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Brett Smith Writes Open Letter about Free Software
By Brett Smith, Section News
Posted on Fri Apr 26th, 2002 at 16:38:30 GMT
[editor's note, by jonas] Brett Smith has written an open letter to the faculty and students of the Computer Science Department of the University of Kentucky. It would be interesting to hear from other readers about their experiences with Free Software in educational institutes and any problems or solutions associated with it.


I learn best by seeing. I better understand mathematics and calculus when my professor manipulates the numbers for me on the board. I pick up physics quicker when I'm shown a physical demonstration, and then have the theoretical equations illustrated for me in concrete terms.

I've taught myself a fair amount of programming by looking at code. Consequently, my ability to learn is diminished when I am asked to learn from programs that I cannot study. It is particularly upsetting and ironic when I am asked to do so by an institution which has promised to teach me.

I am a student learning computer science at the University of Kentucky. One of the courses required for this major requires that I use proprietary software. I am ethically opposed to the use of such software. All semester (until now), I have cordially and non-confrontationally asked that these beliefs be respected. I have been ignored. My grade has begun to suffer as a result. I am writing now to bring my case to the attention of my entire computer science department. Others, like the award-winning computer scientist, Richard Stallman, have explained at length why one should take an ethical stance for software freedom; I will not restate such arguments here. I do, however, encourage readers who are not familiar with these arguments to read The GNU Project's and the Free Software Foundation's philosophy page (at http://www.fsf.org/philosophy/).

As I have made my case privately to various faculty in my department, several challenges have been offered to suggest why I cannot reasonably expect to go through required major courses without using proprietary software.

Some have speculated: "What if you were ethically opposed to using textbooks?" Some have argued (correctly) that some Free Software tools do not currently have the same features as their proprietary software equivalents. Others have maintained that teachers and teaching assistants should not be asked to do non-uniform grading. While I understand all of these concerns, I do not believe they should lead to discounting and dismissing my ethical objections.

When I demand that the software I use be free (as in freedom), I demand that I have the right to study it. Proprietary software is not analogous to proprietary textbooks. While I (sadly) don't have the freedom to modify or freely redistribute my textbooks, I am permitted to study them. I then may reexpress what I've learned in a new tangible medium without infringing on the book's copyright. The real analogy for proprietary software is a textbook written an ancient Egyptian cuneiform (i.e., binary code), along with a license that prohibits me from learning that ancient cuneiform [0].

Even with non-free textbooks, I can, if nothing else, learn from them and apply that knowledge elsewhere. I cannot do that with proprietary software. An institution of learning should try to aid my learning. By requiring me to use proprietary software in order to graduate, they are, in direct contrast to the University's mission, hindering my learning.

My required course this semester is an electrical design course. I did find Free Software programs (GNU Electric and GNU Emacs) that had most of the right features to aid me in completing the course assignments. I believe that it provides all the components necessary to teach what the class requires. Moreover, I have repeatedly offered to work with the professor to find alternative ways to complete any additional course requirements. I even offered to make a project out of improving the Free Software so that maybe someday it can do everything the proprietary software does. I'd happily do two or three times the amount of work as my classmates to complete some an alternative coursework program.

I do realize that allowing projects to be completed several ways can add difficulty to grading. Professors are already overworked, with busy schedules to teach courses and do important research. However, the problem here is not that students demand too much; the problem is a general lack of funding for education. This is an administrative problem: professors and teaching assistants are expected to do too much. The solution, therefore, is to lessen the strain on them and/or compensate them better. I would gladly help in any way I could to lessen their load, or to pay additional tuition to facilitate their ability to grade me.

All of the arguments put forward for requiring me to use proprietary software do not justify trampling of my personal ethical beliefs. The department must recognize that these are important considerations which have a significant impact on our field and the community of computer users. I am asking the department to take the first step in giving some priority to these now global concerns.

More than addressing my immediate concerns, I hope that this letter serves to begin a useful dialogue in our department about the issues of software freedom.


Brett Smith <>
Sophomore, Computer Science Major
University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY, USA

[0] Most proprietary software licenses prohibit "reverse engineering" of the binary code. Users are forbidden by copyright and contract law from analyzing that binary code to learn from it.

< Havoc Pennington: Free software and good user interfaces (2 comments) | European Copyright Directive Alert (0 comments) >
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Brett Smith Writes Open Letter about Free Software | 28 comments (28 topical, editorial) | Post A Comment
[new] Universities and Learning Institutions (#1)
by mda (#132) on Fri Apr 26th, 2002 at 19:01:21 GMT
(User Info)

Good letter, and good to know that people who guide the teaching activities in computer science departments are at least going to be made aware of these issues.

When I was doing my undergraduate work in computer science, I had many projects where we would have to write particular programs. When I asked questions like "Can I use gcc to compile my program?" invariably the response was something like "G-C-what????" Sure, we had a lab that had some UNIX machines in it, but it was strictly for the graduate students, and they were all running IRIX, which in terms of software freedom isn't any better than Windows as far as I'm concerned.

Universities have unfortunately become like businesses - most universities of any size actually have an Intellectual Property Protection office. Mine does, and they're like junkyard dogs when it comes to studiously preventing people from using knowledge that was created and funded using my tax and tuition dollars (since it's a public institution)

It seems many computer science programs expect students to learn computing along a well-worn path, as if the only way to learn the development of software was to use programs sponsored by creators of proprietary software, which ultimately work only to drive students towards yet more proprietary software. Professors like to have standardized ways of grading projects, so that if they're not familiar with GNU/Linux, they won't accept programs developed in that environment since pressing the "Build" button in Visual studio won't compile the program for them.

The dilemma is this - professors and departments will only allow students to use free software when many students demand it. But the students can't learn the moral and technical advantages of free software if they're never exposed to it in the first place.

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[new] Lehigh Univ. Experiences (#2)
by laz (#354) on Sun Apr 28th, 2002 at 03:02:35 GMT
(User Info)

My experience as a Computer Engineering major at Lehigh University (class of 2000) wasn't that bad. I got away with not using proprietary software for my Comp Sci coursework, mostly because we had a good set of unix biased (and partially free software biased) professors in the comp sci dept then. I recall having to protest the requirement of using MS Project for my senior project timeline stuff. The prof let me and my partner slide, and we handed in a timeline in plain text.

For the EE stuff, the free software tools weren't as mature as they are now, so I sucked it up and used the proprietary stuff. It didn't bother me so much though... but I lean more towards the open source end of the spectrum than the free software end. Wow, I'll probably get stoned for saying that in this forum ;)

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[new] Good enthusiasm (#3)
by a member of the hurd (#-1) on Tue Apr 30th, 2002 at 01:08:27 GMT

I don't want to sound like a non-believer, but in school, where you have a _ton_ of people that just don't care about the whole software-freedom thing, it won't kill you to go down to a lab and use MS-Project. Or whatever closed source program. I think the best thing to do is make the open source counterpart that much better than the closed one, and then people will have to look at it. Otherwise, I think we are just giving professors a hard time and perpetuating the "crazy oss zealot" image. The university owes you an education, but not a gaurentee of using open source software. P.S. I use only linux and gcc on my home computer.

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[new] vote with your dollars (#4)
by a member of the hurd (#-1) on Tue Apr 30th, 2002 at 01:34:29 GMT

if you don't like the policy, leave the school and go somewhere else. Schools are businesses and they only exist to make money. Therefore, deny them your portion of the revenue stream.

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[new] Software freedom (#5)
by a member of the hurd (#-1) on Tue Apr 30th, 2002 at 01:41:47 GMT

When I was attending SUNY Potsdam in the fall of '89 I took a class in C programming. The professor told us to bring in a floppy disk and he would give us the compiler he used for the course. (No, I don't remember what it was called.Could've been gcc for all I remember.)

I think that is a fantastic thing, and the quality of tools that we have today are leaps and bounds over the old tools I had then.

If I was teaching a programming course I'd love to hand a CD to each student and say, "Here is your operating system with all the tools you'll need to write all your code, do your research, write your papers, chat with your mom & dad, listen to music, watch videos, and anything else you'll need to do." Cost to the prof - the cost of a blank CD and a little time to download the distro of his choice and burn it. Benefit to the student - unmeasureable.

Quite the thought, eh?

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[new] Standing up for your ethics. (#6)
by a member of the hurd (#-1) on Tue Apr 30th, 2002 at 02:44:59 GMT

You have to stand up for your ethics. That is your right and your responsibility. On the other hand, the university has to stand up for the quality of the education they provide. That is their right and responsibility. If this is not possible for both of you at the same time, the solution is simple: the school provides an engineering education, and you do not get such an education. This is very similar to the Taliban in Afghanistan. They did not let children attend schools because education was incompatible with their ethics.

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[new] Fix this in three easy steps (#11)
by a member of the hurd (#-1) on Tue Apr 30th, 2002 at 06:22:16 GMT

The attitudes of those in institutes of "Higher" learning will only change slowly- but we can expediate the process by avoiding those in "higher" education who are incapable of thought. Instead, we can go to a real institution that has quality devoted instructors who are capable or we can choose to learn on our own and go to school for something else. By depriving these idiots- who have persuaded themselves that they are an elite "priesthood" of computerdom- of cashflow we can make clear our intent.

Here is my situation:

I am currently a Senior, I have a job as a Software Developer- on a web based system running Apache and GNU/Linux. I also develop in Perl and sometimes eaaaach- Java (PDA stuff). I make really good money now- two years ago I had no food. I am happy with my career- I learn every day- I cannot stand school and hope to finish and not drop out or end up in a padded cell.

I went to ASU to look at the CS program (before I went somewhere else only slightly better). I looked at the students taking classess in labs. I saw much apathy. I saw lots of hung-over people. I saw few geeks- lots of people who wanted to make "money". I saw a senior girl who complained about how hard Java was-- she could not find the compile button on her IDE. I realized ASU is not the place to go for CS or free software.While you would think that ASU would be pro open source as a public University- the stuff I saw indicated that they were not. Some students had heard of GNU/Linux- but NO ONE knew anything about it.

Which brings me to my first step:

NEVER EVER go to a crap school for CS or EET. I REPEAT- NEVER EVER go to a crap school. If you have to move to California or Boston or Pittsburgh- then do it, OR FIND ANOTHER MAJOR. I have honestly learned nothing the past two years in my major at a crap school- except that I am surrounded by dim-witted idiots who will never be able to code worth a hoot.

Why is this?...
Most of this due to the non-free closed source environment with the stress on learning marketing buzz-word languages (Java, C#!, ASP) instead of real programming skills. (You learn by programming and looking at lots of code- not by memorizing the syntax of 500 different languages.) You need a mentor to explain things when you have questions- not dictate everything from on high.

So, go to a school like MIT if you can get in- otherwise fight your way into Berkley or somewhere that is friendlier to free software and original thinking.

Step 2: (If step 1 is not available for you.)

Do not go to school for CS, or CIS. Seriously. For the majority of jobs out there they do not care if you have a degree- for the best jobs out there they want a degree- but usually do not care what it is in. However- YOU SHOULD GET A DEGREE. How about something that interests you besides computers: Latin, History, English Lit? What will land you a job coding (if you are a well rounded person i.e. have a degree) is if you can code. It will always be what causes you to keep the job or get a better one. A degree from an ordinary school proves that you maybe capable of thought- but says nothing about if you can code or not.

Step 3: (mainly for younger folks)
Now that free software exists there is NO EXCUSE for not knowing how to program by the time you are out of high school. Lots of kids in Finland, Russia, India, Ireland and Denmark are proving this. (Funny, these kids did not need a higher education to code.) By the time you are in high school you may find part time work coding. DO IT. By the time you are in college you should be working part or full time coding or sys/admining. It is not like the old days- you do not have to go to thier retarted Lab and learn how to program because you do not have a $20,000 dollar machine running proprietary OSes and compilers. (I remember trying to buy a C++ compiler in high school for my 386 and not being able to afford it.) YOU CAN LEARN AT A EARLY AGE- you do not need a school for that. The limitations are few- you are the greatest one. But what about advice and mentoring- try volunteering for an open source project and using IRC chat. You will learn more there than from the vast majority of

In summary:
If the "instructors" at the school cannot do the job of mentoring that software development requires- then find people who will (and will often pay you at the same time). Then take your money and get a degree in something with reputable, passionate and quality instructors.

It is a sad fact that much of modern CS education is largely an unneccessary pile of closed-code thinking from the 80's by tired instructors. You can't fix it overnight- so go read Mary Shelly instead and get a degree in Lit. You will be much happier. This is what I wished I had done at my 2 year mark when I got a job coding- but now it too late and I am stuck finishing a major that I hate.

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[new] My small piece (#12)
by glenalec (#363) () on Tue Apr 30th, 2002 at 09:08:39 GMT
(User Info) http://www.shoalhaven.net.au/~glenalec

I am not a uber-hacker or anything (i'm not even completely sure what a uber-hacker is!) but I am teaching English to computer science students at a leading provincial Chinese university, and needless to say, they are getting a lot of free software propoganda in their learning materials. I am also teaching an english language 'introduction to programming' to 3rd year [sic] comp-sci students and although I am unhappy to be having to do this on MS-Windows, at least I can teach them Python.

The good news(es) is that 1, my uni is getting a new comp-sci building next year and 2, I am currently flavor of the moment for having co-coached our english debating team to third place in the national finals (and a chance to represent China in the Asia English Debating Games in Thailand next week) so I am hopeful that I can get at least one dedicated GNU/Linux (and Hurd) lab installed in the next year or so.

PS. Although most of my students haven't heard of GPL, a few of them (as well as some who are not my students, but have heard on the grapevine) do come up to me and comment that they love being able to read the source. It's tempting to give them an A+ just for that, but fortunately I don't have to because these are the top students anyway (I think it is safe to assume it is the access to the source that has put them on the top, too).

Anyway, that's the small bit from a Primary Ed Major (Educational Multimedia and Art Education minors) from Wollongong Uni., Australia, currently teaching Comp-Sci English at Shenyang University of Technology, PR China. And if you can say all that without taking a breath, good on ya!
-------- Glenn Alexander - the man with no surname and a silly hat!
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[new] Good Letter -- Schools Need Dialogue (#13)
by a member of the hurd (#-1) on Tue Apr 30th, 2002 at 09:22:57 GMT

I think this is a great letter. Academic honesty and proper form. I wish more people would see how the GPL is a natural extension of intellectual honesty. Shouldnt you study what you _can_ study? Why become an operator when you can be an originator?

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[new] Nice, but... (#16)
by a member of the hurd (#-1) on Tue Apr 30th, 2002 at 14:18:21 GMT

One of the facets of standing up for your beliefs involves taking the consequences when your beliefs run up against those of the establishment. If Brett's grades are suffering because he won't use the assigned software, that's a bad thing, but it's part of the deal. He needs to decide if his beliefs are more important than his grades. (Don't get me wrong, if he does decide this, I applaud him for it.)

(BTW, cuneiform was Sumerian, not Egyptian.)

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[new] Alternatives (#17)
by a member of the hurd (#-1) on Tue Apr 30th, 2002 at 15:03:19 GMT

You may consider going through with it. Of course, you don't want to compromise your principles, but this may be an opportunity to learn from a proprietary implementation (if you ever want to create or improve a free implementation of similar software). You have made your objections public, which is certainly beneficial. If you don't get immediate action (and you may not), then look at it as an opportunity. I had to use proprietary software for some things, but I have never made a permanent commitment to it (i.e. I've never used any of that software in my "real job").

I'm a UK grad ('99), and I recall there were some GNU-friendly CS professors there back in my day. I wish I could remember who -- they may not even be around anymore.

BTW, Anonymous Hero is my real nick. I object to sites that use my nick so frivolously -- I should have it trademarked. :-(

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[new] linux at our university (#18)
by a member of the hurd (#-1) on Tue Apr 30th, 2002 at 16:29:30 GMT

I am a CS prof at Eastern Washington University. Our students typically use MS products early in the curriculum and some linux at the upper end. I personally use only linux and, occasionally, drdos whose pedigree goes back fairly cleanly to Gary Kildahl's CPM. I believe a student could negotiate our entire curriculum with straight linux. There are closely related curricula (e.g. multimedia) where this becomes more difficult. In some of our courses, linux is required (e.g. later courses in our OS sequence). As a practical matter, the job market looks for both MS exposure and UNIX skills. I'd rather not promulgate my ethical choices to the students - I'm not omniscient, but I'd like to see them have choice where possible. Regards, Richard Sevenich

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[new] Code Free or Die (#23)
by Marius (#368) on Tue Apr 30th, 2002 at 18:45:52 GMT
(User Info)

Brett's attitude is admirable. I hope it makes more students aware of the Free Software movement and it's benefits, so they can influence their school's curriculum. However, schools are business whose primary goal is to prepare professionals to what perceive as the current market conditions. Unfortunately, most software projects out there are still based on proprietary environments. I say this being a consultant with 18 years of professional experience in design of hardware and software solutions. In all this time I only got started in 1 potential Linux project, that eventually was cancelled by our client. Students should not expect an ideal environment in the marketplace. Your future employers *will* value knowledge about the current dominating development tools. Students should look into diversifying their experience, and learn about not only the proprietary tools but also the Free Software ones. Make pressure on your board to ALSO allow Free Software tools, but don't let that be your only source. The corporate world out there is only beginning to experiment with free software. There is not yet much perceived value associated with being an expert in only Free Software tools.

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[new] Secrecy and academia: oil and water (#25)
by a member of the hurd (#-1) on Tue Apr 30th, 2002 at 23:06:05 GMT

Secrecy is antithetical to the academic mission of open discussion of theories and facts in pursuit of new knowledge. In a vocational or trade school where productivity is the basic measure of success, who could complain about secret (proprietary) software? On the other hand, in a university or other establishment that professes to expand the sphere of fundamental understanding there's no legitimate place for secrecy. This is particularly true in the undergraduate realm where the system of values that scientific investigation is predicated upon ought to be inculcated in students. Acclimating students to the use of incantations and irrational methods (using secret software) with no understanding of what they're invoking is unwitting sabotage. Sorry about the "anonymity" byproduct of not registering- I'm dbostrom.removethis@mindspring.com for the record.

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[new] University of Kentucky is not anti free software (#26)
by a member of the hurd (#-1) on Tue Apr 30th, 2002 at 23:22:08 GMT

This would be a much more compelling article if it were coming from a different source. However, the University of Kentucky has a long and continuing history of supporting both open source and GNU/Linux.

Consider Hank Dietz' KLAT2. most of the computers in the undergraduate labs dual boot, and GNU/Linux is generally an option. In fact, some of the labs, such as metaverse lab are GNU/Linux only. There are some other extremely open source friendly professors at UK.

This is not a "windows-only" institution. Far from it.

More importantly, in the author's own words, his proposed solution had only "most of the right features". In other words, it was not a complete substitute.

While I agree that, in general, it is wrong to require the use of proprietary software, it is also wrong to demand special treatment. The author should look at this as a learning experience. If, on the one hand, the proprietary software is truly bad, he can learn better how it is bad. If it is better than the free software alternatives, he can use his experience to design better free software, or to improve existing free software.

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[new] The open letter and going some where else (#28)
by Ahippie (#370) on Wed May 1st, 2002 at 22:16:39 GMT
(User Info)

I found the open letter a good start. I'm also doing something along these very same lines, and I hope this fine fellow continues to monitor this site. The essay I am building is growing and growing. I will conclude it, and then start removing all the extra fluff until I have a document that will effectively speak my mind, and hopefully have some influence toward changing the way computing is now performed on my campuses. "vote with his feet and go elsewhere" This is a great idea. I should of sold this damned house and told my bride I'd come back after concluding my quest to find a school worthy of my attendance! I do have a home, a bride, and little beings that depend on me to be *here*. The option is absurd for many individuals. I think it also over looks the fact that schools are required to educate students, not force students into some kind of robotic seekers of capitalistic ideals and proprietary software. Some of us don't give a rip about learning how to join the corporate drones, we are seekers of information and ideas. I know that if I am successful, I will have work that I enjoy, and would do (that work) for free *or* for money. Both community colleges and state universities owe the children an education free of oppression. If I were to attend some type of private or religious institution, that would be completely different, where I would have to conform to their ideals. Yet, we clearly are speaking about (a) public institution(s). The third point I wanted to add is that of opportunity. Free software (not open source) provides so many opportunities for students to participate in. If a school doesn't like the missing or poor quality of the documentation, then they now have an opportunity to *allow* the students to write the documentation. This gives real world training that is far more tangible than an essay on the best place to live. If an institution doesn't like a particular piece of code, the students can be directed to *improve it*. Again, real world hacking on real world code! This is opportunity. It is a gold mine for any student lucky enough to be present in such a school that would use free software! My last point is that the some schools may still need to use proprietary software as well as free software. If the school includes community support, than that school needs to support the community, and the community now uses Windows and Macintosh. This is still a gold mine of opportunity. All those students that need to learn about proprietary software, in a building that includes free software, equals exposure. Exposure is not a bad thing; pretty soon, if the snowball were still rolling, perhaps these observant people would have an idea that the penguin is associated with something powerful, meaningful and successful. Thank you both for sharing your letters here. I recently learned of this site via lwn.net and look forward to gathering more information for my own quest for excellence. tatah

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Brett Smith Writes Open Letter about Free Software | 28 comments (28 topical, editorial) | Post A Comment
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