The truth about proprietary software at Wits
1011 days ago
Universities can be strange places sometimes. Last week I heard that the Knowledge and Information Management Portfolio was opposed to people using proprietary software and would not allow teaching the use of Microsoft technologies to students. Before such wild ideas become common place, it is important to make it clear what our position is regarding FOSS, and stipulate clearly that this is just not true!
At a philosophical level, I personally support and prefer the FOSS regime and business model because it is more aligned to my belief that the rights and freedoms of humans should be protected in our increasingly digital world. It makes no logical sense to fight for our rights in the political and physical worlds, and then relinquish them in the digital world. Such a notion creates too much cognitive dissonance for me to accept it. However, practically, I recognize that there are times and circumstances, and states in the maturity of an organisation, where proprietary business models and technologies will dominate the landscape, where significant numbers of people do not experience the same levels of cognitive dissonance that I do when accepting one kind of freedom and denying another, and will be applying and using proprietary technologies. There will be times, when even I will have to apply proprietary technologies to solve an immediate need. For example, I keep a Windows virtual machine on my Linux laptop purely for the purpose of updating my TomTom navigator because there is no other way for me to do so.
Yes, it's true. I use Windows! At least for this one thing, for now. As soon as there is a freer alternative I will use it. I also keep a virtual machine on my desktop so that I can be personally assured that any technology that we develop within the various areas of the KIM portfolio will work on the platform that most people are using.
Windows XP running in a virtual machine on my dual-monitor setup. Linux to
the left, Windows to the right running as a 'programme' under Linux.
Within the KIM portfolio, we have a strategy that tells us to make use of FOSS principles, processes and technologies whenever it is sensible and reasonable to do so. In order to achieve that, we raise awareness of FOSS, create support for a FOSS-friendly environment, and build FOSS capability into our development and back end support team.
Perhaps the mistaken assumption arises out of the eLearning strategy. When the eLearning Support and Innovation (eLSI) unit teaches basic literacies, FOSS technologies should be taught alongside their dominant proprietary cousins. For example, if they are teaching word processing, they should include both FOSS and proprietary word processors. This makes academic sense, and it applies to the eLSI unit, not to academic programmes which are themselves subject to academic freedom, and its underpinning responsibilities.
Thus, we are creating a supportive and enabling environment for those who wish to explore FOSS technologies and approaches. This can be done without diminishing our support of proprietary technologies in any way. We certainly have no intention to create rules regarding what technologies can and cannot be used for academic purposes. It would be wrong for us to do so, and in any case - it would not work.