The best way to ensure the spread and success of open source is to introduce the next generations of users, and potential contributors, to open source at an early age. But this isn't trivial. Aside from software suitable for young users, it takes a lot of support materials to teach a class and spread the word to educators. One of the better documented attempts at reaching students is Máirín Duffy's eight-session Inkscape class and K12 Educator's Guide to Open Source Software.
The decentralized and loosely joined nature of the open source community has its advantages, but being easy to navigate isn't one of them. A case in point: While proprietary software companies have effective and plentiful resources to encourage educators to use their products, finding open source solutions is not as straightforward. This is particularly true for educators who are largely unaware of open source options. Duffy, an interaction designer for Red Hat and contributor to Fedora, has taken a stab at mitigating the problem by designing an eight-day Inkscape class for ten 7th grade students at Blanchard Middle School in Westford, Mass. and pulling together a guide for educators as well.
In October of last year, Duffy announced to the Fedora design team list that she'd be doing a Inkscape course at a local school on behalf of Red Hat, and was seeking help to put together the lesson plans. The class was held from early January through early February.
The course spans eight 40 minute sessions focusing on a single Inkscape
project. Students learn about using Inkscape to create a logo for a
Red Hat EmbroidMe Chelmsford sponsored putting the logo on a T-shirt at the end of the
projects so students could actually have something to show from the
course. In addition to the lesson plans and exercises developed by Duffy,
the course materials also include the Inkscape manual from FLOSS Manuals and Tavmjon Bah's Inkscape: Guide to a Vector Drawing Program.
Even though the class is Inkscape-specific, the lesson plans and posts give some idea how to create a class from scratch or by adapting existing materials.
In the course of the project, Duffy also decided to create a two-page educator's guide. The guide and class materials are released under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 along with Inkscape files (for the guide) and ODF (for the lesson plans) for anyone who would like to remix and redistribute the content. The guide also uses free and open source fonts, so there should be no barriers to redistribution or refining the guide.
The guide provides links to some prominent resources for open source in
K12 (primary and secondary education in North America) such as the education channel on Red Hat's OpenSource.com, the Open Clip Art Library, and the Open Educational Resources Commons. It also points to sites for finding open source applications, like osalt.com, and the K12OpenSource.org application catalog.
Note that it is, as the title implies, a guide to open source and not a guide to Linux. As such, it is primarily a pointer to community resources and a few applications of interest. It also contains a few choice quotes supporting open source by educators, and links to the posts Duffy wrote to correspond with the Inkscape class she taught. Says Duffy:
In the end, functional and full-featured open source tools that can be used in the classroom today do exist, so this guide is meant to send that message as well as point to a little bit of the story of where those open source tools come from.
Though the guide and materials were created for the class, Duffy says that it should work for "any Red Hatter or really any person reaching out to K12 schools." Having these types of source materials can go a long way to helping volunteers work with schools. Duffy says that "any time we can save those volunteers in having materials ready to go saves them time they can use to do more."
The students worked with Inkscape, but on Macs running Mac OS X and using Wacom tablets donated by Red Hat. Why not go all out and try to get the students and school using Linux as well? One of the things Duffy cautions against is to push educators too hard to embrace a fully open source stack all in one go:
An important thing to note is the guide does not reference ANY Linux distros - no openSUSE EDU, no Edubuntu, but also no Fedora Education spin or the Fedora Sugar on a Stick spin. The guide is focused on open source, not Linux. This is because as we found via direct experience in running our own open source outreach program with a local middle school - programs like this can be an educator's first experience with open source. If you push too hard for a 100% open source stack, you run greater risk of something going wrong and turning the educator / school off from open source entirely. It's better to take a measured approach - rather than coming in and changing the school district's operating system (which many times is simply not practically possible), it's better to vouch for cross-platform FLOSS applications like Inkscape and OpenOffice.org, taking a more gradual/measured approach.
Is there anything missing from the open source stack that schools need? According to Duffy, there's a gap when it comes to 2D animation applications:
If there is one thing in free & open source software that's missing that schools need, it's a simple, easy-to-use 2D animation program. It's the one thing the various teachers I've talked to always ask about, and I'm always sad to have no really great answer to give them. I know there are some projects working on this (e.g., Synfig) but we're not there yet.
It's hard to encompass the entire open source ecosystem for educators in two pages. Luckily, Duffy wasn't trying to. She points out that the guide is under a Creative Commons license, and she wanted to encourage others to build on it and revise it. What about a central source for this information? The guide points to several resources, but there's no over-arching authority to point educators to. Duffy acknowledges that there's not a site or project that includes all of the information educators need, but suggests that interested parties work with the K12 open source wiki referenced in the guide.
From the posts about the class, it seems that the sessions went well and the students took to Inkscape pretty happily. The choice of a relevant project that the students could become enthused about was probably a contributing factor, and the fact that they were working with a creative tool like Inkscape. Having hands-on activities obviously helped a lot. One consideration Duffy mentioned is that it's important to plan a lot of time for exercises, and that eight class periods is much less time than one thinks.
Finally, Duffy encourages LWN readers to take the guide and lesson plans and run with them:
I'd like to ask your readers that, if they haven't considered it already, they should think about volunteering in a local school! It's extremely rewarding. Kids look at the world in a different way and that perspective shift is really refreshing and energizing.
This is encouraging work that has helped introduce ten students to open
source and started them on the path to working with more open source
software. However, there are still millions of school children in
North America and around the world that haven't been reached yet. Duffy's
guide and posts provide a good idea what to expect when working with school
kids and shows that they take to FOSS pretty quickly when it is presented correctly. With any luck, Duffy's posts and example will help inspire more open source advocates to take the lead in the classroom and introduce kids to open source applications.
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