An open source education--for educators

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One of the challenges of working in the space between academia and open source communities is translating the cultural and timescale differences. One approach to bridging the gap is to empower people already in the academic space–like professors--to navigate the free and open source software (FOSS) world and bring that knowledge back to the institutions they come from. The week-long POSSE Professors' Open Source Summer Experience (POSSE) workshop, sponsored by Red Hat, aims to do just that.

Professors spend a week immersed in a FOSS project as new contributors, learning the tools and practices of that particular community. They might be introduced to IRC, version control, ticket tracking, or the patch review process--any of the tasks that may be part of a working FOSS ecosystem. Participants may choose to continue their work in any open source project after the week is over.

As a POSSE instructor, one of my favorite things about the week is that you learn more than you teach; as professors discover the cultural norms of the open source community, they help experienced FOSS contributors look at assumptions that we tend to take for granted. When tenured professors of computer science struggle to get IRC clients up and running, you start revising your assumption that publishing a help channel is sufficient for all newcomers. You remember that schools sometimes block ports, and that lab machines may not allow you to, say, recompile your kernel.

This summer's POSSE workshops were hosted by Worcester State College in Worcester, MA and Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in Rochester, NY. A third 2010 POSSE is slated to run at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology in Cape Town, South Africa, in October. Attendees so far have included faculty members from software engineering and computer science, as well as technical writing and journalism. Student FOSS developers, IT staff, and grad students also joined the party—er, POSSE.

Each POSSE had a pair of instructors and a tech guru, the latter being responsible for leading technical deep-dives into community projects or process, and showing attendees what work in FOSS looks like on a daily basis.

Red Hat engineer, Luke Macken, an experienced Python hacker within the Fedora community, served as the tech guru for his alma mater, RIT. Macken describes his experience:

"Being an alumnus, I was excited by the opportunity to be able to go back [to RIT] and teach some of the people that taught me. Going into it, I really had no idea what to expect. All I knew is that I was going to help lead the 'deep dive' section of the course, where I would teach professors how to dive in head first and get productively lost in a strange codebase. The next day both of the patches that we sent upstream were applied by [Executive Director of Sugar Labs] Walter Bender. This is not something that can be accomplished with a set of PowerPoint slides."

Peter Robinson of NTT Europe Online, a Fedora packager and a member of the Sugar on a Stick release team, served as the tech guru for POSSE Worcester State.

As professors shared their stories from the academic world, the POSSE staff began to learn what makes it so difficult to integrate the open source way of doing things into a school's curriculum.

"I come from a tradition of the isolated programmer who does it all by himself and has to be independently self-sufficient," explained RIT professor Al Biles. "When I got to RIT in 1980 and was thrown into UNIX for the first time, the resident UNIX guru (a fellow faculty member) answered my first question about how to do something with, 'It’s in the UNIX programmers manual; look it up.' I thought he was kidding; he wasn’t."

"This is a sea change for me," continued Biles. "I’ll have to get over my natural reticence and put myself out there with the realization that not already knowing how to do something is okay but not asking for help is not."

Perspectives began to shift on both sides. "I never thought I’d ever consider this approach to computing," blogged technical writing professor Dave Shein. "It’s been just too daunting. Too large a knowledge base to learn, too frustrating to just hack around in... I felt like I was working in an utter vacuum. When I was stuck, I was really stuck. I had no one to ask for help, or to answer my questions. So this is different. I still do not like the feeling of being stuck, but that is ameliorated somewhat by the less unpleasant feeling of going to ask for help. Access to expertise, to help, makes me think--for the first time--that I could actually get into working with software 'under the hood.'"

Some professors, such as Kristina Striegnitz from Union College, jumped into action immediately, recruiting her summer student Kirk Winans to change his project proposal and work within the Sugar Labs community. Others have longer-term plans. "I plan on introducing an elective upper-level course to teach what we learned in this workshop," noted Nadimpalli Mahadev, a Fitchburg State professor . "I also wish to introduce, in a couple of years, open source development at a freshman level at least to encourage the geeks who are hacking-hungry."

In a world where curriculum revisions can be measured in decades and courses are planned multiple semesters in advance and used for years after their inception, the rapid release cycles of open source projects can be a challenge to keep up with. But these professors and a community of like-minded faculty at continue to find ways to translate between the two domains.

Planning for POSSE Summer 2011 is already underway. Contact if you're interested in having a POSSE at your institution or alma mater, or have an open source project you're involved with that would be suitable for POSSE work.

Prior POSSE projects have focused on Fedora, Mozilla, or Sugar Labs. For our third summer, we are looking for projects outside the usual “computer science and software engineering” focus. Could your project use new contributors with skills and talents in technical writing, design, or translation? Let us know.

POSSE and Teaching Open Source will be attending the upcoming Frontiers in Education and SIGCSE academic conferences. But it doesn't take a trip to visit with us—most days, POSSE participants hang out in the #teachingopensource channel on, and are happy to answer questions.

In the video below, author Mel Chua and POSSE instructor Chris Tyler explain more about the POSSE program.


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Mel Chua is a contagiously enthusiastic hacker, writer, and educator with over a decade of teaching and curriculum development experience and a solid track record in leadership positions at Red Hat, One Laptop Per Child, Sugar Labs, Fedora, and other Free, Libre, and Open Source Software (FLOSS) communities.

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