Teaching Open Source has a POSSE

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Hi, everyone–Mel Chua here, reporting in. I'm recovering from POSSE, the Professors' Open Source Summer Experience, where we just kicked off our our 2011 cohort of professors over in Raleigh, North Carolina. Each of the faculty members here has committed to getting the students in at least one of their courses involved in open source community contribution during this coming school year, and they're off and running now after a weekend of intense cultural immersion. Let's recap the high points of POSSE Basics 2011, shall we?

Going-back-in-time sound effect, hazy visual shimmers.

POSSE group photo

First order of business: learning to talk. Where do the smartest people in the open source world hang out, and how can your 18-year-old students rub elbows with them on a level playing field? The current answer is to plunge into IRC, which gave us a rich and chaotic introduction to the dynamics of remote communication. When Bryan Behrenshausen and a team from opensource.com intermittently pulled professors out for mini-interviews, their collaborators would be momentarily baffled until they looked up and realized the missing colleagues were no longer at their desks.

We then saw the need to explicitly signal your status online. When questions to one's partner were answered by random channel passers-by, we saw the power of "open by default" in a public room. Our group was fortunate to have Fedora Project Leader Jared Smith and Design Team lead Mo Duffy present on having a good open source online presence—how to ask questions, how to find answers, and how to navigate a swarm of messages and find the signals threading through the noise.

POSSE working groups

POSSE is less a class and more an individual coaching session that happens in the same room as 15 other people learning the same thing, so the rest of the day was filled with hacking and conversations of all sorts. When Elinor Madigan discovered that PyGame development had slowed dramatically with the library's maturity, she started rummaging through development tutorials to see if her students could make learning PyGame easier for others.

Allen White and Mihaela Sabin, professors from very different schools (an Oklahoma university devoted to Native American students and an urban New England commuter college with an undergraduate student body in their mid-twenties), found common ground in their desire to give students the confidence that they could make it in the tech industry. We brainstormed ways to do this. Could a consultant come in and run a small version of their corporate training workshop so students would clearly see the level they would be expected to operate at once they graduated—and that it was achievable?

After a popsicle break to compensate for the scorching Raleigh July, Matt Jadud and Karl Wurst discussed ways to incorporate off-campus events into their freshman seminars. A keysigning in Boston inspired the reading assignment of Little Brother, and a farmers' market turned into a public speaking practice venue where students could act out public domain texts.

POSSE release cycle

Sunday morning kicked off with twin sessions on social signaling. How can you diagnose whether a project is good for a certain type of course participation, and what flags do community members use to determine whether a new contributor (for instance, a professor or their student) is worth their time to teach? The short versions are that faculty should look for a well-connected core group of 3-15 people whose friendly conversations can be easily overheard, and project leaders are looking for "persistent presence," both of which can be displayed in a variety of ways. We'll write more about both in future opensource.com education articles, so stay tuned.

What happened next surprised me. The faculty took over and started to weave together a disciplinary commons on teaching open source. Within academia, these methods transfer teaching practices among practitioners and across institutional lines, a sort of BitTorrent for the human action of teaching. I watched as a monthly blogging circle, a student confidence assessment instrument, and ways to work with data privacy laws and institutional research approval took shape.

POSSE feedback

All of this confirmed something we've long known: professors already know how to collaborate. It's just that the culture and politics and legalese of academia are such that the transparent-by-default behaviors open source software communities recognize as collaboration are extraordinarily difficult to gather critical mass for. To that end, the faculty asked if we could run unconferences for Teaching Open Source at POSSE and perhaps events beyond, where more collisions between ideas could occur. Next summer's POSSE workshop is likely to feature an unconference midway through as a direct response to that request. This year was the first time we'd mixed POSSE veterans (5) amongst the cohort newcomers (11), and an unconference would take direct advantage of that experience diversity.

The goodbyes came too soon. We gave each professor a POSSE video camera for capturing stories from their classes, and amidst a haze of taxis, hugs, and the clatter of re-stacking chairs, everyone departed to the institutions from whence they came. (With the exception of a few professors who zoomed off to dinner to continue curricular discussions over Asian fusion food.)

This is only the beginning, though. The point of the weekend was for everyone to get to know each other and to begin to see collaboration threads that might emerge. It's the kickoff of a conversation that will last throughout the whole upcoming school year. Each professor has been assigned a coach from the open source community, and we'll be following and working with their individual classes through twice-monthly coaching sessions, so if you want to hear more stories from the trenches as we go along, choose your format. You can read the POSSE blog, follow @posseowl on identi.ca or Twitter, or find us on IRC in #teachingopensource on Freenode . (Or all of the above!)

More stories coming from the trenches in the months to follow, now that Teaching Open Source... ...has a POSSE.

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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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