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Contents

Opening the Universitat Oberta
   Computer requirements in the UOC
      Hardware requirements
      Software Requirements
   The UOC wants homogeneous computer systems
      Benefits
      Prerequisites for homogeneity
         Technical feasibility
         Managemental feasibility
      The alternative approach, heterogeneous networks
      How about the UOC ?
         Technical feasibility
         Managemental feasibility
         "Political correctness"
   So what's the UOC after?
      For the majority's sake
      Fine, then?
   Can we do anything about it?
      Towards a better understanding
      Why is it worth it ?
      What should or should not be required to the open students
      If this was an easy quest, what fun would it be?
      Let's talk about it


 

Opening the Universitat Oberta .

I recently learnt that the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (Open University of Catalonia, UOC), which is the first university in Catalonia built on information and communication technology by offering distance higher education supported by a virtual campus in the web and multimedia materials, does not fully believe in open systems but imposes certain brands in the students home equipment instead. Since I find the UOC's model otherwise worthy and interesting, I'd like to point out why this position should be changed.

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Computer requirements in the UOC

On admission in the UOC, students are given a booklet titled "Computers in the UOC, workplace requirements" (I couldn't find its whole contents in the public pages of their web site ). In its third chapter, "What is needed to work in the UOC", this document states the computer resources necessary for a student to work in the UOC. It says mostly the same than this UOC pages (in Catalan).

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.


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Hardware requirements

The section on hardware includes a table depicting a forecast on the performance of different set-ups for a PC with an Intel compatible processor, along with their expected useful lives. Fortunately no reference is made to brands or trademarks.

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 accepted)"


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Software Requirements

The section dealing with software offers an even narrower choice: "the computer work in the UOC shall be carried out basically with three programs: Microsoft Windows 95, Microsoft Office Pro, and a Web browser". And somewhat later: "Netscape shall be the software used to access the UOC Virtual Campus". The browser (which is freely redistributable) is provided by the university, and each student is expected to buy Microsoft software licenses enjoying some discounts on the standard price. We are told, as their sole justification, that Windows 95 is very easy to use and the current de facto standard on PCs and also that co-operation among mates and between teachers and students requires a choice of document editing software, which happens to be Microsoft Office.

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The UOC wants homogeneous computer systems

Thus, a single software running on a single type of computer is imposed upon us, so as to make sure that both students and professors in the UOC use compatible hardware, as well as  software products from the same company, so that the system should show the same behaviour for everyone. This is a usual strategy in all sorts of computerized corporations.

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Benefits

Indeed, if a business or institution manages to achieve enough homogeneity in its computer equipment, it minimizes headaches on data format conversion issues, it saves on global learning costs, users can share their computer skills and practice, broken parts are easier to swap and it may even take advantage of better prices when buying at wholesale.

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Prerequisites for homogeneity

 However, enjoying these charms requires a couple of conditions, besides some luck and a good choice of the single system to use:

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Technical feasibility

A system must exist that is able to perform all the functions needed in the organization with sufficient efficiency and reasonable cost.

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.


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Managemental feasibility

There should be a decision making body in the organization with enough power to make the choice and do it in due time.

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.


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The alternative approach, heterogeneous networks

Generally, this plugging different networks together can be done, and the Internet itself is the cutest example.

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.


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How about the UOC ?

Nevertheless, the UOC's position is different from that of a organization that wishes to homogenize their computer resources. The difference lies in its quest for the same system at every students' home being hardly likely to fulfil the prerequisites.

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Technical feasibility

How about choosing a system able to perform all necessary functions? It isn't strictly true that the UOC can find a single system that fulfils every student's requirements .

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.


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Managemental feasibility

Regarding centralized control over equipment acquisition, it's needless to say that the UOC has no way to decide on students' purchases paid with their own money, and so it is completely unable to choose a computer type or software vendor for them.

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.


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"Political correctness"

On the other hand, there have been news lately about lawsuits filed in Europe and USA against the company that hold the hegemony on the operating systems market. Whatever the courts decide, this case highlights the great power that a software company gets when its products have very many users. The popularity of a piece of software lowers the learning costs and allows for a great availability of additional products and services. This in turn makes the product more and more popular and exponentially boosts its sales up to the point where competition is hardly viable and technological innovation and product improvement are no longer guaranteed by the free trade alone. This is why the software market is more sensible to any practice against free competition than many other markets.

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.


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So what's the UOC after?

For the majority's sake

In spite of all this, the UOC is unlikely to have any special interest in having its students use a certain kind of computer or a certain software vendor. I'd rather say it looks like it has sought the most popular choice among all available hardware and software capable of the necessary tasks for all 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).


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Fine, then?

The UOC's goal is to avoid problems. For instance, whenever two students are to write a paper together, they should be able to pass documents to each other in the format of the chosen word processor so that they don't have to worry about saving it in a common format risking, some loss in its look or even in part of the document content.

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.
 


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Can we do anything about it?

Towards a better understanding

So if we are to bear in mind our documents' recipients, we might as well teach the students the basic concepts for co-operation with people who use
other computer systems, among them: There is a compulsory common course in all degrees titled "Multimèdia i Comunicació a la UOC" (Multimedia and communications at the UOC). This could be turned into an introduction to the available means to communicate to no matter whom or what. Students could practice these lessons all through their degree, so that when they leave the UOC they don't get upset by somebody complaining because they sent him or her a document in a format absolutely useless for the recipient, and they don't get puzzled when they realize that some people use other operating systems.
 

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Why is it worth it ?

By doing so, besides preparing qualified people for the job market, the university would fulfil its main goal which should be to improve our world by means of knowledge and culture, to build our society just as it creates the inventions and ideas that shape our environment. The Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, as our first university in the Internet, is the place where our next generation will learn how to behave themselves online. Because of the responsibility that this situation puts on the UOC, it should reduce the technical restrictions imposed on the students and foster the students' right to choose freely while familiarizing them with diversity (in technology as well as in anything else)  . The framework for co-operation among students should be defined so that it would ease the team work for the students, but staying away from any particular vendor or platform.
 

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What should or should not be required to the open students

At least current "requirements" should be rewritten as simple recommendations, and new requirements issued, if any, should concentrate on document formats, data volume or  tasks to be supported, never on products. Even if the university kept the Office Pro document formats as a requirement, the simple shift from the program criteria to a document format criteria would allow people to use other office suites that can write documents in the same format, and the need for a single operating system would disappear, because Windows 95 is only needed (and not quite) to run Office. There are web browsers for almost any operating system, and the only reason left to use Windows 95 would be the tutorials distributed in executable form. These could be converted to HTML presentations and/or Java applications, which can run on different platforms.
 

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If this was an easy quest, what fun would it be?

Admittedly, this is a partly Utopian goal, but betting for open systems in the Universitat Oberta can only ease its work and bring obstacles down, little can it worsen the difficulties and servitude that goes with imposed proprietary systems.

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.
 


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Let's talk about it

I realize that it's easy to mistake this critique for criticism against Microsoft, Netscape or any other firm that the UOC happens to name in its specifications. We all have personal preferences, and I dislike the chosen Microsoft products, and the company manoeuvres in general, so much as anyone. Anyway, I'm sure there are many people who use these products everyday and are perfectly satisfied with them. If we were to argue about which software (or hardware) should have been chosen by the UOC, and which shouldn't, or about the pitfalls of each alternative we might spend a great deal of time without agreement. There's plenty of this debate on Internet forums (on any newsgroup ending with .advocacy, and, regrettably, on many other where it doesn't belong) and anyone interested may join them.

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:rector@campus.uoc.es       (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:internet@uoc.es            (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.



Xavier Drudis Ferran (xdrudis@tinet.fut.es)
Translated from Catalan by the author (who is no professional translator, as you must have guessed)
I want to thank  Carme Rovira i Badal and Eduardo Mestre Sáez for their help in proof-reading this document before its release


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