand behind the
demand and what might be the consequences of using a different set-up.
In any case the writing seems no advice or recommendation but a request.
By the end of the document the students are offered a free consultation
service to help in computer use, available either by e-mail or phone. It
might be the UOC's only intent to offer no support for other computer systems,
but the text really looks like if it is meant to ban them altogether.
Section 3.1, "Hardware, the technical model" starts with this text:
"Currently, working in the UOC requires compulsorily that the student
has access to a PC compatible personal computer (Apple equipment is not
This isn't always the case, and this solution is often fragmented in
a uniform choice of devices and software for servers, a different one for
the desktop and possibly some others in other tasks. This is most often
the case in university, where the student's computer lab equipment can't
always be the same as the desktop computers in the teachers' offices, let
alone the data processing facilities used in research.
If there is no single locus of control in the organization, or if different solutions for the same problems have been adopted over time in different places (in the organization or in any external entity working with it) then one may be forced to accept the diversity, plug the systems together and try to make them talk to each other.
Heterogeneous networks may be more complex, but they are more flexible, and this flexibility enables them to better adapt to each necessity and to keep pace with managemental, technical or other changes. This may well be the reason why the more an organization uses computers, the less likely it is to deploy the same machines and the same software everywhere.
A uniform choice of the computer system may be best suited to a small
organization devoted to some activity that holds its requirements quite
constant, in loose relations with its environment, with enough resources
and a centralized hierarchical structure, just the kind of organization
that would seem to be increasingly less common. For the rest, heterogeneous
networks are often a cheaper, more efficient and more flexible solution.
Many students probably have a computer before entering the UOC, or they may be able to access a computer (e.g. at the office with allowance to use it after working hours, or somebody else's computer at home). It was originally dedicated to anything but studying in the UOC and it will then have to perform its previous duty as well as work with the UOC. Therefore, the necessary functions of the computer system are potentially different for different students and the UOC cannot choose any single solution that copes with both the student's requirements as a UOC student and any other requirements he or she may have as a user of that system.
It isn't wise for the university to pretend that the students should
have a computer and its software exclusively dedicated to their degree
in the UOC, and another one for anything else they may want to do with
a computer; if it is possible to build a virtual campus at all it is because
there is an actual population of computers already installed around.
The very sentence "Apple equipment is not accepted" does not have an obvious meaning. The UOC does not accept or reject students' equipment. It accepts or rejects students, it accepts or rejects documents and communications from students. Hence, it is in a position to say things like: "teachers shall only accept documents in X format", "our consultation service will only answer questions on this and that software running on this kind of hardware", "the software provided by the university is only guaranteed to work properly when run on this set-up", "the UOC recommends this system", or even, in a generous frenzy, or in case it opts to stick to freeware, "the UOC will give such and such software away to students to assist their learning".
The UOC could freely dictate any or all of these statements but it cannot accept or reject equipment that isn't its own property. Sometimes even the students themselves won't be able to choose the system set-up they'll use, so the UOC would rather try and be flexible, it should care more about the students' knowledge than about their equipment.
Even if we assume that the UOC can somehow choose the students' system,
doing so would neglect co-operation with third parties using other computer
systems. I guess the UOC, as any other university, must have contacts with
the outside world in which it will be necessary to cooperate with people
not affiliated with the university to create documents; visiting professors
may give lectures in courses or seminars, and students in other universities
may get involved with the UOC. We can either assume that everyone will
be happy to use systems compatible with those in the UOC, or else the university
will need to handle each particular event somehow, more or less like the
rest of the university community that does not "enjoy" the unifying effort
of the UOC, and still manages to create documents in teams.
Although this is by itself no reason for a company to change its mind about what software to buy, let's keep in mind that the UOC is not acquiring this software but is inducing a part of the Catalan public to acquire it. The choice of Microsoft may easily appear as "politically incorrect" as it benefits a company at the expense of its competitors. This might seem to be alleviated by the fact that the university also favours Netscape, the major rival of Microsoft in the browser market, but this would be a gross oversimplification in that it assumes that there are only two companies on the software business.
The UOC puts many users in the obligation to use some specific products while they're studying there, regardless of user preferences. Despite not being myself able to evaluate whether the UOC's influence is disturbing or absolutely legitimate (because I'm absolutely illiterate on economics and law), I wouldn't be surprised at the excluded companies and their customers feeling unfairly treated. In this sense, the UOC's decision does not only affect its own students but also Microsoft or Netscape competitors and consumers in general.
As a matter of fact, any choice of one vendor (whatever it is) for each
sort of application will always go against the rest of them, the only remedy
is to exert no influence on the software bought by the students.
That is, once it decided to have all its students use the same operating
system, the same office suite, and the same browser, it chose these elements
trying to cause
the fewest possible changes to most people (and this might be read in a number of ways).
The trouble is that you don't get that by picking a particular product. When the day comes that a new version of the word processor displaces the old one there are going to be students using the latest version (at least those that joined the university after its release and then could not buy the older one) and there are going to be students still using the old version.The UOC can't make all the later upgrade to the new version, at least not overnight. The students using the new version will have to be careful to save any document in the old format and mind not to use the new features that cannot be stored in the old format. Therefore, they'll be facing much the same difficulties as if everyone used a different brand of word processor.
Even if we allowed ourselves to think all the students will use exactly the same recommended products, same brand, same version, we'd still have some issues left. Two students might have a different set of fonts installed in their systems, so each other's documents might be read with a different look (or even some symbol might change obscuring the content). The font could be sent along with the document, but this might even be illegal sometimes.
The UOC itself has an example of this kind of incompatibilities (in Catalan) applied to Office 95 and Office 97, but the problem isn't limited to this products, it will appear with any software. Sooner or later a new version of the software will introduce features that older versions can't cope with, or else a document may use resources that did not come with the application (e.g. a font).
As a result, any student will always have to bear in mind that their
documents' recipients don't use the same equipment as himself or herself.
The task isn't easy, there are probably no widely available formats being so stocked with sophisticated (and often unessential) features as proprietary formats are. By accepting diversity we confine ourselves to the greatest common divisor of the capabilities each system has to offer, but I don't think this limitation is really troublesome nowadays.
Nevertheless, I am no expert nor do I have thorough solutions. In my humble opinion, sticking to actual Internet standards (those supported by a majority of developers, not those coming from a single vendor), such as HTML, Java and multimedia formats in the Internet (and possibly PostScript too) we could satisfy most needs for final form documentation and development of teaching software. These technologies are comfortable in a variety of environments by their own nature, and there's plenty of available tools to work with them..
Unfortunately, though , I am unable to offer a solution for harder problems
like team editing complex documents (specially presentation graphics),
but I hope some solution will be found and it won't be worse than those
inherent to the adoption of unique software and hardware products. As a
last resort, if it was really necessary to work with a single application,
the choice should be made by each work group, not imposed by the university.
But a debate on what is the best solution is contrary to the idea I try to defend, which is that the university should not take this decision, leaving it up to each student. I'm much more interested in discussing whether the restriction on product vendor can be lifted and what is the best way to ease the co-operation among users of different computer systems with different operating systems and different applications. The obrimuoc forum is a place to debate this issues and spread relevant information.
Opening the Universitat Oberta is the UOC's responsibility, but is a concern for us all. I hope that by posting this critique I'm seeding a debate about the problems of the solution currently offered by the UOC. May this bring some advice, experience and suggestions from wiser experts about co-operation in creating documents. The rest of us may bring our opinion and our feelings of unfairiness to try to make the UOC change its mind. I hope that people (the more the better) send their opinion to the UOC to help it to open itself to everyone (and the same messages are welcomed to my mailbox too).
Although I'd found worthier an original opinion, freely composed, I've been asked to put together a model of complaint message intended to mix, copy and modify parts of it as desired for those not willing to write it from scratch.
An address where you can send your opinion on these matters is
mailto:email@example.com (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)
mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org (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.
In case you know of someone or some forum that you want to let know
about this stuff, the e-mail message I wrote
to spread the word about this might be of some use to you.
And, by the way, thank you for reading all this.