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.

It's generally agreed that college and university students should learn the fundamentals of information technology, including the use of operating systems, office application software and the Internet. It's quite another matter, though, to pay for the necessary infrastructure--wired dormitories, industrial-strength servers, lots of PCs around campus, and pricey commercial software for student use. Now that Linux and open-source office applications such as AbiWord and Gnumeric are available for free, institutions of higher education can save big money in software costs, and more than a few campuses and university consortia are starting to take Linux seriously (see, for example, Robiette 1999). They're discovering what Linux users already know--namely, that Linux, compared to Microsoft Windows, offers an unbeatable combination of advantages, including a zero price tag, do-it-yourself flexibility, freedom from licensing headaches, stability, performance, compliance with public standards, interoperability with existing systems, and a design that reduces the threat of computer viruses (see Prasad 1999).

As I'll argue in this essay, there's much more at stake here than money. In what follows, I'll argue that open source software in general--and Linux in particiular--holds the key to the ability of colleges and universities to retain their traditions of scientific and scholarly excellence as they adapt to an increasingly computerized world. By establishing Linux as the international standard for academic computing, institutions of higher education can directly address challenges to the integrity of scientific research, do a better job of preparing students for a world of rapidly changing technology, and combat the growing and disturbing disparities in access to information technology. The following sections detail the case for Linux in higher education--a case that, in my view, amounts to a moral imperative.

Closed-Source Software in Science? Goodbye, Verifiability

Since science's earliest days, the enterprise has been based on a gift-economy notion very much like that underlying open- source software: scientists receive credit and prestige for their discoveries, but they do not receive ownership of them. On the contrary, scientists are expected to publish their findings in open, public journals, which are accessible to all. These journals print scientific articles only after a submission passes peer review, in which a scientist's peers scrutinize all of the assumptions and calculations that produced the conclusions. The journal's editor will publish a scientific article only when the peer reviewers conclude that the underlying methods are sound. To be sure, the system doesn't always work perfectly, but--like democracy--it is clearly superior to its alternatives.

Increasingly, scientists are beginning to see that their use of closed-source software poses a profound threat to the integrity of science (Kiernan 1999). Computer software is increasingly used to analyze research results or simulate real-world systems. However, scientists rarely make their software available to other scientists for scrutiny--and even if they did, they often used closed-source programs in which the underlying source code is protected by copyright and trade secrecy claims. But this practice strikes at the heart of science, namely, the notion of verifiability. To be accepted as valid, all calculations and assumptions that go into a given scientific assumption must be open to public scrutiny. Yet closed-source software makes such scrutiny impossible.

These are the simple facts, from which Dan Gazelter, a professor of biochemistry at Notre Dame University, draws the following, compelling conclusion: scientists are positively obligated to use open-source software, and what is more, the future of an increasingly computerized scientific enterprise may well depend on their decision to do so (Gezelter 1999; cf. Wilson 1999). Increasingly, scientists and university librarians are developing clearinghouses and large-scale development projects to create more open-source alternatives for use in higher education (see the Open Science Project and oss4lib).

But the use of open-source software is insufficient. If the future of science depends on scientists' use of open-source software, one can very well argue that colleges and universities are under a positive obligation to move away from closed-source computing infrastructures as well as closed- source software. Consider this: many of the instructions in computer programs do little more than issue directives to the operating system; this is done by means of the operating system's application programming interface (API). To verify scientific software fully, the scientific community may need to examine the program's interaction with the operating system. Yet Microsoft refuses to document the Windows API fully and regards the Windows source code as an immensely valuable trade secret. What is more, Microsoft has taken the lead in lobbying for proposed changes to the U.S. commercial code that would effectively criminalize reverse engineering.

It's not enough for scientists to use open-source software; they must also use an open-source operating system. Colleges and universities can help to assure the ubiquity of open-source software and operating system usage in science by moving to Linux as an international standard for academic computing.



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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.