Corey Stephan

Catholicism, Colleges & Universities, Free & Open Source Software

For remote instruction, faculty and administrators at Catholic institutions should turn to free & open source software

Corey Stephan

A few days ago, Zoë Kooyman, Program Manager for the Free Software Foundation, posted an article titled “Remote education does not require giving up rights to freedom and privacy.” Yet at many colleges and universities, proprietary (nonfree) software is the norm for remote learning and out-of-classroom communication: Microsoft Teams, Google Docs, Desire2Learn (D2L), Zoom, the Respondus Lockdown Browser (which is straightforwardly malware), and a long list of names that are familiar for anyone who works in higher education. Those of us who work at Catholic institutions are as guilty of breaching our students’ software freedom as our peers elsewhere, since we rely on the same products.

Software of that kind is definitionally not in keeping with the Free Software Foundation’s “Free Software Definition,” including the core “four essential freedoms”:

The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).

The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help others (freedom 2).

The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Perhaps most disconcertingly, the freedom that is “a precondition” for freedoms 1 and 3, preceding even freedom 0—namely, “access to the source code“—is nowhere to be found. Rephrased, since the software applications that many of us are required to use are not open source, they lack the most basic software freedom.

Using software that is not open source for distance learning causes at least three major problems:

  1. Reduced security. Cloud-based proprietary services for remote learning store sensitive information in off-campus server clusters, sometimes running multiple layers of closed source software (e.g. D2L installed on Windows Server in a virtual machine that is managed by VMWare). For an example of a popular closed source application that is notoriously insecure, see Zoom. Security holes in open source projects tend to be found and closed more rapidly than holes in their closed source counterparts; it is always better to have more eyes looking at the code. That is part of why OpenBSD’s developers are able to boast (and rightfully so) at the top of their home page: “Only two remote holes in the default install, in a heck of a long time!”
  2. Lack of privacy. Proprietary software applications for communication can (and sometimes do) include spyware and other malware. With distance learning, the preponderance of sensitive materials makes institutional spyware particularly concerning. Without access to the source code, spyware cannot be identified and refuted. One must run the spyware without any way of knowing that he/she is running it, except when it manifests itself plainly. One such manifestation comes to me when Microsoft issues its automatic monthly report summarizing every virtual interaction that I have had in my institution’s digital sphere. (“MyAnalytics” reports can be disabled, but the personal data collection and storage that enables the creation of the reports cannot. Thus, it might be best to leave the reports themselves enabled in order to have some sense of what Big Brother is tracking.)
  3. Hindered learning. If students and faculty cannot “study how [a] program works” (freedom 1), then they cannot learn from it. Paradoxically, computer science students are required to use long lists of software—written in thousands upon thousands of lines of code—from which they cannot learn anything about coding.

It might not seem that this has anything to do with Catholicity. After all, the Catholic Church does not (to the best of my knowledge) have a doctrine about software ethics. A subject as rapidly changing as computer programming is a poor candidate for permanent direction from a stable Mother who evolves century to century rather than week to week.

Sed contra, we must not forget Canons 793 through 795, which famously summarize our responsibilities as Catholics with regard to education. The spirit that lies behind or the link between those Canons is that a Catholic education should be accessible for as many students as possible.

Free and open source software provides one clear way—even if modest (compared to the great hurdle of tuition, for example)—to assist us in achieving that lofty goal. Not only is it free as in freedom (the meaning of free in the phrase “free software,” often said in the French libre), but it is also free as in no cost. With a legal requirement (Can. 794 §2) from Mother Church for “pastors of souls” to make “all possible arrangements so that all the faithful may avail themselves of a catholic education,” it becomes difficult to justify requiring any software program that is not able to be run on a diversity of devices and operating systems but, rather, requires an expensive, closed environment. Any program that is only capable of running in Windows 10 64-bit on new hardware rather than being able to run natively also in GNU/Linux and the BSDs on second-hand computers (still sometimes 32-bit) and/or low cost ARM-based systems is not truly accessible. During an acute economic recession, hardware accessibility should be an even greater concern than it is under normal circumstances.

There is also something to be said for the permanence of open standards. Part of why scholars at the Vatican Library chose the Flexible Image Transport System (FITS) for the gargantuan project of digitally preserving over 80,000 manuscripts is precisely that, as an open standard, it will never go obsolete (see, for example, this archived article from 2010). To paint the matter as starkly as possible (hyperbolically, no doubt), whereas a .docx file (a word processing file saved in Microsoft’s current proprietary format) might not be accessible in 50 or 100 years, a .odt file (a word processing file saved according to the OpenDocument Format standard) surely will be readable at that time. A 20-something student who writes a reflection essay on Book VIII of St. Augustine’s Confessions in 2020 ought to have no doubt that she will be able to reopen that document when she is in her 80s—say, in 2080—without difficulty.

Faculty and administrators at Catholic institutions have a responsibility—perhaps, I dare suggest, a moral imperative—to employ free and open source software. That responsibility becomes particularly clear during a time when we are all involved in remote instruction as a temporary means of survival. At this moment, we have a unique opportunity to reevaluate our software choices. Let us not allow that opportunity to be wasted. Moving forward, we ought to use only free and open source software.

Of course, it would be unreasonable to expect any IT team to overhaul a core system overnight. I do not mean to suggest that an institution should transition from Desire2Learn or another proprietary Learning Management System (LMS) to Canvas or Moodle by the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet there is considerable good that all of us can do right now with little to no work.

We can start by encouraging colleagues and students to switch to free and open source software for communication, document sharing, word processing, and other quotidian tasks. Let us move from Zoom to Jitsi Meet, Teamspeak to Mumble, Microsoft Teams or Slack to Rocket.Chat or, and Microsoft Office 365 or Google Docs to LibreOffice (which is now available for online collaboration as LibreOffice Online). For a fuller list of free software for remote communication, see LibrePlanet’s “Remote Communication” wiki entry. TechRepublic has a short list of general productivity tools that are free and open source, and web searches reveal far more.

In addition, we can avoid invasive and otherwise problematic means of remote assessment. If a particular type of assessment only works with the use of Proctorio, the Respondus Lockdown Browser, or another piece of malware whose sole purpose is to spy on students while they work in their own homes, then the powers that be ought not require or encourage such an assessment. Drew Harwell of the Washington Post paints a sobering picture of how invasive remote proctoring software can be, and students throughout the United States have begun to sign large-scale petitions against it. Essays, open book exams, and oral exams by video chat are three alternative methods of remote assessment that respect software freedom.

Most importantly, we should make clear to everyone—especially those who hold positions from which they are able to decide what software we are required to use—why free and open source software matters. I hope that this post will help.

Deus vos benedicat,
Corey Stephan



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