This is part one of my series of articles about studying at the University of Liverpool online using GNU/Linux. They “officially” only support Mac OS X or Windows, although things work just as well using GNU/Linux.
Well, the good news first: I was accepted into the online MSc program of the University of Liverpool (UoL). Whee! Working at a university myself, I’m equally curious about the education UoL delivers as about how they deliver it.
The university I work at, at least in my own department, is quite progressive about many IT things, and I myself am in charge of interoperability. All our services can be used by any operating system and we officially support GNU/Linux, Mac OS X, Windows and FreeBSD clients. We also aim to build everything on open standards, and the department runs 100% on Free Software. I’m quite proud of all that, because I see interoperability and open standards as a responsibility each of us has toward the future. It will be interesting to see how progressive UoL is about all this, and I plan to write a bit about my experience there.
To provide IT services that only work on one single manufacturer’s products is today recognized as what it is: silly and dangerous. I was a bit surprised to see that a teaching institution such as UoL is still using solutions in some places that are not interoperable in the least. My articles will focus on where the UoL’s interoperability and standards-compliance could be improved. Most of the time, if some entity starts adhering to open standards, interoperability comes as a free bonus. If, however, an entity chooses to go with older, proprietary and closed formats and systems, real interoperability is impossible to attain. What’s worse, the entity will become entirely dependent on whoever is in control of the format or system. So how does the UoL fare?
As an introduction, a few observations during the signup process:
Electronic paperwork in closed, non-standard formats: The first documents you are given to sign when you enrol with UoL online are the student agreement and the credit card authorization form. They come in Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel formats. Neither of these formats is open — they are not even documented. And more importantly, what format? The “Word format” does not exist as such. There are internal names that Microsoft uses to define the various mutations their formats have gone through in the last two decades, but there are no specs for any of them, there is no name, there are no real versions. The only thing the public has is what people have reverse-engineered. This is pitiful. A format that is used in office collaboration, in business, in education should not be closed. We should not be at the mercy of people who reverse engineer a closed format in order to provide interoperability; that would be dangerous and short-sighted.
There are open and fully standardized formats that would work just as well: OpenDocument (ISO/IEC 26300) for example. There are other formats that are close to standardization, such as PDF. Except for the illegally attained market dominance of software that uses the proprietary formats mentioned, there is no good reason to keep using them.
I was of course able to open the forms, but due to the closed nature of the format it’s impossible to tell whether they render correctly in the software I use. Not even Microsoft themselves can render their own document format properly; these formats are not suitable for document exchange. So this problem (along with many other problems associated with Word documents) would also pop up if I had been using Microsoft’s own software.
- Insecure transfer of credit card details: There was no way to submit my credit card information via an encrypted web form. For people outside the EU, credit card is the easiest payment method, so this is a bit annoying. I asked my Admissions Adviser whether something like PGP encryption would be available so I could send my details via encrypted e-mail, but PGP is not in use at the UoL/Laureate offices. The only option that was left was faxing everything, which I grudgingly did. Once I had received my login details for the virtual classroom I found a posting from 2006 that claims you can now use a secure web form to store your credit card details. This means that things are improving — all that’s necessary now is to also allow the initial transmission to be encrypted, not only after you’re enrolled and have access to your account management tools via the web.
But please don’t think I want to put down the UoL. These are just two issues I’ve encountered — the rest of the signup process was fantastic! People at Laureate and the UoL are very helpful, very friendly, very professional. All my questions were answered, every bit of information I needed was sent in time, I have absolutely nothing to complain about. The interoperability problems probably grew organically out of an old system, and replacing it to become more standards-compliant can not be done overnight. I just want to highlight things now, so that a warning call is out early enough to take the appropriate steps to move UoL into the future. And the future is open.