foobar on computers, software and the rest of the world

Universities: No interest in open source, and too keen to support fads and vendors

, posted: 12-Sep-2007 09:51

A while back I worked with a couple of students from a number of universities here in Auckland: UoA, AUT, Massey. These were students in various IT fields, which had to do a practical industry project.

I noticed to my horror that most of them had completely bought into whatever Microsoft had produced: They learned C# and .NET, they used Hotmail e-mail accounts, naturally ran the latest and greatest MS goodies on their XP powered laptop (surely they have all 'upgraded' to Vista by now). "Command line? Never heard of it..."

I mean, those were IT students, for crying out loud!

What bothered me even more was that the universities didn't seem to mind at all! In a rather eye opening moment, I found that a network security class was using a commercial IDS (generously sponsored by some vendor), rather than the open source Snort IDS. Consider this: Snort is open source! You can look at it, examine it, find out how it works and what it does. What a wonderful learning opportunity, which was completely missed. Instead, some vendor's IDS is used, because they effectively 'bribed' the University in using it. How very sad.

You would think that universities should jump on all the teaching opportunities provided by open source. Instead, they keep pushing specific vendor related technologies and 'skills'? Why is that? Don't they know that good engineers know how to learn, know sound principles and can apply the basics to new technologies as the need arises? Don't they know that teaching vendor specific things is an utter waste of otherwise valuable time, since vendors and technologies, fads and bandwagons come and go? The ability think critically, the skill to know how to find out how stuff works deep down, and the ability for life long learning, however, will alway remain valuable.

Is it just too easy for universities to go the 'easy' route? Are universities pressed too much by the industry to produce 'instantly marketable' skills? In other words: Code monkeys?

I know that universities in all countries probably have this problem, but I noticed it particularly so here in New Zealand. Why is that? One theory I have is that New Zealand of course is a very small market, with a limited number of employment options. Therefore, maybe the industry can exert and undue influence on the universities' curriculum decisions?

What do you think?

Comment by chakkaradeep, on 12-Sep-2007 11:41


Students are good, ,dont spoil them by pulling into this silly fight of Open Source Vs Microsoft. If you are an Open Source guy, its becoz you wanted to become an OS guy and you respect them. It doesnt mean that other Universities,Students should also be the same.

I see the same situation of OSS Vs Microsoft debate in my University too (Otago) and I do not support it.

Students come to University to learn and decide about their future. University should offer everything, whether MS or OS, doesnt matter, the student should decide.

I think my department (computer science) are considering now to open Microsoft subjects.

Microsoft Student Partner,
University Of Otago

Author's note by foobar, on 12-Sep-2007 12:12

@Chakkaradeep: Yes, I'm an open source guy, but I actually see this as more than just a "silly fight of Open Source Vs Microsoft". Mind you, the IDS vendor was not Microsoft at all. I noticed the strong trend towards MS stuff by the students, and I am wondering why that is so?

The second question was why universities choose to use closed source, proprietary vendor solutions, when using open-source instead could save them money in some cases, and also allow their students to get greater insight into how things work? I believe that a university that uses open-source as their teaching tools can teach more to their students.

I'm not saying that universities should stand there, getting involved in that fight, and preaching "open-source religion" to their students. Not at all. I have worked for proprietary software vendors before myself. But I think universities should use whatever can teach the students the most. And since those are IT students, being able to see the source of something can be very illuminating. So, why not take advantage of that opportunity?

Has nothing to do with a 'silly fight'...

Comment by barf, on 12-Sep-2007 13:00

for kinesthetic learners, the best way to learn to programme is to read source code, change it, recompile it, and so on. I would not know what I do today without open source, and I've never had any formal education since being expelled from high school.

Comment by paradoxsm, on 12-Sep-2007 16:59

But hacking Microsoft can be even more fun! and it's not hard at all!

Open source is great for anyone whom wants to furthet it and Should be simply taught alongside the usual MS stuff, I was taught both back at school and we even touched on macs (OS 8.1)

I have always said, IF microsoft supplied their software FREE to all students and the schools/uni's then it should be taught, if not they should teach unix instead as it is already free of charge.

Comment by chakkaradeep, on 12-Sep-2007 21:02

paradoxsm, Microsoft do support Universities and Students with Microsoft Student Academic Alliance (MSDNAA) and students get free software. Currently the list is,

1) Windows Server 2003 Enterprise/Standard/Small Business Server
2) OneNote 2007
3) Vista Business
4) XP Professional SP2
5) Visual Studio Professional 2005
6) SQL Server 2005 Developers Edition
7) Visio 2007

And also the Visual Studio Express Editions are free from Microsoft

Comment by timestyles, on 12-Sep-2007 21:12

Umm, Paradoxsm, Microsoft supply software to students here in Canterbury for free, you only need to prove that you are studying a course in the computer science department and you get a key that installs the software kept at the sciences library. Since MS have a poster that says it's all free, it's likely to be at other univeristies as well. Also, I got my own copy of Visual Studio for about $120 academic. Hardly a lot considering it's $600 for a commercial license.

In terms of the blog posting, students are really too busy to get into the whole how it works thing by looking at the source code, let alone modifying it. Also, not all students are studying programming courses (although most probably are - I don't know why you'd bother doing a course in computer science if you aren't).

Here at Canterbury, we are taught 1st year Java with the BlueJ learning system. The labs have Linux or XP. So it's hardly a Microsoft centric environment.

Comment by lugh, on 13-Sep-2007 12:57

My Massey programming papers have consisted of Delphi, Java, Haskell, Prolog, PHP, and Assembler. Only the Delphi and Java papers were done through "commercial" apps (Borland Delphi, BlueJ, JBuilder, and Eclipse). We wish that we could have had something that's more commercially applicable in the real world like the Visual Studio System but no, we mostly end up with crud that's only of interest to computer scientists.

Admittedly, I am doing my degree extramurally but, as Chakkaradeep pointed out, there are free versions of Visual Studio availalbe.

Comment by Darren, on 13-Sep-2007 15:03

To All above,

MS does not, repeat does not give anything away for free.

Read the Eula, it is printed clear as day. As for what the students receive is simply an evaluation copy.

This is not a question of MS vs FOSS, or otherwise. It is a question of why aren't ALL the choices available.



Comment by Danny, on 13-Sep-2007 16:10

Why would a university care about open source?

Their pockets are stuffed with our tax money, If they actually try too conserve it they will not get a raise next year!!!!!

Comment by bigbert, on 13-Sep-2007 16:19

Maybe you should try Northland Polytech! Seriously.

1. Programming: Python, VB.NET, C++
2. DBMS's: MS SQL Server, MySQL
3. OS's: XP, Server 2003, Linux

Plus the usual IS and management subjects.

All round a balanced curriculum.

(Disclaimer: I teach there, but trust me on this one.)

Comment by lugh, on 13-Sep-2007 17:08

@Darren - my bad, the free versions of Visual Studio I was referring were the Express editions.

@Danny - tertiary education get a pittance from the government coffers, that's why fees go up each year and the teaching departments have to reduce resources (which kinda screwed the delivery of one of my papers this year).

Comment by Mat Urb, on 14-Sep-2007 01:02

MS gives nothing for free. If students can obtain free copies, it simply means that the government or Ministry of somekind, bought joint licences for them to give. It simply means, that the students pay for the licence, but thay don't know that yet!

The author correctly finds an immediate link to open source and an ability to see HOW the thing works not only what kind of info it throws out. Knowing HOW the stuff works is also the reason why opensource proponents usually know a lot about open and closed systems as opposed to those who stick to the closed "results". IT students can not look away from this. It doesn't matter which one you choose at the end, you must know all of them!

The problem is, that if the IT students did that, they would surely stick to open. Learning curve is steeper and community just too friendly.

Learn from OS, earn from MS and you are set for life.

Comment by Jan, on 14-Sep-2007 01:23


I have to say that I fully agree with the original article. This is not about Microsoft or Linux or whatever and it is not about the price neither. Universities get the Microsoft tools and many other things for free (as in beer) or almost free. E.g. student's edition of Matlab could be had for ~100CHF, which is around 60 EUR. That is not the point.

The issue is more with *what we want the students to learn*? To use a vendor-specific software? Or to learn the general principles? I think that a respected University needs to shoot for the latter. The tools and fads change all the time and I am not going to redo a curriculum just because Microsoft made a new version of C# or something. Also teaching general principles has the advantage, that even if the particular product is not available anymore, your skills are not obsolete - you can easily adapt. If you have learned only a specific product, you are very likely screwed.

I am teaching issues related to computer graphics and image processing and I am pushing a principle - "learn how it works", then choose the tools appropriate for the job. For me it means that the students have to program in C in Linux, but they are free to use their own computers and Windows if they prefer. I am trying to use FOSS tools where possible, so that the students can easily get them without having to resort to cracked versions of commercial software or having to buy expensive things. It also saves money for the University, but as said above, that is not the main issue.

On the other hand, people looking for "real world skills" - in other words how to use Visual Studio or Maya or 3DS Max have a hard time with me - that is what books or paid trainings are for, not a University. I will teach you how it works and what it does, you are responsible for translating the general knowledge to the tool of your choice. There will be tutorials with some of the tools, but do not expect me to teach you how to *use* 3DS Max. On the other hand, I will teach you all you will need about rendering and 3D graphics that you can do with it.

Also, how we do programming courses - text editor and command line compiler in Linux. No Eclipse, no Visual Studio, no (God forbid!) BlueJ. The reason is simple - the novices need to learn how it works and what it does, without distraction of (often buggy) IDEs and not to push "magic buttons" in a specific product and then being lost when the IDE doesn't do what they want or when they need to use a different tool than the one they were used to.

In particular, BlueJ is very bad for this - some students very extremely surprised after a semester of teaching with BlueJ that there is actual *code* behind all the nice boxes.

This approach has also the advantage of breaking the "Windows is a part of a computer" idea many students have, even in CS. I even had a colleague with a PhD who complained that his SGI Indigo2 doesn't boot Windows (a MIPS workstation with IRIX) - he has simply never seen any computer *without* Windows before. The students get exposed to different tools and approaches and that is very important if they are to be able to solve real problems in the future. An engineer with a single tool in his toolbox is an idiot, not an engineer, IMHO. After the basic course the students can use whatever they want for their assignments, though.

Author's note by foobar, on 14-Sep-2007 04:46

Jan, I wish all instructors and universities would see it that way.

Comment by Jan, on 14-Sep-2007 08:08

Thanks, but it is not all that rosy actually.

Teaching methods and curricula are pretty contentious issue and I can guarantee you that you can get into a very heated argument very quickly. It happens even here at Aalborg University which has a very problem-oriented, project-based learning approach where students learn the majority of the stuff by actually doing projects in groups, not in lectures.

For example, we had endless debates with colleagues whether to teach programming with IDEs and abstract, graphical tools ("easy to understand, easy to learn") or down to the Earth with text editor and command line compiler ("hard to grasp, but everything is laid bare and nothing is hidden"). Both have their merits, but both teach (or rather - have students learn) different things.

So I am not pushing FOSS software or Linux religiously, I am looking at what is required by the curriculum and what are the students going to need to be able to do that. That may be also proprietary software, if I cannot do that job with something free or the free alternative is not used out in the industry. Typical example is Blender3D - most 3D modeling and animation in industry is done with either Maya or 3DS Max, almost nobody uses Blender, so I am not pushing it. However, I have a policy of making Blender available, so that no student has an excuse that a project or assignment couldn't have been done due to lack of tools.

On the other hand, focusing on e.g. Visual Studio is a waste of time, IMHO - it is bad for the first-time learners (distractions, bugs) and the more advanced students can pick it up by themselves already.

But in the end it comes down to the individual lecturers, those are the people deciding on the tools. I didn't yet see a curriculum mandating Visual Studio use or something similar, unless it is for a specialized course.

I would say that if you do not like what you see, vote with your feet - it is your money, your time and finally your degree which is at stake. University students are generally adults and should be capable of deciding of what is good or not for them already and what they want instead of being spoon-fed with whatever that was decided as being appropriate for them. If it means that I lose a student, then so be it - it saves time for both the student and me and we can both do something more valuable with our time.

Author's note by foobar, on 14-Sep-2007 08:20

Jan, I agree with your arguments.

I do get the feeling, though, that there is a cycle that is difficult to break out. The industry in a particular country uses mostly vendor XYZ's tools. Thus, they put a certain amount of pressure on the universities to produce students with skills in that vendor's tools and infrastructure. So, more students with that skill are produced, which make purchasing decisions (once they are in the industry themselves), which favor vendor XYZ, and so it continues.

I think particularly smaller countries are vulnerable to this. New Zealand is very, very small indeed.

The problem then is that because we are using proprietary software, students will not be exposed to the open alternatives, and thus are missing learning opportunities.

Comment by Jan, on 14-Sep-2007 09:53

Well, I think that this is only a part of the story. Also, Denmark has about comparable population and a smaller area, but we do not have so much of this pressure.

I think that it comes down to two things:

1) Vendors sponsor equipment/software in exchange for university teaching using their tools. This is particularly relevant for smaller/poorer institutions. I have seen this firsthand in Slovakia, my home country, where funds for *anything* (including heating, water, electricity ...) used to be very hard to come by when I was studying. A new state-of-the-art computer lab was an unachievable goal unless somebody sponsored it.

Also, there is rub to this - you can see it as a "sellout", on the other hand, if that is what is used in the industry, well, you want to get employed in the end, don't you? I can teach and preach whatever theory I like, but if nobody needs that, what's point? Of course, there are limits, I think that I have explained my personal philosophy already.

2) Vendors provide tools *and* lecture materials. This is actually very significant, I would say much more than the sponsorships or industrial pressure. If a lecturer has a choice between preparing the whole course from scratch or using a professionally pre-made slides, exercises, workbooks etc., he or she will usually opt for the latter. It saves huge amount of time - I routinely spend 3-4 days of my time preparing a lecture if I need to do it from scratch. I do not consider my course material to be particularly stellar or great, just a normal standard.

This is very visible in the textbook industry - if you order a textbook to be used for your course, you get all these nice perks - and the book's publisher gets a nice profit (e.g. a calculus book for undergrads - 200-300+ copies/class * 100EUR/book each year, not bad!)

So if you get e.g. a free instructor's copy of Matlab with all the coursework prepared for, let's say, Image processing course, it is quite tempting to build a course around it. Then it takes a decision and insight of the lecturer, whether it is good enough for the students' needs or not and, let's be honest about it, not everybody cares 120% about that - lecturing is not very appreciated part of the job if you are expected to do research, publish papers, deal with the ever-increasing paperwork, etc. So people tend to take whatever makes their lives easier.

On the other hand, I, as an instructor, very rarely get a meaningful feedback from the students regarding this, except of groans when Windows users need to adapt to Linux or command line - "Why do we need to use this? Nobody uses that!" or my favorite: "My stuff doesn't work because of Linux".

Many students want just the fancy tools they have seen somewhere (or that they think is used in industry), and I have yet to hear a request specifically asking for an OSS tool be used instead of a commercial one. I guess that has to do with the way 99% of people get in contact with computers, but it is a sad fact.

Comment by Todd, on 29-Apr-2008 13:22

IT students, in general, seek easy money. Those of us with real talent tend to learn everything on our own, and if we go to college at all, we steer clear of IT courses.

Sadly, open-source is losing the battle at the college where I now work. We're dumbing down. It's really no surprise when you consider the forces in play at a typical school: unions, government reporting rules, greedy software vendors, semi-democratic governance, backstabbers and asskissers, incompetent managers swayed by sales hype and internal politics, and teachers who refuse to learn. It's a recipe for mediocrity.

I find it deeply troubling to think that, as more and more of our personal records are going online, the people responsible for computer security in education, government and industry are people who would fit right in at my workplace.

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New Zealand

  • Who I am: Software developer and consultant.
  • What I do: System level programming, Linux/Unix. C, C++, Java, Python, and a long time ago even Assembler.
  • What I like: I'm a big fan of free and open source software. I'm Windows-free, running Ubuntu on my laptop. To a somewhat lesser degree, I also follow the SaaS industry.
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