The Course-to-Co-op Lifecycle: OpenInnovation@RIT

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There are many reasons to pursue a college education, but getting a good job is the top priority for most college graduates.  The value of a degree program is closely tied to its ability to secure good jobs for its candidates -- and the Center for Student Innovation at RIT is betting that open source will play a major role in this process.

Rochester Institute of Technology prides itself upon the co-operative educational component of its degree programs. Most students, depending on the accreditation of their degree programs are required to do one or more 10-11 week quarters of full-time, paid work study, known as Co-Ops, in order to graduate. The number of blocks depends on the degree program, with most Golisano School of Computing programs requiring three throughout their academic program.

This means that there are thousands of eager students applying for co-op positions every 10 weeks. Most co-op students who manage to land a co-op with an open source company are required to have a paid position. To help close this gap between large companies like Red Hat and Mozilla, and small student created projects, the LTL and the CSI have developed new models for working with 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporations and un-funded student projects. The FOSS@RIT Initiative works with professors and faculty within multiple departments, so if a student wishes to contribute to a FOSS project, or a not-for-profit FOSS corporation, they can still work for the company unpaid and receive co-op credit, with the help of these faculty advisors.

One such professor is Stephen Jacobs. Professor Jacobs has championed the connection between organizers and organizations in and around Rochester, to create an Honors Seminar Course, based on development of activities for the OLPC. When Jacobs proposed the course, he knew that he would need community support, and initiated a local users group for the OLPC program hosted at RIT. This decision resulted in a confluence of circumstances that grew the course and its impact beyond anyone's initial expectations.

It began when Karlie Robinson (arguably one of the most involved Hacktivists in the Upstate NY region) attended the User Group. Robinson knew that David Nalley had begun an initiative to have the OLPC community create Math Software for Fourth Graders. Nalley backed the initiative with the offer to provide some of the 75 OLPC XOs that Fedora had inherited for QA. When Jacobs mentioned that he was having trouble setting up the RIT labs to support the course, Robinson lobbied on his behalf and then connected him to Nalley, and 25 XOs showed up at RIT in time for the course. Robinson and Fred Grose, a Rochester based OLPC volunteer who had begun working with Jacobs after Give-1-Get-1 in 2008, also joined the User Group. Both Robinson and Grose attended the class regularly and brought others in via IRC during the class sessions. Jacobs then worked with Sugar Labs (another connection provided by Robinson) and his department to allow for unpaid co-ops for student projects; supervised remotely by Sugar Labs and locally by Grose.

By the third offering of the course, the beginnings of a natural ecology emerged. Student projects initiated in the fall session attracted new students in the winter quarter. The original student developers (some pursuing Co-Ops on their projects, others not) are so invested in their projects that they eagerly assumed the role of mentors, bringing the new students into the fold. The original developers, of their own initiative, even attended the Winter session of the course they'd already taken in the fall. These students acted as additional voices of experience in the classroom and mentored the new students regardless of which project the newbies were pursuing, whether or not they were directly involved. Some of these novice students from the Winter quarter then become the next wave of Co-Op and independent study students that continue to move class projects forward in the spring.

Thus we see The Course to Co-op Lifecycle:

  1. Coursework creates contributors and projects.
  2. Projects generate Co-ops.
  3. Co-ops generate mentors and TAs.
  4. Mentors and TAs generate coursework.
  5. Goto(1)

The course will be offered again in the fall, and every effort will be made to continue the cycle. Jacobs' Lab for Technological Literacy will be disseminating details of the model and the curriculum off the FOSS@RIT website and at FOSS and CS education conferences in the next six months. The LTL will also be seeking internal and external support to formalize and institutionalize the emerging ecology at RIT.

Fortune Hunter Demo with RIT Student Development Team:

User profile image.
At the Fedora Project Remy served as Community Action and Impact Lead, bringing more heat and light to the distro's user and contributor base.


Remy, that's exciting! It's great to see that RIT is thinking towards the "sustainability" (to use a much-abused word) of this idea. I'm curious about how you collectively have found the experience of working with OLPC as part of this process and look forward to following the evolution of this.

Cynic - Like all things Open Source, building the community support for RIT's inititives has been a vital step. They work closely with OLPC,, The Fedora Project, and others.

It's been amazing for me to see the XO laptop as a catalyst for RIT really take off and grow into the FOSS community.


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