Let's be up front about things: I'm angry about the rhetoric I hear of late surrounding education. Teachers (and their unions) are being vilified, legislators and parents are demanding "accountability," and at the same time, the financial support necessary to educate a society is being slashed drastically. Regarding education, everyone has an opinion---and they feel their opinion is "informed" in some way simply because they went to school.
Mel Chua's recent post Education in 2030: Open source and community based is typical of the challenges to the educational establishment that are en vogue today. Because I know her well, trust her a great deal, and know that she works and thinks hard about FOSS participation and education, I feel mostly comfortable using her post as a starting point for my response. I say "mostly" because I'm going to challenge her writing, and that my reflections here are meant to be the start of a discussion/debate -- this is all complex stuff we're talking about.
Many pieces challenging the prevailing model for education today are lacking in one or more ways, and I felt Mel's post illustrated some of these. No literature of any sort is cited to support the claims made regarding the relationship between FOSS and andragogic learning, despite there being a rich philosophic and research tradition in this space going back to John Dewey's work, if not earlier. Given the lack of evidence, I feel many of the claims regarding the "learning" that takes place in a community (what does it mean for a collection of individuals who come-and-go to "learn?") are overstated. For example, to say that "The responsibility for your learning rests in your own hands; people can and often will help you, but they're not obligated to." says to me that you are as likely to be unsupported by a group of strangers as anything else---which does not, to me, define a learning community in any way, shape, or form. And, perhaps most disappointingly, there are no concrete strategies or solutions offered: we are left to believe that people who want to learn things can magically do so if they have (1) time (an incredibly valuable and hard-to-come-by resource), (2) the Internet, and (3) committed members of a magical FOSS community who will stand by the learner's side and mentor them as they decide they want to learn... something. (I am aware that I am in danger of overstating Mel's point-of-view, but her claim is that "education," for some definition of the word, will look like a FOSS community by 2030. It isn't my intent to overstate her position, but to me, it already appears overstated and under-considered.)
One way we might unpack some of the complexity is to get down to some principles of education that we might all agree on. Personally, I find Chickering and Gamson's Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education are a good starting point regarding fundamental principles of good education; there are other places we can look, but their list has, in my opinion, withstood the test of time and is generally well supported by research in many communities. (For example, I am not aware of any research that says learners do better when left on their own without support.)
My goal in reaching for Chickering and Gamson's Seven Principles is to dismantle some of the confusion surrounding FOSS communities and novices/learners. In doing so, I have translated occurrences of the word "student" in the Seven Principles to "Learner" and "faculty" to "The Community." In each case, I quote from Chickering and Gamson's article regarding their thoughts on that particular principle, and then offer some of my own commentary.
- Encourages Contact Between the Learner and The Community.
Frequent student-faculty contact in and out of classes is the most important factor in student motivation and involvement. Faculty concern helps students get through rough times and keep on working. Knowing a few faculty members well enhances students' intellectual commitment and encourages them to think about their own values and future plans.
While FOSS communities do often provide opportunities for legitimate peripheral participation, they are not typically capable of educating non-expert participants. As Mel said herself: the Learner must demonstrate that they are worthy of the time and attention of members of The Community, and it is not up to The Community to help them get there. I contrast this with paid educators, the overwhelming majority of whom come to work every day because they want their students to succeed, and helping the Learner succeed is their job.
- Develops Reciprocity and Cooperation Among Learners.
Learning is enhanced when it is more like a team effort that a solo race. Good learning, like good work, is collaborative and social, not competitive and isolated. Working with others often increases involvement in learning. Sharing one's own ideas and responding to others' reactions sharpens thinking and deepens understanding.
FOSS communities develop reciprocity and cooperation amongst experts, not Learners. Nor are there "playground spaces" or "learning sandboxes" in projects like Firefox for people without technical skills to come together and communicate and collaborate with each-other. Community members are typically busy "scratching their own itch." New, inexperienced members of The Community are not placed together into "learning groups," and few, if any members of The Community make it their mission to make sure these new Learners are supported in becoming core members of the team. This kind of learning and development is left to the Learner, and they must demonstrate success before The Community is likely to acknowledge them. (I am aware that many projects have a community participation manager or similar---I play a role like this in my own project---but it would be disingenuous to claim they are typically engaging new or potential community members in the way that I have described.)
- Encourages Active Learning
Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just by sitting in classes listening to teachers, memorizing pre-packaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences and apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves.
While we would like to claim that FOSS participation is active learning, it typically lacks a reflective component. Core members of The Community cannot always be counted on to even provide commit messages, let alone write reflective blog posts about the work they do. Experts in The Community are rarely taking time out to support Learners as they begin exploring the most basic aspects of the project. Likewise, for Learners, if they are engaging on the periphery, no one is encouraging them to reflect, or to engage them in dialog that helps them transform their reflection into meaningful learning.
- Gives Prompt Feedback
Knowing what you know and don't know focuses learning. Students need appropriate feedback on performance to benefit from courses. When getting started, students need help in assessing existing knowledge and competence. In classes, students need frequent opportunities to perform and receive suggestions for improvement. At various points during college, and at the end, students need chances to reflect on what they have learned, what they still need to know, and how to assess themselves.
A new Learner in a FOSS community has no idea what they do or do not know. Nor does The Community help provide a transition path from novice to expert. Well, this isn't entirely true: the Wikipedia community typically rejects your edits, and leaves you to discover that many parts of The Community are overrun by individuals who claim exclusive control over the content they tend. In many software communities, the Learner must master version control, the syntax of wikis, poorly designed bug tracking software, aging chat mechanisms, and less-than-friendly mailing list environments just to get in the door. This is sometimes referred to as "yak shaving," but in truth, these are just obstacles for the novice Learner... and the Learner is not typically being encouraged by a member of The Community as they begin caring for a new Yak.
- Emphasizes Time on Task
Time plus energy equals learning. There is no substitute for time on task. Learning to use one's time well is critical for students and professionals alike. Students need help in learning effective time management. Allocating realistic amounts of time means effective learning for students and effective teaching for faculty. How an institution defines time expectations for students, faculty, administrators, and other professional staff can establish the basis of high performance for all.
Nothing of this sort exists in the FOSS world. The Learner is assumed to have infinite time,and if they want to contribute, they are also assumed to have infinite wellsprings of patience and desire in order to overcome infrequent communications and support from core team members, poor documentation, and specialized tools. Core members of The Community have mastered their tools (some of which may be customized for their specific project), and value their own time highly... and therefore do emphasize time on task. That emphasis rarely includes supporting the Learner.
- Communicates High Expectations
Expect more and you will get more. High expectations are important for everyone -- for the poorly prepared, for those unwilling to exert themselves, and for the bright and well motivated. Expecting students to perform well becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when teachers and institutions hold high expectations for themselves and make extra efforts.
The Community places no expectations on the Learner. (Or, they implicitly place incredibly high expectations: implicit expertise, for example.) If there are expectations, they are rarely communicated clearly as part of the project. Or, if you prefer, The Community expects the Learner to contribute work that is at the same level (or better, typically) than that which is already part of the project. Work at a lower level of quality is easily rejected, and unless The Community has an explicit desire to grow and encourage participation, no real reason or encouragement of the Learner is necessary.
- Respects Diverse Talents and Ways of Learning
There are many roads to learning. People bring different talents and styles of learning to college. Brilliant students in the seminar room may be all thumbs in the lab or art studio. Students rich in hands-on experience may not do so well with theory. Students need the opportunity to show their talents and learn in ways that work for them. Then they can be pushed to learn in new ways that do not come so easily.
If the premise is that the Learner is ultimately responsible for themselves, and The Community has no real responsibility towards them, then this must necessarily be true: the Learner can go about their work at any pace and in any way they want. Further, they can choose work that does not challenge them to actually learn anything new, but they can instead focus on what they do well.
If every FOSS project had an educator as part of their team---or, at least, assigned someone as "Project Educator"---we might be able to have a conversation about FOSS projects representing learning communities. But, they don't. The Linux Kernel is not a "learning community." The Mozilla Foundation is not a "learning community." There are lots of people "learning" as they go about their work, yes... but the projects themselves have no educational mission whatsoever. (I'm glad P2PU is aspiring to great things. When it offers free breakfasts and lunches to underprivileged kids in East St. Louis, as well as safe and valuable after-school programs, we can talk about the transformative role it can play in education children around the world. Until then, it's a way for people with leisure time to share their own perceived expertise with other people who have leisure time.)
The reason for projects like Google's CS4HS, TeachingOpenSource.org (and the community's outreach effort, POSSE) is to bring educators into the mix. The Community (in general) has taken no responsibility regarding the education of Learners; if someone wants to be a core committer to the GNOME project, The Community is not prepared to teach them Inkscape (and the toolchain of utilities required for updating graphical components of the GNOME GUI) or C++. And while it is possible that a Learner will develop these skills on their own, in their spare time (by visiting the library to read out-of-date books on C++, use public computers that don't have tools for software development, and study the source code for a project in-depth in their web browser), the reality is that many of these participants have been taught and supported in critical ways by excellent educators who helped them become the self-actualized learners they are today.
That, to me, is the big lie hiding in Mel's "Education 2030" post. Mel did not develop into the self-actualized learner she feels she is today without the support of many excellent, committed educators. While the nature vs. nurture debate is timeless (for an aged mention, see TIME magazine, 1940), Mel knows how to read and write not because The Community reached out and made sure she knew her numbers and letters, but because of a system that helped support her in her growth and learning. And I would maintain that there is nothing on the horizion, as we sit here in 2011, that implies that the Open Source Community is going to rise up and take responsibility for the growth and learning of nations by 2030. There might be more videos on the Kahn Academy website by then, but that isn't learning, that's just content, and I'd really like it if we remember the critical difference between content and education and learning.
In doing a Google search for Education 2030, I found the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. The Koret Task Force on K-12 Education provides for an interesting collection of articles and videos, specifically with regards to their research theme of American Education in 2030. From an EducationNews book review:
In these essays, members of the Hoover Institution’s Task Force on K-12 education, joined by several keen-eyed observers, blend prediction with prescription to paint a vivid picture of American primary and secondary education in 2030. What follows is necessarily speculative, and readers may judge portions to be wishful thinking or politically naïve. But none of it is fanciful-we’re not writing fiction here-and all of it, in the authors’ views, is desirable. That is to say, the changes outlined here would yield a more responsive, efficient, effective, nimble, and productive K-12 education system than we have today.
If our goal is to discuss the role of FOSS in education, or what FOSS-centric approaches to education might look like, then I would argue that we need to be more aware of the current research taking place in education as well as the discourse taking place around the world regarding the realities of educating a society.