Yesterday I attended the Educause Policy Conference in Washington, where I spoke on a panel on “Sharing Information and Controlling Content: Continuing Challenges for Higher Education.”
One of the most interesting parts of the day was a brief presentation by Russ Vaught, the Associate Vice Provost for IT at Penn State. He said that Penn State has a policy banning server software of all kinds from dormitory computers. No email servers; no web servers; no DNS servers; no chat servers; no servers of any kind. The policy is motivated by a fear that server software might be used to infringe copyrights.
This is a wrongheaded policy that undermines the basic educational mission of the university. As educators, we’re teaching our students to create, analyze, and disseminate ideas. We like nothing more than to see our students disseminating their ideas; and network servers are the greatest idea-disseminating technology ever invented. Keeping that technology away from our students is the last thing we should be doing.
The policy is especially harmful to computer science students, who would otherwise gain hands-on experience by managing their own computer systems. For example, it’s much easier to teach a student about email, and email security, if she has run an email server herself. At Penn State, that can’t happen.
The policy also seems to ignore some basic technical facts. Servers are a standard feature of computer systems, and most operating systems, including Windows, come with servers built in and turned on by default. Many homework assignments in computer science courses (including courses I teach) involve writing or running servers.
Penn State does provide a cumbersome bureaucratic process that can make limited exceptions to the server ban, but “only … in the rarest of circumstances” and then only for carefully constrained activities that are part of the coursework in a particular course.
Listening to Mr. Vaught’s presentation, and talking privately to a Penn State official later in the day, I got the strong impression that, at times, Penn State puts a higher priority on fighting infringement than on educating its students.