University Rectors in Italy Promoting Proprietary Software
Last Tuesday, LJ.com published the final article in my seven-part series on how free software is being used in various Italian schools to the benefit of both teachers and students. Ironically, that same day, the Foundation of the Conference of Rectors of Italian Universities (CRUI) announced an initiative to allow all students in Italian universities "to use state of the art IT tools to study and prepare their exams", as stated on the Education page of Microsoft's Italian Web site. In case you are wondering what such tools may be, CRUI is talking about Microsoft Windows XP and Microsoft Office Professional Edition 2003. Italian students will be able to purchase these products with discounts of up to 80%; this translates to about 79.99 Euros for MS Office.
Although CRUI isn't an executive-level seller, it isn't a vanilla, corner computer shop either. According to that same announcement, the Foundation:
supports since 2001 the Conference of Italian Rectors with the goal of contributing to the cultural development of the Country, promoting the innovation of the national University system... A relevant part of its work is just about usage and diffusion of ICT in all areas of that system, from didactics to administration.
The press release explains that the Foundation is looking at this discount program with great enthusiasm, because it can contribute to the innovation of teaching, something which is "a determining factor to strengthen the competitivity of the whole University system". The discounts should facilitate this because, again according to the CRUI press release, "thanks to innovative solutions, Microsoft Office 2003 revolutionizes computer usage: creating documents like letters, projects and school researches, analyzing data, preparing multimedia presentations, sharing files and interacting with fellow students are only a few of the many activities that students can perform simply and quickly".
The simultaneous publication of this press release and my article on the benefits of using free software in the same university/school system isn't the only interesting part of the story. First of all, the language in the CRUI announcement is similar to that used on the page of Microsoft's Italian site that advertises the discount; even if you don't speak Italian, the correspondence is evident.
Secondly, two days after CRUI's release was published, two other announcements were issued simultaneously. The Linux User Group Roma criticized the Foundation's endorsement of the program because, although promoting state of the art IT tools is surely a laudable initiative, it should be based on pluralism instead of specific solutions from only one (proprietary) supplier. A few hours later, the CRUI Foundation published another press release titled "They Forgot the University" that denounces "the heavy cuts to the budget of the State University System announced for next year".
Predictably, the Italian FOSS community, beginning with its teacher members, is not pleased by CRUI's endorsement of Microsoft products. LUG Roma already has launched a petition to ask that:
Free and Open Source Software is given equal status in all initiatives of CRUI and of the CRUI Foundation.
CRUI promote activities that encourage the Italian University Community to participate in the development of Free Information Technologies--free as in freedom, of course.
The Italian teachers I interviewed for the Linux in Italian Schools series also are less than enthusiastic. The first fear of Giancarlo Dessi, the Slackware guru for the Professional Institute Cettolini, Sardinia, is that this announcement by CRUI will flatten even more the Italian IT culture on proprietary platforms and standard and keep it incomplete. Sophia Danesino, one of the architects of the e-learning portal of ITC Peano in Turin, is of the same opinion.
Making this kind of proprietary deal in primary schools, Dessi adds, would be questionable, but the damage could be limited. However, "at the University level, where IT knowledge should mean something more than just writing a letter with a word processor, it is harmful". From a strictly monetary point of view, he concludes, the whole thing sounds even more absurd. "Why not just tell students that there are software solutions whose licens[ing] costs are always null?" Personally, I would like to add that anything that can be installed and run decently only on new computers really isn't free, as in beer.
Francesco P. Lovergine and Francesco Loseto, the adult FOSS education experts in Bari, also are displeased. Lovergine hopes that, at least, this will be an occasion to expose and start solving a general problem. Today, he notes, software piracy is not only tolerated in Italian school and universities; sometimes, proprietary software much more expensive than MS Office is the only one that complies with the official requirements of mandatory exam projects. But, none of these companies offers discounts to students.
I also got some comments from other FOSS supporters in the Italian university community. Alessandro Rubini, the co-author of Linux Device Drivers who also worked as Contract Professor of Telecom and Networks Technologies at the University of Pavia, isn't surprised by the announcement. But, he notes that he was called to teach because he was competent, and he gained that competence thanks to unrestricted access to source code. Furthermore, while damaging to the reputation of the Foundation, promoting discounts on MS Windows often will be useless, as most students find it already installed when they buy computers.
Giulio Bottazzi, an Associate Professor of Economics who recently invited me to explain OpenDocument to the Sant'Anna Laboratory of Economic Management pointed out that market law forces Microsoft to maximize its profits. Therefore, the only reason why the company would reduce its prices when it still has almost complete control of this market is the fact that these students "won't remain students forever; they will grow, maybe graduate, become professionals, employees, business people". Because it's already almost impossible not to use computers on the job, if today's students are exposed only to proprietary technology, "they will be willing to pay very high prices to keep using it". So, there's nothing strange about Microsoft's wish to lock in its future customers, Bottazzi concludes, but "why should the University do the same? Above all, we should give our students the tools to choose, not choose for them!"
Renzo Davoli, Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of Bologna and director of the Masters in Free and Open Source Software Technology program, published his opinion on the whole matter and sent to me this English version:
The Rectors have more important matters to attend, so I hope that this idea of transforming the CRUI Foundation website in[to] an advertising billboard is an isolated initiative of some lower grade official within the Foundation itself. In any case, it is important to remember that the Foundation is not an official speaker of the Italian Universities, like the National University Council, and its choices are not binding for any single institution. Consequently, this initiative is just a lapse of style which in my opinion should be corrected, since that page is self-denigrating at the eyes of anybody with a minimum of culture. For the same reason, I respect the action of LUG Roma against this initiative and I congratulate to them for their enthusiasm. However, it is neither a law proposal nor an official Government position, so it may be suitable to conserve one's energies for more important battles.
I, too, think that it is highly probable that Foundation officers simply don't know yet that alternatives to Microsoft exist. My recent school articles have given me many first-hand confirmations that this still is the case, at least among Italian education professionals. Over the next few days, there surely will be time to establish direct contacts between the Foundation and the national FOSS community to discuss more actions on the same front. The purpose of this article simply is to encourage such future discussions by showing that many Italian educators already have the know-how to propose alternative solutions. In addition, I am asking all LJ.com readers to help the Foundation. Please tell them, either by e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) or through comments below, how FOSS is being used to great advantage in your schools and universities.
As always, I welcome any direct feedback and information on these matters. Thanks in advance for any such contributions, and thanks to all the professors who contributed to this article.
Marco Fioretti is a hardware systems engineer interested in free software both as an EDA platform and, as the current leader of the RULE Project, as an efficient desktop. Marco lives with his family in Rome, Italy.