A small group of Computer Science (CS) professors gathered at Red Hat's corporate campus in Raleigh,
North Carolina from July 19th to 24th for the Professors' Open
Source Summer Experience (POSSE) 2009 workshop. The program focused on
educating CS professors about open source development, including practical
ways to get students involved in open source projects and how to integrate
open source methodology into the classroom experience. The participants
deemed the event a tremendous success and plan to continue it next year,
hopefully expanding to new locations and fields of study.
POSSE 2009 was an outgrowth of the TeachingOpenSource.org site, a
new, open community of teachers and software developers collaborating on
educational issues. TeachingOpenSource.org's other projects include
mentoring programs and producing teaching materials, but POSSE was its
first attempt to gather educators and open source advocates for
Hands-on introduction to open source
POSSE facilitator Greg DeKoenigsberg said that Red Hat intentionally
kept the pilot event small in order to "do it right." Due to a
pair of last-minute cancellations, five professors were able attend the
week-long workshop, joined by a small contingent of Red Hat employees and
Humphrey and Chris
Tyler from Seneca College, two
CS professors with firsthand experience teaching open source in the
for the week started by covering the basics of open source software itself,
but devoted most of its time to concrete examinations of how open source
projects function, from coordinating geographically dispersed teams with
online communication tools to build tools and source code management, to
packaging, debugging, and testing tools. All sessions were designed to be
cumulative, not a la carte; the participants were given overnight
assignments based on each day's events and the topics built in complexity
over the course of the week.
The final sessions dealt with integrating open source software into
classroom situations, including finding projects in which students can
participate, setting expectations, assessing and grading student
participation, and interacting with the broader open source community while
running a classroom project. At the Friday wrap-up discussion, the
professors presented course outlines, discussed what they had taken away
from the week, and how to get faculty colleagues involved.
Attendee Matthew Jadud from Allegheny College described the event as
"a huge win." Although he had open source experience through
several years of working on the Transterpreter virtual machine
project, he said that he still went into POSSE 2009 with questions about
how best to interact with and sustain open communities, adding "we
got that in spades." Seeing up close how large-scale open
communities operate was a revelation, he said. "There is a
difference between 'knowing' and 'understanding'. I think I *knew* some
things about open development processes, but now I'm beginning to
*understand* a few, and can see more clearly what I don't
understand. That's an exciting feeling. ... And, in seeing it, it became
less mysterious and more tractable."
DeKoenigsberg also regarded the event as a success, and noted that the
information went two ways:
I was surprised at how much I learned
about what it is that I do. It's very much in vogue to talk about
"community managers" and "the art of community" and so forth, and it's easy
for us in the open source world to feel like we invented all of this stuff.
But Matt Jadud and Cameron Seay, two of our professor participants,
introduced me to a whole world of educational theory that describes our
work in "community management" with eerie precision. Turns out that open
source is a textbook example of a "community of practice," and concepts
that we put into practice every day to build our community have a huge body
of supporting pedagogy behind them.
Education and the open source community
Bringing the education and open source communities closer together is a
win-win scenario, said DeKoenigsberg. Participating in open source gives
students the opportunity to work in real-world coding projects, on a
real-world scale, that the classroom simply cannot emulate. "The
upside seems so huge," he observed. "Students get invaluable
experience. Open source projects get badly needed help. Moribund CS
programs, most of which are struggling with slumping enrollments, get a
shot in the arm."
The difficulty, he observed, is practical. "Over the last few
years, I've had discussions with a lot of professors on this subject.
Their responses have been largely the same: yes, they're interested in open
source; yes, they'd love to teach it to their students; they don't know how
to get started; open source is intimidating; they don't have time to dig in
and learn." Professors have significant demands on their time
outside the classroom, he added, making it difficult to acquire the
knowledge necessary to guide students around open source.
POSSE tackles the challenge of winning over professors by putting them
in touch with like-minded peers, he said. "That's the hypothesis of
POSSE: that professors will respond to other professors, and that a
community of professors working together to solve these problems will be
more successful." Humphrey and Tyler's work at Seneca demonstrates
that teaching open source participation in the classroom works; their
students have a proven track record of success contributing to Mozilla and Fedora, respectively.
Bringing the two communities together involves more than just reaching
out to professors, however — open source projects must look for ways
in which they can foster mentoring relationships and be more accessible to
student participation. DeKoenigsberg cited Mozilla as an example of a
project with good student outreach. "Mozilla does a good job of this
in a number of ways; they have a special tag in Bugzilla that can denote
particular tickets as 'student friendly', which is something we're hoping
to replicate in Fedora."
Mozilla and Fedora were the two projects spotlighted in POSSE 2009, but
it was a pragmatic choice. "We certainly don't want to limit
professors to participating in particular communities,"
DeKoenigsberg said. "We used Mozilla and Fedora projects as the
mechanism to introduce professors to open source development, but many
professors may already be engaged in research that leads quite naturally to
interest in other communities."
Planning for the school year and beyond
The professors that attended POSSE 2009 are making their own plans for
integrating what they learned with their curriculum, although the
integration might be difficult for the coming semester. Jadud said that he
plans to use open projects to a limited degree in the coming term, most
immediately in the data structures class, where he plans to have students
study the Mozilla codebase (among others) so that they can read and learn
from structures used "in the wild".
Further out, he plans to apply POSSE's lessons to Transterpreter, but
would also like to collaborate on coding projects with some of his
colleagues at Allegheny. "It may be that we can renovate our
technical writing course so that our students are working on and
contributing to living, community-written documents while learning to write
and edit technical prose. Mind you, this was a revelation for me at POSSE,
that these large projects have so *much* going on, there are many, many
ways to get people involved."
For its part, TeachingOpenSource.org plans to keep in touch with the
POSSE 2009 participants in the coming school year, working with them in the
classroom. The group specifically wants to hear from open source projects
that would like to work with a class of CS students for an entire semester,
and are willing to provide mentoring, but individual mentors and guides are
encouraged to join as well.
Other efforts still to come include a collaboratively-drafted textbook
about teaching open source and associated classroom reference materials,
and a one-day Teaching
Open Source Summit to be held in October at the Free Software and Open Source Symposium in
Those who could not attend this summer's inaugural workshop need not
events like POSSE 2009 are in the works. DeKoenigsberg said that the
group is already planning to expand the reach of next year's POSSE beyond
CS, to include professors in technical writing and other related fields.
It also hopes to run multiple POSSE sessions, although the limiting factor
is currently the number of professors actively involved in open source
software. As with its other projects, TeachingOpenSource.org encourages
anyone who is interested in helping to organize a POSSE event in his or her
own area to join the mailing
As DeKoenigsberg observed, when one asks open source developers how they
learned their development skills, most reply "I taught
myself." Although the open source community's ability to
apprentice and mentor to new recruits is admirable, it does little formal
recruiting and training. At the same time, thousands of CS students come up
through college programs that focus mostly on proprietary tools and
development models. Better integrating the two communities could expand the
open source talent pool, and equip students with more skills as they
prepare to enter the job market.
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