Linuxing Liverpool Online — Part 8: The move to PDF

Several months ago, when UoL was still using FirstClass as their classroom platform, some fellow students and I complained about the use of some butchered Word file format for the lecture files that instructors distribute. We then suggested PDF as a good alternative, as the spec is open, layout is preserved, files are typically smaller and many cross-platform readers exist.

It seems that the switch to Blackboard also brought along PDFs! In my latest module, all lectures are in PDF format. This is another step in the right direction, letting UoL catch up a little with the Open University’s excellent online learning environment that is more oriented towards open standards. OU even use Moodle for many courses, and have some freely shareable (Creative Commons) lectures.

I hope that this competition is one reason why UoL’s system keeps improving now.

Linuxing Liverpool Online — Part 7: Misunderstood Technology

This has nothing to do with Linux, but since this is my University of Liverpool category, I’m posting it here.

One of the lectures includes the sentence:

P2P (peer to peer) systems that enable web surfers to “pirate” music have been deemed illegal.

This sentence is wrong on three levels: First, “web surfers” aren’t doing P2P. P2P is done in a P2P client and has little to do with the web, the web isn’t necessary for P2P nets to work. Torrent tracker frontends etc. are just conveniences.

Secondly, and this is more important, the sentence is factually wrong. The Dutch Supreme Court, which is the jurisdiction of Laureate, the publisher of the lecture, has established that peer to peer networks and their operators are not liable for what they transmit. That decision was reached in 2003. The lecture is from 2007.

Thirdly, it’s not possible to prevent the abuse of a communications medium without also removing basic human rights of privacy. So the notion that there are P2P networks that do allow piracy and such that do not is not true.

So I’ve asked my instructor what jurisdiction that would be that “deems P2P networks illegal”. I have received no answer to that, the question was dodged twice. So I presented proof that the statement is false in both jurisdictions that concern UoL and Laureate, as well as in my own (Switzerland). When I mentioned that the university might be spreading non-factual information here, I was told that the statement does represent a fact. Then I was told to stop discussing the issue.

I think this is a very bad way to treat things. If students spot mistakes in lecture material, they should be heard and corrections should be made. Sticking your head in the sand and not even discussing the issue is very disrespectful and I think it’s totally against the spirit of science. We should be responsible and try to keep things factual, to make absolutely sure they are factual!

Who other than educational institutions can set things right in the minds of people? The way the lecture is written, it looks like UoL is part of a mad witch hunt against P2P technology. Just because something is abused doesn’t make it illegal, otherwise hammers, cars and water would all be illegal, each of them can kill people. I am severely disappointed with how UoL is treating this and will see if there are any legal means to correct the lecture. I’m quite sure a university should double-check its facts in their lectures or offer a way to correct them, I just wonder if they are legally bound to do so.

University of Liverpool Online — Part 6: Switching to More Freedom

The University of Liverpool just contacted students saying that they will be switching from the FirstClass system to Blackboard. This is great news, as Blackboard has a very functional web-based interface. This means that UoL students will no longer be forced to use proprietary software on their machines when studying at Liverpool online.

I hope they will also reconsider using secret file formats for their lectures. If they do, they will be almost free, and this freedom can extend to students.

Linuxing Liverpool Online — Part 5: The Tools

gedit screenshot

There are many great Free Software tools you could use for studying at Liverpool. Among other things, I use Dia, OpenOffice.org and LaTeX. But what’s surprising is that my most-used tool is a simple text editor: gedit (see above).

Why gedit? You take part in a lot of discussions using FirstClass, a proprietary BBS client that Liverpool/Laureate chose to set up their virtual classroom in. gedit, or any text editor, is something you could use to write your answers offline and on your own machine, with full control over where the resulting text goes. One of FirstClass’s problems is that once you’ve posted your responses, it’s not easy to get them out of the system again for backup. There is a download option that can download entire discussion folders, but it’s not ideal as it will stop the entire process as soon as it encounters any item you have no privileges to view. So unless you want to exclude your homework answers (which are in a write-only folder) from your backup, using FirstClass’ download option is.. err.. not an option.

Editing things offline in a text editor has the advantage of giving you full control, and you can use a versioning system to keep versioned backups of your work. I’m using Subversion for that right now. FirstClass, being a BBS client, has no versioning and only rudimentary draft functions in its text editor.

A disadvantage of using your own text editor is that there is no formatting you can use. FirstClass seems to use some proprietary way of formatting text. If I ever have the time, I might want to start reverse engineering the most important aspects (bold and italic would be enough to keep to Harvard referencing rules) and perhaps I can find out how to inject this information via the clipboard. Then I could write plain text entries in my files that would copy/paste with formatting into FirstClass. Of course Liverpool’s switching away from FirstClass as a non-free solution and picking one that adheres to established standards would be better, but I can’t see that happening soon.

My subversion repository is organized like this. I simply make one directory per module (such as MASSHR-SE-080110-01) and then one subdirectory per seminar in that module. The subdirs then contain the DQ questions and the week’s assignment, as well as any group assignments. This way I can simply fill in the answers to the DQs and do my homework even offline, if need be. Any changes are checked into my repository.

I hope this shows that very simple and effective tools are sometimes all you need, and all of them are available as Free Software. I’m sure I’ve already spent more than 200 hours in gedit, it might be well over 1500 once I’m finished. It probably took less time to develop that piece of software. Efficient!

Linuxing Liverpool Online — Part 4: Secret Document Formats

The University of Liverpool seems to be using more and more secret, proprietary file formats in their lectures. These formats are absolutely not suited for this purpose. That’s why I’ve posted an appeal in the UoL virtual classroom, and I’d like to post it here in case other students are reading.

It is shameful that an educational institution would deliberately choose formats that exclude and inconvenience students.


Hello fellow students,

In some modules, instructors use documents in secret, binary formats as lecture material. The most prominent is the one used by Microsoft Word. The exact version is uncertain because the format is neither standardized nor publicly versioned. A problem that we face is that Microsoft Word’s document format is not a document interchange format:

“Some users report the use of the MS Word file format as a document exchange format. This use is considered as inappropriate because of the proprietary nature of the format” (Wikipedia, 2008)

And there are numerous other sources that list many more flaws of this format:

http://en.nothingisreal.com/wiki/Please_don’t_send_me_Microsoft_Word_documents
http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/no-word-attachments.html
http://www.goldmark.org/netrants/no-word/attach.html#tth_sEc1.4

When you sign up for UoL at Laureate, you are given the impression that your studies will be agnostic of the software used by you or the institution. Relying on these proprietary formats is the opposite and excludes students or inconveniences them in their studies.

If you would like to see lectures posted in standardized formats instead, I am working on a formal letter to the responsible parties at UoL and Laureate. I would be very happy to include your thoughts. I believe sending it on paper might have more impact than posting here or sending e-mails.

I am in charge of interoperability at my employer, and in a situation such as Laureate is facing here, I would have chosen PDF as publishing format for lecture notes. It is a published (Adobe.com, 2007) format and on the way to becoming an international standard (ISO 32000) (Inside PDF, 2007). In addition, it is already established and readable by dozens of software packages deployed on millions of computers worldwide. An additional benefit is WYSIWYG representation of the lecture materials, something that the Word format cannot achieve. PDF is the format I would suggest, but I am open to any suggestions of another well-established, published and standardized format.

Kind regards,

Ramon

References

Wikipedia (2008), ‘Microsoft Word’ [Online]. Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microsoft_Word (Accessed January 26, 2008)

Adobe.com (2007), ‘Adobe – PDF Developer Center: PDF reference’ [Online]. Available at: http://www.adobe.com/devnet/pdf/pdf_reference.html (Accessed January 26, 2008)

Inside PDF (2007), ‘ISO Ballot for PDF 1.7 Passed!’ [Online]. Available at: http://blogs.adobe.com/insidepdf/2007/12/iso_ballot_for_pdf_17_passed.html (Accessed January 26, 2008)

Linuxing Liverpool Online — Part 3: The Contact Form

This is part three 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.

At some point, your Intake Coordinator will send you a contact form to fill out. The file comes in a proprietary, non-standard format (.doc). Luckily OpenOffice.org 2.x can open it and probably save it again in a way that also works in your Intake Coordinator’s software, but there is no way to guarantee that. Due to the closed nature of the formats the UoL uses, there is absolutely no way they can make sure that every student and every coordinator will get the same results. They are completely at the mercy of the company whose secret this format is, in this case Microsoft.

Add another shame point or two: This contact form could very easily be made into a plain and simple web form, something that is entirely standards-based and has been a proven solution across all platforms for more than a decade. Coupled with the security measures I’ve mentioned in previous Liverpool posts (SSL encryption for data transfers over the web), it would even be more secure than the current solution.

Then there is bloat. The document they send around is 137 KB. The same thing as a web form could be done in less than 10 KB. Multiply this by a reasonable number of students and you get 267.5 MB of data transfer cost vs. only 19 MB using a web form, savings of 93%. Factoring in that many of the UoL students are studying in countries where bandwidth is very expensive, this proprietary format seems a particularly bad choice.

Now add human error. The coordinators presumably need to send out this contact form by hand, then receive the filled out forms and copy the information into some database system. During this process, there is great potential for human error. A web form could automatically talk to the required databases and the coordinator would merely look through the submitted information and correct any mistakes.

As a last point, versioning overhead. Each coordinator can potentially copy the form to their own machine and send it from there. What if the master copy of the form changes and some coordinators forget to update their copy? With this same form somewhere on a web server, you centralize this. The only person who can change the form is the one responsible for the web site, and once the form changes, all students and coordinators receive the same one instantly. The source of version errors is eliminated.

All combined, I would say that the current solution could be massively improved by scrapping it and moving onto the web.

Linuxing Liverpool Online — Part 2: Connecting

This is part two 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.

Once you’re fully and completely signed up with UoL, you’ll receive an e-mail entitled “University of Liverpool – Start Pack Email”. This contains a link to a website where you can find out your username and password for the virtual classroom.

The page also contains a download link for the Windows or Mac OS X version of what UoL calls “Emabnet”. Embanet, however, is just a company, a solution provider. They run the FirstClass servers UoL use as virtual classrooms. FirstClass is a BBS software. Must be well over a decade old now, as I remember being administrator for a FirstClass server on Mac OS 7 more than ten years ago.

Fortunately for us, FirstClass also offers a GNU/Linux version of their client on their own download page. So go ahead and grab the package that matches your distribution best (Ubuntu and Debian users choose the .deb package), then install it with your favorite package management tool.

service_setup.png

The screenshot above shows the settings dialog with the settings you need to connect to UoL’s FirstClass server hosted at Embanet. To get that far, you must first launch FirstClass from either /opt/firstclass/fcc or from your desktop environment’s application menu (in Ubuntu, that’s the “Applications” menu, under “Internet”). Start FirstClass now. In the first screen that appears, click “Setup…” and change the server address to fc.embanet.com. Change “Encryption” to “Default”. Save your settings, enter your username and password in the main login dialog box and there you are — connected.

Once you’re in, this is the “desktop” you should see:

embanet_desktop.png

The screenshot was resized from its original size, of course. Once you get there, continue as instructed by your Intake Adviser.

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.

Continue reading “Linuxing Liverpool Online — Part 1: Signup Adventures”