Science, Maths & Technology

Open source at The Open University

Updated Monday 7th June 2010

Why has the OU created a Linux course? Liam Green-Hughes and Andrew Smith discuss Open Source at the Open University.

If you are ready to make that move to Linux, but don't know where to start, The Open University's new ten week short course Linux: An Introduction might have caught your eye.

First though, a bit of disclosure, my day job is with The Open University (but don't take my views and comments as representing them) and I'm an open source enthusiast.

I met up with Andrew Smith of the Maths, Computers and Technology Faculty, who is the academic behind the course, to find out more. I had many questions for him, including some from colleagues and those of you who follow me on Twitter.

Andrew hopes that “by the end of the course somebody will be able to modify their own Linux distribution, add a few applications, become comfortable with the command line and know what is where and what is why”.

Installing Linux [Image: bbccouk under CC-BY-NC-SA licence] Creative commons image Icon bbccouk via Flickr under Creative-Commons license
Installing Linux [Image: bbccouk under CC-BY-NC-SA licence]

He told me that the course is aimed at all sorts of people from beginners with just end user knowledge of using a computer, to people already in IT who are looking to upskill.

I was asked to find out if any background reading was recommended, but Andrew explained that was not necessary, the course was designed to take people from pretty much no knowledge of Linux at all.

The first week will serve as an introduction and by the second week students will be using Linux, “we are taking great pleasure in opening Pandora's box really” he added.

At the end of the course students will have some credits that could count to a final degree.

I'd been asked on Twitter to find out what sort of degree course would be good to take if you started with this course. The answer was the ICT degree could be a good choice as it also includes components covering Cisco and Microsoft technologies.

Andrew commented that “the academic side is a very powerful discipline and what university is about” but also to make students of these courses even more appealing to employers vendor qualifications were included too, “there is a recognition by the faculty that employer led skills are important for our students”.

As an added bonus, students completing the course will also be in a position to take the CompTIA Linux+ qualification. Andrew commented that this is a highly regarded qualification that shows good all round introductory Linux knowledge, it is also employment focused.

Learning about open source technologies such as Linux can help IT professionals cope with change too, “so many technologies work in the community space... so being able to adapt to change needs to include an understanding of open source technology” adding that Microsoft were working in this way sometimes as well.

Andrew became interested in Linux as a result of his work in network security, he is also involved with the university's Cisco courses, and the network tools found in Linux distributions sparked his interest.

The idea of an introductory Linux course was not all his though, it started as a dinner table conversation with his son Jeremy, who was fifteen at the time and when asked "if you were to do a course at a university what would be the most interesting thing you could think of?" he replied "learn to make my own operating system".

Andrew commented that since then his son has become a “Linux convert” and this course, while not as complicated as the original idea, is an introduction to it.

Each OU course has a small army of tutors and support staff that help with courses. Were these people friendly to open source? Andrew said that everyone involved in the course is into open source but “also have a lot of time for good commercial systems as well”.

He feels that they are pragmatists, covering open source and also commercial products that have a good market presence, “I do Microsoft stuff as I do Linux stuff, there's stuff that you can do with an MS system that you wouldn't touch with Linux and vice versa” he added, going on to explain that they want to cover systems used commercially, where a typical IT department might have a mixture of proprietary and open source software.

However, he stated that “we're pleased to support the open source paradigm. We want to use the Ubuntu Linux ... because I think Ubuntu's a very usable platform but there are a lot of proprietary systems I have a lot of time for as well”. Support for the course is available in constantly moderated forums which will be on the web and Andrew says that there will probably be a lot of support between students as well.

I asked if it was possible for Linux and Mac users to study the course. Thanks to the use of VirtualBox this is possible (even on Solaris).

The use of this technology will give you a bit of an insight into its potential of virtualisation (he added that they are also in discussions with VMWare about virtualisation technologies as well). The tasks to be carried out with the installations of Linux in VirtualBox are not too complicated, so Andrew felt that you would not need a very powerful machine. He has even tried it out on his daughter's Asus netbook and found that it works.

Additionally, while the university does not officially support the submission of course work in Open Document Format, the Microsoft Word compatible files produced by OpenOffice are welcome for assignments “I only want screen grabs and some words” he explained.

The course is very hands on, but there will be an end of course assessment. He added that many of the people involved in the course will be using OpenOffice and suchlike, so they may advise in the forums if they can handle other formats.

The command line is a powerful feature of Linux that users coming from other operating systems might not have much experience of. In week four of the course the focus will switch to the command line and students will continue with this and GUI work for the rest of the course.

The aim is that by the end of the course students will feel comfortable with it, they won't be an expert, but I was told that they will have used commands like grep, examined processes and had a look around the file system. The course will also help them deal with the various types of compressed files that a user might encounter. It won't go as far as doing things like patching code or compilation as this was felt to be too advanced for this level.

Once a student completes the course Andrew said that they would have been given lots of information and tools to study towards their Linux+ qualification and to learn more on their own.

If there was enough demand though, there may be the possibility in the future of a next level course, but for now after Linux+ the exams offered by the Linux Professional Institute might be a good next stage.

The relationship between the Open University and the open source community has not always been smooth. Back in 2008 the university received a letter from the Open Source Consortium who were unhappy with the its support of Microsoft Office 2007 and felt it was not doing enough for open source software. In the discussion that followed, I felt a bit of bad feeling had perhaps emerged on both sides, so I was curious about Andrew's perspective on this.

He said that he had enjoyed “incredible support in getting this course off the ground”, he did not know about the complaint but said that “I sit in both camps and I think there is a place for the commercial and a place for the open source so I am religious about neither but believe in both faiths”.

I asked him about how his faculty now caters for open source users, in the past it was sometimes the case that students were only given Windows version of programmes.

“There are always challenges and unfortunately this isn't a perfect world, but in some courses where there is an open source alternative this is being offered to the students”.

On the general question of whether he felt the university was going in a good direction with students who use open source he commented “Yeah, and I think the OU is grown up enough to know that it is still making mistakes along the way but it's trying with the best intent.”

Initially the course will be available until October 2012, but if it proves popular it could be extended. So far he has been pleased with the interest and the positive reaction in the Twittersphere.

The course has a continual registration process, so once registration closes in May it will reopen for the October presentation. Andrew's final comments were to urge potential students to “sign up now!”.

Thank you to Andrew for taking the time to speak to me, and I hope the course is very successful and enjoyable for staff and students alike.

This piece was originally published on, Liam Green-Hughes' blog, under a Creative Commons attribution 2.0 licence.


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