Three-course professional specialization aims to close the gap between the use and understanding of open source in business

Quickly climb the learning curve of open source with lessons distilled from experienced practitioners.
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Even though open source software (OSS) is pervasive in IT, many people in business don't understand what open source is and how it differs from proprietary software. According to Brandeis University, "open source software now accounts for between 78% and 98% of all core digital infrastructure, yet few organizational managers understand the business behind it."

In an effort to close the gap between open source usage and understanding, Brandeis and the Open Source Initiative (OSI) have launched a three-course specialization in Open Source Technology Management. After attending an information session about the new program at All Things Open 2019, I was eager to learn more about it and how it will be delivered and assessed, so I reached out to the leadership at Brandeis and the OSI over email for more information. (The interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.)

Don Watkins: How will the course prepare students to successfully deploy open source software and effectively engage in open source production?

Patrick Masson, OSI general manager and board director: The OSI receives many questions from all sorts of organizations—companies, governments, non-profits—and individuals who are just beginning to explore open source software. Many of these inquiries share a few common themes around acquisition, implementation, support, and development, such as: How do we "buy" open source software, and where do we send the RFP? Do we need to hire a programmer if we use open source software? Will the open source project provide end-user or technical support?

The OSI hopes the courses can prepare students by introducing the business case for open source, including business models, the value proposition, organizational practices, and operational and community processes. There are actually three courses: The Business of Open Source, Open Source Community Development, and Open Source Development Fundamentals.

DW: How will students be challenged to assess traditional organizational practices and measure their capacity to manage reform in light of the differences presented by open source? Can you teach open source? How do you assess community building? Can it be assessed?

James Vasile, Open Source Technology Management faculty: I don't want to frame these classes as presenting an approach in opposition to traditional development models. Free and open source software (FOSS) is its own way of fostering technical collaboration. To think of it as "reform" or to define it in terms of other models is to miss the point. Open source strategies are useful, and they often appear right alongside other approaches.

Open source is a range of practices, a set of licenses, a diverse community, a strategic approach, and even an ethos. There's no one thing to teach. Rather, it's a whole field. Engaging that field can be useful if you know what you're doing. Right now, the primary way people learn the field is by spending a decade contributing to open source efforts. We are distilling the lessons learned by many experienced practitioners and trying to help people climb the learning curve quicker.

Metrics are, of course, a huge topic in the FOSS world right now. There's no one-size-fits-all way to measure or assess community health and growth. What we do have is a set of context-specific indicators that can fit narratives. These indicators tell you where to dig. You don't know whether you've struck truth or not until you get below the surface.

PM: I'll echo James' comments. From an OSI perspective, we see successful open source projects using a variety of tools and techniques for governance and decision-making, communication and collaboration, community development, project management, design and development, etc. There is no single path to open source, so rather than telling students "how" to do open source, I am hoping we can help students understand "what" makes open source. I think it's about behavior and principles vs. step-by-step processes.

That's not to say that working with open source software and communities won't introduce change into how organizations operate. Many examples exist. If an organization has formal procurement processes, it may need to reassess how to include open source options that may not be able to participate in typical RFI/RFPs. If an organization is accustomed to driving development around their technologies, they will need to adjust their practices to work with communities.

One of the really exciting things the courses can provide is real-world case studies that exemplify how organizations—companies, governments, etc.—are successfully engaging with, contributing to, and developing open source software. Each of these companies, I expect, will have discovered unique approaches, but I suspect there will be common themes. The students will learn to identify and understand those so they can take them back to their own organizations.

DW: What best practice models will be used?

PM: Each faculty member will employ teaching methods they are most comfortable with. Brandeis also has a fantastic instructional design group that can help faculty develop the courses, create learning resources, and design activities.

As to the course content, the courses will introduce successful open source projects, as well as provide case studies showing companies that are successful in their adoption of open source. Students will look at what the companies are doing to create community, raise awareness and adoption, manage development, and all the other things vital to open source communities of practice. Then students are tasked to find common themes, shared practices, and even unique traits. These will inform their own work as they move into open source careers.

Carol Damm, director of programs and assessment for graduate professional studies at Brandeis: As Patrick explained, students will review examples or case studies of OSS adoption. This is an established teaching approach that enables students to apply the concepts that they are learning to real-world situations.

DW: How will students learn about the community? Will there be opportunities for them to join open source communities as members? How?

PM: We have a dedicated course, "Open Source Community Development," that is designed to help students understand the various roles in communities of practice supporting open source software development, adoption, and maintenance.

This course presents a great opportunity to have students involved in open source communities as part of the course. The students may not be contributing directly to the projects, but they can do field observations. Getting students to engage with projects to discover how they share information, foster communication, manage financials, make decisions, and all the other critical practices that open source communities need to be successful.

I'll also offer that the courses can incorporate any open source projects students' companies may be working with—especially if internal contributions are being made upstream. This would provide a powerful opportunity to assess the issues the students' companies are going through, how they resolved them, and what remains.

DW: The production of open, distributed, and community-driven software requires design and development methodologies and workflows that support the advantages of peer-to-peer, highly collaborative, iterative production. How will that be facilitated?

CD: The intent is to create activities and assignments around the workflow and processes that are part of the OSS organizational practices. These activities and assignments will require students to collaborate, creating a relational experience, common to the OSS community.

Ken Udas, Open Source Initiative program chair at Brandeis: Learning is an iterative process and will be facilitated in these courses through exposure to the practice of experienced faculty members and guest lecturers to guide hands-on practice. Although the activities will be determined and developed by the teaching staff, we all want the students to leave with the benefit of practicing under the guidance of knowledgeable practitioners and teachers.

So, in a particular class, the production process might be introduced through a semester-long case study, perhaps based on an active OSS community or a situation in which there is an internal development or perhaps an effort within an organization to adopt an open source technology and contribute to a community. We are committed to having the teacher and course designer build learning experiences that expose students to practice such that learning can be meaningfully facilitated and iteratively applied. This process will be unique for each teacher. In short, the learner will participate in learning experiences that are facilitated by the instructor with OSS experience, based on practice.

Iterative and peer-based production in the courses is promoted through exposure through faculty modeling and observation of active OSS communities in practice. Iterative methodologies will be embedded in weekly forum activities and assignments in each course. In addition, it is important to remember that the course itself is subject to interactive development and improvement. Students will also be expected to contribute, using iterative design principles, to the ongoing development of the course along with the teacher and staff.

DW: What metrics will be used to assess the effectiveness of instruction? How will credit be assigned? What will assessments look like?

CD: The students will work collaboratively on assignments that present cases either that are given to them or of their choosing, depending on the course, in which they apply the practice that they are learning about. Problem-based learning is a student-centered approach that creates a space for critical thinking and collaborative work. These assignments are graded and aligned to the course outcomes to evaluate students' achievement.

KU: Instructional effectiveness is a matter of student assessment and self-assessment, which is also reflected in the success of learners, as illustrated through the products created during the class. Although the assessments will vary from class-to-class and teacher-to-teacher, they will take the form of artifacts and evidence of methodology in practice. Credit within the class will be in large part determined by the course developer and learning designer but will generally be a balance between group and individual assignment.

DW: What are the outcomes for students? An MBA focus? Digital badges?

CD: With the completion of the three courses, students will receive a digital credential in the form of a badge that will carry the details of the credential in its metadata.

DW: What's in it for the Open Source Initiative? What are the takeaways for the OSI?

PM: These courses fit squarely into the OSI's mission to "educate about and advocate for the benefits of open source and to build bridges among different constituencies in the open source community." We currently have several other educational initiatives, for example, in K-12 (FLOSS Desktops for Kids) and for government (Open Source and Standards Working Group).

While the OSI has always been active in education and advocacy, our interest in formal educational opportunities was sparked after reading the Open Source Program Management 2018 Survey. Its key findings highlighted a growing demand for professionals, not necessarily from technical backgrounds, who may be supporting open source within a company: HR staff hiring for roles that support external projects, procurement officers and contract managers who need to engage open source communities, project and product managers who need to work with external organizations, budgeting staff who need to assess ROI on open source implementations. Where are students from MBA or marketing and communications programs, who are interested in working with technology, learning about open source software?

There are a small but growing number of individual faculty and departments within colleges and universities that include open source software development in their curriculum—usually for technical programs (e.g., CompSci, EE)—however, open source specializations for non-technical disciplines are rare. I only know of one. The Brandeis specialization allows us to introduce open source into traditional academic programs.

The Brandeis specialization also allows us to introduce open source to non-traditional learners. The OSI also needs to help the self-directed, self-motivated learners who may have discovered open source software and development through their own personal educational experiences. One of the great opportunities, rightly, touted by open source advocates is access to "learning by doing" made possible through open source communities. Open source projects can reduce barriers to access, allowing non-traditional students to learn to program, discover the latest technologies, gain new skills, even network to build professional relationships. Again, these opportunities are not limited to those seeking technical skills. Open source projects rely on those with business, finance, marketing, communications, and many other skills. Brandeis will also be offering the three courses as a digital badge for individuals who may not be interested in a degree program.

The OSI recognizes that open source now spans all industries and impacts every department within the organization, from simple end users to maintainers of internally developed projects. The OSI wants to help both those seeking careers in open source and the industries that need those professionals. As a trusted source and recognized authority within the open source community, we feel we can provide guidance on the design and development of courses and content and lend credibility to assure both students and employers that the program will provide a quality, relevant, educational experience.

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Educator, entrepreneur, open source advocate, life long learner, Python teacher. M.A. in Educational Psychology, M.S. Ed. in Educational Leadership, Linux system administrator.

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