Colleges and Open Source

An online buddy of mine is in college. Enrolled in a class in computing, he asked me for help in installing MathLab on his Windows 8 computer. This turned out to be a major nightmare that kept us online for the better part of a week: starting from the need to install Java, to the requirement to download a Gigabyte of software from the Mathlab servers in Sweden, to figuring out where the installer ended up and what it was doing there.

In the end, we got it all running, but only after missing out on the first assignments. My friend was demoralized; he had gone into his class with high expectations and hopes, only to find himself crushed by the simplest task. If I can’t even install the required software, he said, how can I even begin to understand computing?

Of course, I was able to soothe his fears by pointing out that I’ve been in computing for 30 years now, and that I couldn’t figure it out. He shouldn’t feel bad! The man that has been in computing for 30 years, though, wondered why a university professor would require a beginning computing class to buy a software package for $99 (plus instruction book for some other $80), when there is a perfectly acceptable alternative available for free. Octave was created as a GNU project precisely to mimic and replace MathLab, at least in its basic functionality. It is available for free, and the $99 each students in the class had to pay would have probably been better spent on creating a decent installable on Windows.

Later, the same course required Microsoft Excel and a companion book. Of course, the number of spreadsheet applications available for free and very competitive with Excel is enormous. I’ll point out LibreOffice Calc for completeness and compatibility, but you can choose from several dozen products. Sure, they are not identical, but they are similar enough that what you learn in a beginners’ class will work for any spreadsheet application, including Excel.

There is nothing wrong with MathLab (hey! it comes from Sweden!!!) or Excel (made in Washington State!!!). But a student in a freshman computing course shouldn’t be required to shell out $350 for software and documentation that he could just as easily replace with something perfectly free.

You could ask, well, why didn’t you tell your friend to install Octave and LibreOffice Calc and be done with it? I did, but he didn’t like the idea of using software other than the required one. If there was some incompatibility, he would have to deal with it precisely at the point when he was weakest, when he was learning about the whole concept.

The funny thing, of course, is that Octave is phenomenally fast. So when we later went through a few tutoring sessions to catch him up with the rest of the class, I would have the answer to some computational task seconds before he did. He swore I had been cheating. I just typed the same thing he did in Octave, and got my answer faster. Could have had something to do with the hardware, too. Or with using Linux instead of Windows 8. I don’t really know.

The big question is, why do colleges force students to spend lots of money on software they aren’t likely to use once the class is over? Why aren’t college professors required to spend the minimal amount of time required to investigate options, instead saddling their students with an avoidable expense?

To a professor, $350 is probably not the end of the world. To a student without loans, making a living with a minimum wage job, it’s a lot of burger flipping for one class. Sure, the student could figure out on her own there is free software that does almost the same thing as what the professor required, but it’s then the student’s risk to deal with incompatibility.

Shouldn’t professors be required to act and think in their students’ best interest?

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