Inside Higher Ed. is running an article concerning a report created by the Commission on the Future of Higher Education. The article itself is neutral, but of course it really gets up the gander of an open source advocate like myself.
The panel’s members agreed at the time that the report would undergo only minor copy editing and “wordsmithing” between then and when it was formally presented to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings later this month.
That agreement was nearly imperiled last weekend, though. Gerri Elliott, corporate vice president at Microsoft’s Worldwide Public Sector division, sent an e-mail message to fellow commissioners Friday evening saying that she “vigorously” objected to a paragraph in which the panel embraced and encouraged the development of open source software and open content projects in higher education.
Is anybody surprised? I desire to blockquote the whole article, but I won’t for obvious reasons. Read it and come back to me; I’ll wait. Done? OK, good. Briefly:
- One could argue that there is no better tool for universities than open-source software, because it allows global collaboration, and provides good experience for students in computer science programs without hurting the university’s bottom line. With the right instructors, for instance, you could run an entire 4-year CS program with nothing but open-source tools and Creative Commons teaching materials. Even if the university taught using MS tools like VisualStudio, the value of shared content is still obvious.
- That being said, it should come as no surprise—even to Elliott—that the panel would endorse such methods. It’s not mere chaff that got thrown in the report because the panel was stocked with penguin-huggers; rather, open-source is genuinely healthy for schools, and examples like uPortal or OpenCourseWare bolster this claim.
- Elliott’s reaction, then, both to the original wording and to the later revision that endorsed both commercial and open-source methods, strikes me as the hysterical reaction of a true corporate floozy. Is Microsoft so scared of open source that they have to flail around like this? Importantly Microsoft has to-date portrayed its own proprietary products as not only better quality, but also of infinitely more utility. If it can no longer stand upon the demonstrable superiority of the closed-source model, but rather must instead actively lobby against any paradigm which contains the word “open,” what does that say about the future of the company?
- Elliott says that open-source is “a method of coding software, and one of several available, period.” She makes it sound as though it’s a stylistic preference, like indentation, rather than a means of sharing information. She is wrong, and her objection flimsy.
- She also say that open content is “a term which can mean different things and enter us into some copyright debate.” Except that the very nature of open content means that copyright isn’t an issue. This is why the Creative Commons was established—MIT’s OpenCourseWare, for instance, is licensed in just such a fashion. Poor Ms. Elliott can’t seem to wrap her head around the idea of free information exchange, and thinks that Higher Ed. can’t either. She is wrong, and her company flimsy.