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A critical review of using Microsoft Windows centric applications in academia. - Paladine's Blog
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A critical review of using Microsoft Windows centric applications in academia.
As many of you know, I am a Linux user and as such (like most Linux users) I tend to be critical of the Microsoft Windows platform. I recently returned to University to finish a degree I started in 2001 and had to suspend due to illness; with the goal of continuing on to postgraduate research upon completion. The degree I am studying for is a joint degree in Information Systems and Applied Sociology, which to some might seem like a strange combination. However, when you consider I have worked in the IT industry for my entire adult life (around 15 years or so) but also have a keen interest in psychology, sociology and politics and my main interest of study is primarily based around the sociological aspects of Information Systems (such as the Digital Divide); it makes a lot of sense to combine the two areas of study in preparation for my postgraduate research.

The purpose of this article is to highlight what I feel are the problems with the curriculum in the UK (and probably worldwide) when it comes to studying IT in an academic environment. In my experience, all non Computer Science based curriculums I have encountered, are centered around using products, resources and development tools which are designed to be run on the Microsoft Windows platform. There are a number of problems with this curriculum model which I will now attempt to address as comprehensively as possible.

Let me begin by accepting that these problems are not born in higher education (as in University); but are inherited from the system of education leading upto college or university. I have yet to find a highschool (or to be honest, any other public sector computer network) which does not use Microsoft Windows for the workstations provided to the end users (with the exception of some Library search systems). Schools across the globe tend to run Microsoft centric networks and as such the users of those networks (particularly students) are rarely exposed to other platforms, leading to a uniform level of experience.

Many people argue that this is because Microsoft Windows is the dominant desktop/workstation environment used in the real world and therefore, teaching students in a Microsoft centric fashion prepares them for employment when they finish their studies, in a more comprehensive fashion. I personally find many flaws in this argument.

Firstly, we have to consider the fact that Microsoft has been prosecuted under anti trust laws in the US and action has been enforced upon them as a result. Furthermore, in Europe (where I am), the European Commission is currently in the process of penalising Microsoft on the similar grounds. That being said, if the academic system continues to use Microsoft centric teaching methods and resources, they are indirectly contributing to the monopolistic business model of Microsoft. So from an ethical standpoint, the academic system should be trying very hard to use alternative systems and teaching methods in order to develop skills in their students which are not dependent on the Microsoft environment.

There are benefits to not using a Microsoft centric model. Primarily, it would enhance the skill set, experience and knowledge of the adults these institutions are churning out into society. Let us not forget that schools, colleges and any other institutes of learning, are in the business of educating people as opposed to training employees.

Teaching someone how to create hypertext markup language documents (HTML) for publishing on the world wide web (www), is not the same as teaching someone how to use Adobe Dreamweaver. In fact it can be argued that using a proprietary suite of applications to teach someone HTML is of detriment to their education, since if they are presented with the challenge of developing a project without the use of these proprietary applications, they will find the task very difficult and would need to learn how to use different tools. A more appropriate way to teach someone how to create such works, is by teaching them the syntax itself and principles of using that to publish documents on the www. If you center the teaching around a proprietary model, it is ultimately doomed to fail because proprietary products are very fragile with a view to the long term. For example, the company that produces the application may discontinue development either by choice or because they have gone out of business (or any other reason), thus as the industry moves forward and standards evolve, the skill set the person was armed with as a result of their education becomes obsolete and they need to learn a new set of skills and tools to continue in their vocation.

This effectively dis-empowers the individual and the workforce as a whole, in that these skills support the interests of the corporate body (namely Microsoft) by increasing their exposure. This, in turn, increases their market share as the cost for employers to train graduates to learn a non Microsoft centric system, is not economically viable. What is so concerning about this is that it is a self perpetuating relationship, that is, the more companies use Microsoft centric systems, the more academia feels it needs to produce adults with a skill set based around those systems in order to improve the career prospects for their students. This then forces even more employers to incorporate such systems so they are able to employ graduates in their own workforce in an economically viable fashion. Meanwhile, Microsoft continue to accumulate users, thus increasing their market share and in turn their profits and corporate power. The whole system ultimately leads to a monopolistic society of Orwellian proportions which no longer benefits anything other than corporate interests.

Another problem with this model, is that it stifles innovation. If the adults we produce from our educated students are going to be discriminated against for not adhering to the Microsoft model (in that, they are less likely to gain employment and develop a career) then logically the majority of the student population will conform to this model in order to secure their future. These students become less and less interested in finding their own solutions to the problems presented to them and the result is less and less innovation leading to a slow down in the evolution of this field. Anyone would agree that innovation is good, in fact we have laws in place to guarantee the right to be innovative and to protect the results of our endeavors. Without innovation development becomes static and stagnates which is why as a society, we strive to move forward, to investigate, learn, understand and improve the world.

By using any model which is centered around a product or commodity in our curriculums, we are turning the workforce into an army of uninterested, conformist automatons which effects not just technology or the work environment, but seeps into aspects of our every day lives outside of work. The model breeds apathy, it removes the need for conscious thought and investigation and we as a society become more complacent not just at work but in every aspect our lives. This is why innovation is so important; inventions and positive developments empower people and increase the morale and efficiency of society. It is within our nature to feel good when we achieve something it is what drives us in our lives. The very reason the modern world exists in the state it does, is because of this drive to innovate, to improve upon and to further our understanding of the world and the challenges it presents us.

Unless we teach people the importance of being able to diversify and do so by example, we are in danger of becoming a cut and paste society, which although may sound like "something a geek would say", is exactly what is happening in the real world. Academia is not producing independent adults anymore; independence no longer exists when everything we learn is controlled and dominated by a corporate product.

The model also discriminates against those who choose a different set of tools to achieve the same result, irrespective of whether that result may be cheaper to develop and maintain; may be more efficient and open in it's design; and benefits more than just shareholders of some corporate entity. It is not the scope or intention of this article to look at alternative systems as they are too numerous to cover effectively. However, the purpose is to acknowledge and emphasise the need to acknowledge that alternatives do exist and that actually, it is ok to use them. We should be encouraging people to look at alternatives and diversify. Any tool, system or resource which is used to educate people in schools and colleges, should be neutral and not benefit any specific corporation or business model. We need to see the academic system and other public sector services moving away from Microsoft centric system in order to lead by example and encourage individuals and society to do the same.

Not only does the model discriminate against the students however, but as highlighted above, it discriminates against the workforce. Any organisation that chooses not to use a Microsoft centric system is unable to compete in the employment market. Their choices of whom they can employ are limited to those people who also chose to learn either more generic tools or tools directly relevant to each individual organisation in this group and furthermore, graduates who have been raised under the Microsoft umbrella may find they don't have the confidence to approach organisations in this group because they use different tools which they don't understand and have no experience of. This increases the costs of organisations in this group because they inevitably need to invest significantly more into their budget for training and developing these graduates in using non Microsoft centric systems if they are to compete, on an equal level, with the their Microsoft dependent adversaries. And with risk of going round in circles, this is bad for innovation and the development of society, leading to higher operating costs, lower market share and lower profits.

In short, the longer academia continues to teach in a Microsoft centric environment, the more dependent the world will become on Microsoft. Whereas this might be great news for Microsoft and their shareholders, it does very little for the rest of world who do not fall into either category. In order to remain ethical and responsible institutions, they need to address and adjust their model to a non centric system with the neutrality required to spur and empower its students and inherently, society. Remember, academia has the responsibility of educating people, not training, training is the responsibility of the organisation that would seek to profit from the labours of others and therefore the costs of that training should be their liability. By using a neutral model, the students are given a stronger understanding of the whole and acquire the abilities to investigate, understand, innovate and improve; therefore guaranteeing the continued evolution of technologies.

Current Mood: contemplative contemplative

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Comments
foozini From: foozini Date: November 27th, 2006 03:19 pm (UTC) (Link)

Examples

A couple of quick examples of non-computer science based degree paths and environments that use linux (or unix) based systems are physics and the neurosciences.

I used to work in a neuroscience department where a good portion of research with crystallography and MRI research was done on either linux based machines or SGI IRIX based machines.

I am now working for the University of Florida High Performance Computing center, where I see work being done not only by the department of physics, but also nuclear engineering, astronomy, biomedical engineering, chemistry, botony, and of all things anthropology.

I am not disagreeing with your points made here. I just wanted to note that there are other groups aside from computer science degree paths that are using operating systems outside of Windows.
From: (Anonymous) Date: November 27th, 2006 08:31 pm (UTC) (Link)

I'm not convinced by your economic analysis

Microsoft has no monopoly. Monopolies are when new entrants are banned from providing the product or service, such as with water, sewer, electricity, telephone, cell phone, TV cable, trash collection, fire suppression, or police protection. Anyone is free to create a desktop operating system and a set of apps, and some do.

Non-proprietary GUI-based web-authoring apps exist on Linux. These apps have a real-world lifecycle, and some do go out of fashion. If someone used Linux, they might create web pages in Mozilla composer. Reducing the variety of ways to produce html is not an advancement of civilization. Maybe we should discourage compilers, too, and encourage everyone to use assemblers; they'd learn more about CPUs that way. Maybe we should discourage assemblers, and encourage everyone to use cat. Maybe we should encourage everyone to string their own telegraph wires and send telegrams in Morse code, they'd learn more about transmission lines that way. Maybe people should plant ears of corn in the ground by hand with a pointed stick.

Every operating system and application suite, including Linux, has an economic "network effect", wherein it becomes more valuable per-copy as it attracts a greater total number of users.

From: (Anonymous) Date: November 28th, 2006 01:34 pm (UTC) (Link)

Good Point

Although I do like some Microsoft products, I do agree that it is the responsibility of a university to teach standards, not products. Learning Microsoft Office or Visual Studio is best done on your own or at a specialty center.
From: (Anonymous) Date: November 29th, 2006 07:11 pm (UTC) (Link)

neutral environment

I agree with what you are saying. I'm just not sure how you would get a neutral environment.

My wife teaches a high school AP Computer Science course which centers on Java. They use a teaching environment called Blue Jay which runs under Windows. Java is owned by Sun and though it can run on multiple platforms, it is owned by Sun so does that make for a neutral platform?

Do you require schools to purchase computers and software for Windows, Mac and Linux and require students to learn all three? Will the #4 operating system then stand up and say they should be included? I think the same questions can be raised about application software too. In the end you have to choose something because you can't pick everything. Then someone will complain because their product wasn't chosen.

Also, although I haven't been to many high schools, I thought that Apple had a big presence on that level. Of course you could argue that you're still mainly running Microsoft products on those macs.

The question is, what do you propose as a practical implementation that would eliminate brand bias?

Dennis
From: (Anonymous) Date: November 30th, 2006 05:55 pm (UTC) (Link)

MS evil / not evil / academic writing style

Hello, Mr. Paladine. I don't follow your blog and it's not my intention to attack you personally. Bruce McIntosh (he asked me to post here) sent a message out to a list here at UF. I responded there with the target audience in mind. I would have e-mailed you directly but address wasn't apparent at blog. I usually take the anti-MS myself but as I learn more I find myself more interested in the details. Anyway I hope you can take something constructive this constructively. Main thing is in your research papers: be specific and have a reasonably small focus and back up with hard facts. PS - I would also point out that things take care of themselves. Witness the rise of the LAMP platform and open software in general. All will even out in the end. --michael <emjay@ufl.edu>


On Mr. Paladine's meandering essay: too many superfluous commas.
That's flippant--but true--and the chief impression with which I
was left. I hope he can learn to focus a bit better when he
presents the thesis for his interdisciplinary graduate program. I
read every word; he was all over the road.

MS and MS-centricity are certainly open to many valid criticisms,
but I don't think he did a very eloquent job at all. It is
disconcerting when one corporation owns such a big market share in
any product area. Alternatives should always be considered,
studied, tried, compared.

But the truth is that Windows is a historical fact and a huge part
of today's office technology. It would be foolish,
especially--especially!, for the non-academic (non CIS) programs
he mentions not to spend a large portion of their focus on
training IT professionals to be skilled in Windows environments.

The vast libraries that comprise what is now "Vista" ought to be
seen as simply another tool. Neither the tool nor its authors are
evil. The Microsoft universe ought to be compared to others by
students and by businessmen both dispassionately, though in
differing dimensions.

< emjay! >

From: (Anonymous) Date: January 12th, 2007 05:49 am (UTC) (Link)

nice writeup

I recommend you check out mynoteIT (http://mynoteit.com) as a web-based "education environment" to store your notes and other school info online.
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