16 FOSSisms to kickstart K-12 education

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Leveraging 21st-century education with open source


As I read Jim Whitehurst's The Open Organization, as well as articles about initiatives involving educators and students in open source projects and communities, I imagined what the future might look like in primary, secondary, and higher education around the world. In a recent article, I wrote:

Since the purpose of education is to prepare students to be productive in our society, it makes sense that we ought to be preparing them for the future, which will include much more open organizational structures.

But where do we find these open organizational structures? We find them in open source communities.

Reading a book and listening to a lecture are two techniques for learning; immersion by participation in an open source project is yet another. Educators often call it "project-based learning." In a 2014 Opensource.com article about the Professors' Open Source Summer Experience, Bryan Behrenshausen cites Heidi Ellis, who said:

We have some evidence that students are motivated by applications that help others [...]. In addition, having students work on HFOSS projects can also provide some positive press for academic institutions and programs.

I believe we are intrinsically motivated to help others. It's part of our genetic blueprint. But rarely are students given the opportunity to help others in traditional classrooms. And yet, few workplace skills are more essential than collaboration and cooperation. Imagine the positive implications in the development of social and emotional learning (SEL) skills necessary to a 21st century workplace. As Ellis said last year, "From the professor's standpoint, having students learn from a global community of professional developers provides an incredibly rich learning environment."

In The Open Organization, Jim Whitehurst writes:

Inspiration, enthusiasm, motivation, excitement—those are emotions, too. Aren't they generally considered to be positive things? Don't you want your workers to be inspired and engaged in what they're doing?

Don't we want students to be engaged in our schools and classrooms, too? That seems like a good thing, but in actual practice it's discouraged because most of today's schools still follow the Henry Ford assembly line model, which staunches creativity in favor of producing educational outcomes that are easily counted. In the Industrial Age, our goal was to produce assembly line workers who were automatons. They were not encouraged to be creative. Schools mirrored the assembly line model and continue to do so today, even in a post-industrial society. We really need cooperators and collaborators who are highly motivated to work together.

In a POSSE talk, Ellis, Chair and Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Information Technology at Western New England University, conveyed "16 FOSSisms that all educators should know."

When I read the list, I recognized an open source blueprint with the power to revolutionize our current educational model.

FOSSism #1: It's all about community.

Community is an aspect of our current culture that's badly broken, and here is where we can positively impact our students by involving them in an active FOSS community.

As Bryan puts it: "By joining open source communities, students gain access to experts that can assist them when they begin struggling with their contributions. In this way, faculty members acquire valuable mentors for their students."

FOSSism #2: Be productively lost.

Learning isn't about knowing what the answers are. It's more about learning what the answers are not.

FOSSism #3: Give back.

Give selflessly for the good of the community. Be part of a team. There are many ways to give back. Some people can code, others can write documentation. Students learn they don't need to be experts to be part of a community. Giving back is one those SEL skills that children need.

FOSSism #4: Opportunism reigns.

Students learn that work occurs in fits and starts, as permitted, and as opportunities arise.

FOSSism #5: If it isn't public it didn't happen.

Students learn that sharing and (especially) sharing mistakes is part of what it means to be successful. This goes a long way toward countering perfectionism and the current test-centered agenda, which stresses single correct answers.

FOSSism #6: Embrace radical transparency.

"Because open source communities engage in distributed development, they embrace radical transparency and the materials they produce—all the documentation, code, and other artifacts that students can seize to enhance their learning—are open by default, ready for use in the classroom (and beyond)," Bryan writes. This describes the Wikipedia world that we live in. Knowledge is open. Students expect that. Why not model that in our classrooms?

FOSSism #7: Ask forgiveness, not permission.

Educators should give students room to tinker and iterate. That's part of learning. The current maker movement that's overtaking school and public libraries and other makerspaces in communities celebrates this type of learning. Schools should, too.

FOSSism #8: Branches are free.

Free to fork and redirect projects, just as open source communities do every day. We should be constantly inventing and reinventing ourselves—and our learning.

FOSSism #9: Keep a history.

One of the best ways to engage students in writing is to provide a real audience for their work. Keeping a history of an open source project then is an invitation to write meaningful and sometimes technical details for an authentic audience.

FOSSism #10: Begin with the finishing touches.

Look for hooks to engage students in the project. Use writing prompts or programming prompts. Students should know: Why is the project important? What can this lead to?

FOSSism #11: It's not what you know, it's what you want to learn.

Bryan writes: "Every member of an open source community was once a newbie, Ellis reminded her colleagues; open source projects typically welcome new members ready and willing to learn the skills necessary to make a difference to the project."

Everyone is a noob at some point in their lives, and this is a great way to celebrate that fact. Most students are eager to show other students what they know. It's yet another connection to developing social and emotional learning habits.

FOSSism #12: Release early, release often.

Learning from mistakes and from feedback loops within a project encourage students to be more creative. They aren't punished for not giving the "one right answer," as they might be in more traditional classrooms. This is a fail-forward mentality, which Jim mentions in The Open Organization.

FOSSism #13: Push upstream

Again, this encourages students to see themselves as creators and makers who have something to offer others, especially those who are "upstream." This is a paradigm shift from the current classroom model, which encourages one-way consumption.

FOSSism #14: Show me the code

This might be the most difficult, at least initially for new projects. But the principle invites students to be authentic and own their work. That's (again) a great social and emotional skill that builds character and integrity. Taken as a whole, this idea promotes leadership and vision, which serve the greater good.

FOSSism #15: Remember shallow bugs

This promotes a student centered classroom in which learning is a community effort, a place where there are no experts and everyone is equally qualified to find bugs.

FOSSism #16: Avoid uncommunicated work.

In other words: make no assumptions. This idea promotes community engagement and ownership.

Educational models like this already exist in PK-12 education. Penn Manor High School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for example, has embraced a 1:1 Linux laptop program that celebrates these principles. IT Director Charlie Reisinger, the administration, teachers, parents, staff, and students have articulated and demonstrated this approach very well. Teachers and students are given control of the computers they use in classrooms. Students are empowered as technology support teams who build, outfit, deploy, and troubleshoot Linux laptops. Penn Manor trusts its students and teachers, and this transparent could be replicated in ways that provide models of passion and engagement for other educational institutions around the world.

Penn Manor has already applied open source values and philosophies like meritocracy, community building, and transparency. This philosophical approach and the open individuals embracing it are making open the default 21st century innovation model. As Reisinger says, "Students become active participants in their own education." An active participant is engaged and operating at the highest level of learning and most importantly it empowers them to make a difference in their school and society.

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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.

1 Comment

I agree that our educational institutions tend to keep learners sandboxed, out of the real world. But by doing that and giving them "fake" problems to solve, we're doing a disservice. Learners participating in FOSS communities is what FOSS communities ARE, so it's a perfect atmosphere for students still in schools.

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