Linuxing Liverpool Online — Part 1: Signup Adventures

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.

0 thoughts on “Linuxing Liverpool Online — Part 1: Signup Adventures”

  1. I am currently a student at UOL-online and have wondered about their near strict adherence to a Windows-Only network. I work mainly with a Macintosh OS X environment, but have begun working more with Linux. I found your site while looking for the Linux-based FirstClass client.

    To my view, there appear to be three (or 2.5) core reasons UOL-online has such a limited platform support:
    1) The “Bricks-and-Mortar” University of Liverpool computer services department would appear to be run by Microsoft supporters or adherents.
    2 or 1.5) We both know that MS along with Dell, HP and Gateway, have spent considerable amounts of effort and treasure on courting the educational sector. They offer some very enticing sweetheart deals for schools that are financially (at least on the front-end) hard to turn down. There is also a great deal of comfort in the (erroneous) assumption that there will be more support for Windows than other platforms.
    3 (or 2)) Most of the students at UOL-online are from the corporate business sector (this has certainly been my experience even though I work exclusively in the non-profit/education sector), so they assume most will be working with Windows machines. The logic is hard to challenge, but I would rather an education that challenges corporate IT folks to consider their options rather than embrace entrenched notions of “what works best.”

    I think the sum of the discussion points to the difference between the characters Howard Roark and Peter Keating in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. The Roarks of the world are the Linux developers, operating with an idea of perfection and efficiency, and Peter Keating is Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, mediocre technologists with a good eye for business. Instead of creating something truly inspired and unique, they just glue tons of features on their products, design them to play poorly with others, actively undermine their would-be competitors in lieu of product innovation, and rely on the lemming phenomenon combined with the Stockholm syndrome to maintain their market base.

    Anyway, nice site. Useful information too!

  2. Wow, I’m very happy my page turns up when looking for the FC client, it took me some digging through their Windows-based client downloads to figure out that when UoL says “Embanet” they mean “a customized FC client that somebody in Canada made for us”. I hope everyone who needs it find the link.

    I agree with your view, and I’d like to add that something like cultural conditioning does exist in IT, at least according to my observations. Some nations are particularly fond of certain technologies, even if it is ultimately detrimental for them. Switzerland is a big Microsoft fan, same in UK and Ireland. Germany? Not so much. The market in Germany has a — culturally, perhaps — different groove and evaluating a solution is more vendor-agnostic there. Free Software solutions are more easily considered, for example. This seems to make IT decision makers more aware that the IT cosmos contains more than just MS technology. In other countries, awareness is different. I believe this is a result of the conditioning the companies you mentioned are fighting so hard for: Get them hooked early, coerce the children so that when they grow up they will decide in your favor.

    Excellent summary of MS business practices, by the way.

    I really have to read The Fountainhead. I’ve played through BioShock recently and I hear the story and the dystopian society it depicts are heavily influenced by Ayn Rand’s books, that one in particular. I’ll try that right after my latest Murakami ๐Ÿ™‚

    Are you studying there using the OS X FC client in that case? Does it also require you to set your font preferences separately for every single room you visit? The Linux one seems to have that nasty habit.

  3. Hello Rahmon,

    I Will have a look around your site, and I have linked it from my Blog. After catching up with who you are I would like to exchange some more ideas.

    I live in Lyon France with my Wife and Two Children, I have just started 2 months Ago on the MSc ISM at Liverpool as I was recommended it by someone who did the course a number of years ago, they did not support linux then and with the addition of Blackboard and Backpack I feel that they are moving one step further away from a User driven Interface.

    I hope that when I get to the end of my studies I can say that the course i am leaving is better than the course I started. I have been playing with Unix for a number of years and finally changed for good to Ubuntu last year. I shold have done it Whilst I studied for my BSc in Computing, but I was too scared. I want the University to have a policy of welcoming Linux Users with open arms. How much would it take to retrain a few folks and get Linux the Menu, not a lot.

  4. I think if we get a little organized, we can change something. After all, Mac OS X users have less overall market share in most markets and UoL offers OS X support as well. Of course it depends on the numbers you consult.

    I think Blackboard is actually a huge step forward. The interface might not be ideal, but all parts of it work in GNU/Linux. We as Linux users were at a severe disadvantage when the system ran on First Class! The Linux FC client is a buggy mess and the web-based one means that you will be much slower interacting with UoL than Windows or OS X users. I suffered through it anyway and made the best of it.

    Recently, UoL sent out an e-mail announcing their use of Campus Cruiser and listing only OS X and Windows browsers as compatible. I’ve tested the thing with Firefox, Konqueror and Epiphany on Ubuntu and it worked (which is great news). I’ve sent those results to our student support manager and she passed it on to the people who write that compatibility list, so perhaps it gets updated.

    I think this might be the only way forward. We have to make our presence known and we have to proactively HELP UoL support GNU/Linux. We should NEVER come accross as demanding elitist jerks, because that won’t motivate anyone to work with us.

    Do you see a way to get organized? What’s best, a forum, a mailing list, a blog?

  5. What is the address of the newsgroup linux in the university? You can contact me at the blog above if you like.

    “We should NEVER come across as demanding elitist jerks, because that wonโ€™t motivate anyone to work with us.” I agree, occasionally I let emotions get involved in my online postings and the result is not pretty. That is one thing that I want to work on whilst I am a University, my communication skills online, how can I work on my communications skills without the proper tools to do so? I have started a petition which I am going to carry on selling, it may be the only way and it makes me feel better about it.

    We are asking for freedom of choice, I hope that this will be seen, I did some reading and found a war going on between Blackboard and Moodle, I also found out that Microsoft is an Allience Partner with Blackboard and Backpack and Neither support or anounce that they are going to support linux. Take a look at moodle, see if you can answer all of your questions about it. I think that Moodle, which is open source is a better starting point for the University to construct it’s TITAN sized online MSc course network and that they should use this for their super structure insted of trying to use another product that will not develop as fast and is already behind.

  6. you said that we may be able to do something if we get organised, well I have created a Google group and I am offering everyone who signs the petition the chance to join it. Once we have joined we can discuss this further and you can give us your opinion on the state of affairs?

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