Linux in Higher Education: Open Source, Open Minds, Social Justice

Colleges and universities should move to adopt Linux as an international standard for computing in higher education.
Addressing the Digital Divide

Let's leave the campus entirely and consider the broader society. And what's going on is troubling. There's an increasing gulf separating the IT-literate "haves" and "have-nots." Over the past 35 years, the income ratio separating the world's richest from the world's poorest nations has nearly tripled (Watkins 1999). In general, familiarity with IT and access to IT are associated with the adaptability needed to cope with rapid social and economic change. With this adaptability comes greater earning power. Conversely, lack of familiarity and access are associated with flat or declining incomes. What is more, this disparity in IT literacy--the so-called "Digital Divide--tends to line up not only with ethnic divisions in the U.S., but also with the widening global gulf between the economies of the North and those of the South (Vee 1999).

If IT has helped to generate the problem, it may also offer a solution, in the form of Internet-mediated distance education. Using distance education, colleges and universities may be able to extend educational opportunities to precisely the areas that are poorly served by colleges and universities today, such as the inner cities and impoverished rural areas. But academia may not be able to succeed if distance education is hijacked by commercial vendors, who are bent on extracting lucrative profits from what they see as a huge and growing market. Already, they are pushing universities to adopt policies that rob professors of their right to the intellectual property produced in the classroom, so that this property can be packaged and sold to commercial distance education vendors (Noble 1998).

Distance education cannot succeed in impoverished areas of the U.S., let alone the Third World, if students and schools are forced to pay commercial software licensing fees and copyright fees in addition to the cost of computer hardware and network connections. The use of commercial operating systems and commercial applications for distance education is impossible to justify when stable, high-quality products are available from the open-source community. This is precisely the reasoning that led Mexican government officials to choose Linux and the GNOME desktop as the foundation for a new push to place computers in Mexican schools (Kahney 1998). The economies of Linux are no less relevant to underfunded schools in rural and inner-city settings in the U.S. (Dean 1999). Adopting commercial, closed-source software as the infrastructure for distance education amounts to a slap in the face to the poor.

Joining the Movement for Social Justice

Were colleges and universities to move to a Linux standard for academic computing, they would soon become full participants in a growing movement to use open-source software as a means of achieving social justice worldwide. They would become engines of open-source software development -- and the results could make a genuine difference in helping to remedy international inequities in access to information technology.

If you're skeptical of this claim, consider the Littlefish project (Frazer and Brown 1999). In brief, Littlefish is an open- source project that seeks to develop license-free patient information software for use in rural and Third World settings. In such settings, the use of commercial software is impossible, and not just because of the cost; the vendors of commercial patient information software have little interest in supporting users in remote or impoverished locales. Accordingly, part of the Littlefish project's goal is not only to create high-quality, open-source patient information software, but what is more, to create a worldwide community of practitioners who possess and are eager to share the expertise needed to implement effective patient-tracking systems, even under conditions of extreme poverty and geographic isolation. Does this effort matter? The answer is found in one simple statistic: 97 percent of childhood deaths occur in developing countries. Effective patient information systems could help to reduce this mortality significantly.

Arguably, open-source software holds the key to addressing significant issues of social justice and economic development worldwide (Vee 1999). Accordingly, colleges and universities should do all they can to foster open-source software development, and this purpose would be admirably served by adopting Linux as the international standard for computing in higher education.

Linux: The New International Standard for Computing in Higher Education

I'm fully aware that moving to a Linux standard would pose new and difficult challenges for colleges and universities; for one thing, Linux isn't the easiest operating system to learn, and maintenance costs could soar as students meddle with system configurations and wind up with unbootable systems. Still, Linux distributors are working hard to make Linux easier to install and use. As the GNOME and KDE desktops reach maturity, they will open the use of Linux to a much broader audience. But most importantly, the very nature of Linux as an open-source operating system will enable colleges and universities to create and distribute customized Linux distributions (for an example, take a look at CAEN Linux, a version of Red Hat 6.0 that's customized for University of Michigan e-school students). These "educational versions" of Linux will include pre-configured system and network settings that are designed to work seamlessly and transparently with the campus computing network, eliminating the need for students to acquire system and network administration skills.

Perhaps the best argument for moving to the Linux standard, however, comes from a consideration of what may happen if current trends continue. Microsoft is making increasing inroads into the academic computing market, largely on the strength of multi-million dollar deals that make Microsoft software available to all registered students. Microsoft has all but taken over academic computing, save on the server end. Colleges and universities have become yet another stepping-stone to Microsoft's stranglehold on the world market for Intel-based operating systems and application software.

I am well aware that many academics who are sympathetic to Linux are put off by what they see as "gratuitious Microsoft-bashing" by Linux advocates, but the bashing is far from gratuitous; indeed, there is ample evidence--supplied by none other than Microsoft itself--that the firm is considering measures that would drive Linux out of the marketplace, just as Microsoft has similarly destroyed earlier competitors. The so-called Halloween documents (Harmon and Markoff 1998), released to the Internet by an unknown source within the company, disclose a plan to counter Linux by "de-commoditizing" the public protocols that currently form the basis of campus computing networks and the Internet and will in the future provide the infrastructure for distance education.

What is meant by "de-commoditizing" public networking protocols? Currently, such protocols, such as the Domain Name System (DNS), are "commodities", in Microsoft's terminology, in the sense that they are standardized and publicly available. By adding proprietary extensions to these protocols, Microsoft hopes to make the use of non-Microsoft software more costly to users, even as the use of Microsoft software becomes more convenient. Microsoft's internal documents make it clear that the firm intends to introduce such extensions, not because doing so is in their customer's best interest or would improve their products, but because such extensions could prove effective in pushing Linux out of the marketplace.

To be sure, Microsoft disavows these documents and rejects the assertion that they accurately characterize the firm's intentions. However, Microsoft's critics argue that the company has played this game for years, and only the naïve would believe that it will no longer continue to do so. The company stands accused in a U.S. Federal Court of using similar tactics against its competitors in the past; if it wins, which seems increasingly likely, the firm's attorneys will no doubt advise the company's executives that it is free to pursue such tactics against new competitors as well--and currently, Microsoft's most vigorous competition stems from the open-source community.

In my opinion, the very fact that someone inside Microsoft considered such tactics is reason alone to argue that Microsoft software has no place in academic computing. I realize the software marketplace is a rough-and-tumble world, and hardball tactics are commonplace. Still, Microsoft doesn't seem to know where the line lies between aggressive competition and reprehensible, potentially illegal actions that result in the annihilation of anyone with the temerity to compete with the company--and at incalculable cost to consumers and the general public. For example, Microsoft is taking the lead to lobby for new legislation that will rewrite copyright laws--and the results threaten the very existence of well-established conceptions of fair use and reverse engineering, practices on which university research and education are deeply dependent. Given that Microsoft is involved in a variety of activities that threaten the very existence of open intellectual exchange in colleges and universities, they have every reason to do nothing to advance the interests of Microsoft, but in contrast, to do everything they can to advance the development of Linux.

In sum, the survival of open-source software in general, and Linux in particular, may prove essential to the preservation of the integrity of science, the effectiveness of computer literacy instruction, and the reduction of the digital divide. Colleges and universities are under a positive obligation, which I believe amounts to a moral imperative, to reject the growing role of commercial software in academic computing, and to transform themselves by the thousands, worldwide, into vigorous centers of open-source software development.

Bryan Pfaffenberger is a professor in the University of Virginia's new Media Studies program, where his responsibilities include developing and teaching UVa's new University-wide computer literacy course (Media Studies 110). His works on Linux include Linux Clearly Explained (Morgan Kaufmann) and Mastering GNOME (Sybex).



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I do agree Linux is one of

Richard Henderson's picture

I do agree Linux is one of the most advanced pieces of software ever built and it's free with great support. Students who in roll in higher
courses should use that, it would make the course less expensive and more known because of it's use of linux.