Friday, February 1, 2008

The Open Source Debate at Laval

There is currently a huge debate within the community of Université Laval and, interestingly enough, the topic of Open Source is an important factor that is discussed by all players. As the debate evolves, we can easily see that a huge controversy is beginning.

Firstly, there was the proposal to raise technological fees from $1.65/credits to $5.00/credits. The university said the objective was to modernize Université Laval's information systems in order to improve the quality of distance learning and in class courses, practicum management, the developing systems of collaborative networks and the diffusion of pedagogical resources. This increase was known at the very last minute and the CADEUL, surprised, asked the university to survey students on whether they would agree or not with this decision. Such a demand was in accordance with previous arrangements made between the CADEUL and the university.

Suddenly, the university asked them to answer the survey within a five-day period. Since it was pushed to do so, the university sent to the students an email informing them that a consultative referendum had been called. And so the students were surprised. From then on, they had to understand the whole debate, which was not an easy task in fact. Indeed, there were many elements to consider before actually understanding what the debate really was. One of the arguments was to use an open-source software instead of building a privately owned system, which, as stated in my previous article, is costless and way more effective. On the other hand, the university firmly stated that we really needed the money to proceed.

The students whether did not feel any need for such an improvement or thought that an open source might have been a better choice. Indeed, amongst the impressive 12% of students who voted, 80% said they were against increasing technological fees. Nevertheless, the referendum was simply a student consultation. Therefore, the university was not forced to listen to the students.

The university having decided to implement the new fees anyway, it is surprising not to have seen any general strike movement rising given the high interest demonstrated by the students. My opinion is that students did not feel confident enough to support such an initiative when the university surveyed them. However, they now probably do not feel confident enough to go against it. Indeed, the information that has recently been sent by the university makes it very hard to understand the actual debate. Here's what they had to say: "Des étudiants ont porté à l’attention de la Direction de l’Université la possibilité d’utiliser un logiciel libre, donc moins coûteux, que la solution prévue. Le logiciel en question [Pixel, which is entirely built by science students] héberge présentement 200 sites de cours à la Faculté des sciences et de génie, sur les 1 600 hébergés par l’institution [...]. Cela dit, certains éléments du prototype [Pixel] seront utilisés dans l’environnement ENA [what the university proposes], lequel fait aussi appel, dans ses composantes, à des logiciels libres".

What is hard to understand is their claim that an open-source would cost more than the partially-privatized system they defend. Moreover, we should wonder what part of the project is actually given to open source; why can't an open-source meet the needs for the community while their system could; and why did they survey the students so quickly, without making sure that they actually understand the debate. These questions are the many missing pieces to the puzzle, and what I feel is that the university does not want the students to get too much involved into the university affairs.