In november 2010 I discovered the existence of Federica, the tridimensional virtual square” that should be the innovative web-learning system of the Federico II University in Naples. Out of curiosity, I decided to visit it and all I got was a black screen and some perplexities. Some of them, which I described in another page are on the very sense of a website like that, others are more specific. I got a black screen because I use Linux, while (quoting from the University website):
the 3D campus of Federica was implemented with Immersion, the real-time software for 3D visualization and interactive simulation for Windows and Mac OS X platforms entirely developed in Italy by Immaginaria snc.
In 2008 the Linux User Group of Naples had already defined Free Software in the Federico II University “a missed opportunity”, because “students are forced to buy expensive proprietary software and… there are online service like the ESIS exam booking website that are only accessible with Microsoft Windows and Internet Explorer… A partial compensation is given by the academic tradition of the CSI (the University ICT service) of adopting Free Software for the main University services” (Note from Marco: that’s good, even if in November 2010 the CSI still called “Free Software” what is simply gratis proprietary software from Microsoft, while we all know that Free is about freedom, not price).
In 2010, according to a press release issued on March 13th, 2009 “inside the Federica Campus visitors are free to stroll around the tridimensional spaces of the virtual University”. Er, no, sorry. I am a visitor with a computer whose hardware is surely able to handle the Federica virtual environment, and I’m running an operating system modern, secure and used by big organizations worldwide, and still I’m not free at all to stroll around the tridimensional spaces. Which is really bad, in general, for several reasons:
- why should a public section of a public, taxpayer-funded University accept only to some operating systems, that is forbid its student to freely choose the software they like best or can afford without problems? Wasn’t the 2005 CRUI affair enough?
- it is true that (even if certain practices should be avoided because they can cause cocaine-like addiction Federico II students can legally get for free lots of Microsoft software including Windows 7 beta (with the blessings of the Italian government, of course). Still, computers new enough to run that software that Microsoft gives away surely aren’t the cheaper ones
- by definition, web-based distance learning must be usable even when there is a great distance between the student and the school, that is even from third party computers that neither the University nor the students (who may be on vacation somewhere far from home) have any possibility to configure. Therefore it makes no sense to impose requirements like those of Piazza Federica, unless there’s an objective reason for them
How accessible is the courseware?
Is Piazza Federica (a Web service offered by a State University) completely accessible by disabled users? It seems unlikely to me, as it makes heavy use of audio and video, but I’m not an expert so I may very well be wrong on this, so let’s talk money instead. On top of what I said about generic hardware costs in the previous paragraph, it turns out that the lessons offered in the virtual campus are also available as podcasts. According to the University, those podcasts are “usable everywhere and at any time, using state of the art multimedia players”. But an Italian reviewer wrote that those podcasts are in a format that “(on iPods or iPhones) rendering is perfect and the user experience is complete”. Cool, but what if, after paying University taxes, students aren’t left with enough money for iPods or iPhones? Will they still be able to play the lessons with any operating systems or any vanilla MP3 player?
How much open is that virtual library?
Another source of doubts is Federica’s definition of open or free access. Federica is born “under the banner of free access to the network of academic knowledge, and is based on a free offer of the courseware of the single courses”. Part of the resources and multimedia materials released in this way by the Federico II University of Naples are organized in an online “Living Library” that, according to italian website Scienza in Rete (science on the network), helps students to “know about documents and tools essentials for study and research (texts, images, video, scientific magazines, articles) and to discover those that are freely accessible”.
All of this, still according to Scienza in Rete, happens in the spirit of “freeing academic knowledge, building on the experience of the precursor in this field, Mit Open CourseWare“. That’s great, but let’s confuse “free as in gratis” (which is good anyway, surely much better than having nothing to study!) with Open, that is something more. The MIT Courseware (or that of the Free Technology Academy can define itself Open mainly because it is released under a Creative Commons license that allows everybody to reuse and modify everything. Is this the case with the Federico II Virtual Library? I haven’t been able to find out and I have even other doubts about Piazza Federica. Feedback is welcome!