The classroom presents a special challenge
to Linux and open source advocates. At first glance it seems like a slam
dunk: free software lowers costs, and provides students with unique
opportunities to learn. But even as FOSS adoption grows into big business
for enterprises, start-ups, and mom-and-pop shops, it continues to be a
minority player in public schools and universities. There are outreach
efforts fighting the good fight, but progress is slow, and learning how to
adapt the message to the needs of educators is far from a solved problem.
Open Source Software In Education (OSSIE) was a dedicated Saturday track at SCALE 10X in Los Angeles. The sessions included talks about FOSS aimed at educators and talks about promoting open source usage in schools. The track was running concurrently with the rest of the conference, which made it difficult to attend every session, but the overlap between two of the talks raised more than enough questions for the open source community — namely, how to adapt outreach strategies for success in the often intransigent education sector.
Elizabeth Krumbach's "Bringing
Linux into Public Schools and Community Centers" was an overview of the
Partimus project's work in the San
Francisco Bay area (and similar efforts), setting up and maintaining
computer labs for K-12 students. Sebastian Dziallas's "Undergraduate
Education Strategies" was a look at the Red Hat-run Professors' Open Source Summer
Experience (POSSE), which is a workshop for college professors interested in bringing open source to the classroom.
Case studies from Partimus
Krumbach is both a volunteer and a board member with Partimus, a
volunteer-driven nonprofit that accepts hardware donations, outfits them
with free software, and provides
them to San Francisco area schools. As she explained, Partimus's
involvement includes not only the desktop systems used by students, but the
network tools and system administration support required to keep the labs
running. That frequently means setting up thin clients for the lab
machines, plus network-mounted drives and imaging servers to provision or
replace clients, and often setting up the infrastructure for the network
itself: running Ethernet and power to all of the seats. The client
software is based on Ubuntu, Firefox, and LibreOffice on the client side,
plus OpenLDAP directory service and the DansGuardian filtering system — which fulfills a legal requirement for most schools.
The talk examined three education deployments in depth, and the lessons interested projects could draw from each. The Mount Airy Learning Tree (MALT) is a community center in Philadelphia, and a Partimus-inspired effort by the Ubuntu Pennsylvania team worked with the center to build its first-ever computer lab. The deployment was initially a success, but it did not end well when MALT relocated to a new venue on the other side of the city. The volunteers who had been supporting the lab found it impossible to make the numerous trips required to support the new facility on an ongoing basis, and the new MALT staff were uninterested in the lab. Although community centers are often easier to work with than public schools, Krumbach said, the MALT experience underlines the necessity of having on-the-ground volunteers available, and of having buy-in by the community center staff itself.
The Creative Arts Charter School (CACS) is a San Francisco charter
school, meaning that it is publicly funded but can make autonomous
decisions apart from the general school district. CACS is one of
Partimus's flagship projects, an ongoing relationship that involves both
labs and individual installs for various teachers. In the CACS case,
Krumbach highlighted that supporting the computers required Partimus
volunteers willing to go to the schools and inspect the machines in person.
Teachers, being driven by the demands of the fixed academic calendar,
rarely call in to report hardware or software failures: they simply work
The ASCEND charter school in Oakland is another Partimus effort, but one
with a distinctly different origin story. Robert Litt, a teacher at
ASCEND, learned about Linux and open source from an acquaintance, and
sought out help himself. Partimus donated a server to the school, but acts
more like a technology consultancy, providing help and educational
resources, while the labs are run and maintained by Litt. Krumbach used
the example as evidence of the value of a local champion: Litt is
a forward-thinking, technology-aware teacher in other respects as well; he
runs multiple blogs to communicate with and provide assignments to his elementary-age classes.
Schools, grants, and budgets
A successful school deployment is not primarily a technological challenge, Krumbach said: the software is all there, and getting modern hardware donations is relatively easy. Instead, the challenges center around the individuals. She called attention to the "enthusiastic" leadership of Partimus director Christian Einfeldt, who is an effective advocate for the software and motivator of the volunteers. But on-the-ground supporters and strong allies at the school themselves are vital as well. Finally, she emphasized that "selling" schools on open source software required demonstrating it and providing training classes so that the teachers could gain firsthand experience — not merely enumerating a list of benefits.
The audience in the session included many who either worked in education or who had firsthand experience advocating open source software in the classroom, which at times made for impassioned discussion. The topic that occupied the most time was how to respond when a Linux lab is challenged by the sudden appearance of a grant-funded (or corporate-donated) rival lab built on Windows. Apparently, in those situations it is common for the donation or the grant to stipulate that the new hardware be used only in a particular way — which precludes installing another operating system. Krumbach said that Partimus had encountered such a dilemma, and quoted Einfeldt as saying "it's wrong, but it sort of makes me glad when I walk into that lab and one third of the Windows computers don't boot. And they call us back in when half of them don't boot."
Grants and corporate-sponsored donations relate to another important issue, which is that public schools do not deal with budgets like businesses do. They do have a budget (even a technology budget), Krumbach said, but the mindset is completely different: a school's budget is fixed, it is determined by outsiders, and the school has very little input into the process.
In other words, schools don't deal with income and expenses like businesses do, and thus the "you'll start saving money now" argument common in the small business and enterprise market simply carries no weight. A better strategy is to directly connect open source software to opportunities to do new things: a new course, an optional extra-curricular activity, or a faster and simpler way to teach a particular subject. That approach makes charter schools an especially viable market, she said; anyone interested in promoting open source software would do well to pay attention to when local charter schools are in the planning stages.
The higher-ed gap
While Partimus is interested in the primary and secondary education market (and generally only at the desktop-user level), Red Hat's POSSE targets college professors who teach computer science and software engineering. It has been run both as a week-long boot camp and as a weekend experience, but in either case, the professors are split into groups and learn about the open source development model by immersion: getting familiar with wikis, distributed source code management, and communicating only by online means. Dziallas mentioned that (in at least one case) the professors were instructed to only communicate with each other over IRC during the project; IRC like other tools common in open source projects is rarely used in academia.
At the end of a POSSE training course, the expectation is that the
professors will use real-world open source projects as exercises and
learning opportunities in their own classes — anywhere from serving
as source material to assigning semester-long projects that get the
students involved in actual development. In addition, the professors leave
POSSE with valuable contacts in the open source community, including people
who they can turn to when they have questions or when something goes wrong (such as a project delaying its next release to an inopportune time of year).
Dziallas is currently a student at Olin College, and had worked as an intern at Red Hat in the summer of 2011. Based on that internship and his experience with POSSE, he presented his insights on the cultural differences between open source software and academia, and how understanding them could help bridge the gap.
For starters, he pointed out that open source and academia have radically different timing on a number of fronts. Many Linux-related open source projects now operate on steady, six-month release cycles, while universities typically only re-evaluate their curriculum every four years. Planning is also different: open source projects vary from those with completely ad-hoc roadmaps to those that plan a year in advance — but academia thinks in two-to-five-year cycles for everything from hardware refreshes to accreditation. The "execution time" of the two worlds differs, too, with the lifecycle of a typical software release being six to twelve months, but the lifespan of a particular degree taking four to five years.
As a result, he said, from the open source perspective the academic world seems glacially slow, but from academia's vantage point, open source is chaotic and unpredictable. But the differences do not stop there. In open source, jumping in and doing something without obtaining permission first is the preferred technique — while in academia it is anathema. Open source is always preoccupied with the problem of finding and recruiting more contributors, he said, while academia is currently interested in "mentoring," "portfolio material," and the "workplace readiness" of students. Industry has been quick to connect with universities, recruiting interns and new employees, but open source has so far not been as successful.
Challenges for POSSE
POSSE is Red Hat's effort to bridge the gap and find common ground between open source in the wild and academia. The professors are encouraged to find an existing project that they care about, not to simply pick one at random, in the hopes of building a sustainable relationship. The "immersion" method of learning the open source methodology is supposed to be a quicker path to understanding it than any written explanation can provide. But ultimately, building connections between the interested professors and actual developers is one of the biggest benefits of the program.
Dziallas calculated that of all of the college professors with an
interest in learning more about open source, only 50% can make it to a
POSSE event (for budgetary or time reasons). In addition, about 30% have
some sort of "institutional blocker" that precludes their attendance beyond
just logistical issues, and a
tiny percentage drop out for loss of interest or other reasons.
Thus POSSE is only reaching a fraction of the educators it would like to, but the challenge does not stop there. Among POSSE alumni, the challenge is maintaining a long-term relationship. The amount of support a professor receives after POSSE corresponds to the success rate. Although some are able to use institutional funds to further their involvement with open source (such as travel support to attend a conference, or to bring in a developer to give a guest lecture), most are not. POSSE has only been in operation since 2009, so its long-term sustainability has yet to be proven. But, Dziallas noted, regardless of whether or not the current formula is sustainable, "we must keep trying."
As was the case with Krumbach's talk, the audience question-and-answer segment of the session was taken up largely by the question of how to make inroads into institutions where there is currently no Linux or open source presence. At the college level, of course, the specifics are different. One audience member asked how to combat purchasing decisions that locked out open source, to which Dziallas replied that there is a big difference between the software that students use to do their homework, and what shapes the education experience: if understanding open source and participating in the community is the goal, that goal can be accomplished on a computer running Microsoft software.
Another audience member weighed in on the topic by suggesting that open source advocates take a closer look at the community colleges and technical colleges in their area, not just the four year, "liberal arts" institutions. In the United States, "community" and "technical" colleges typically have a different mandate, the argument went, and one that puts more emphasis on job training and on learning real-world skills. As a result, they move at a different pace than traditional institutions and respond to different factors.
In both sessions, then, the speakers shared their
successes, but the audience expressed an ongoing frustration with cracking into
the educational computing space. Of course, selling Linux on the desktop
has always been a tougher undertaking than selling it in the server room,
but it is clear from the conversations at OSSIE that advocating open source
in education is far more complicated than substituting "administrator" for
"executive" and "classroom" for "office." Both Partimus and POSSE are
gaining valuable insights through their own work about the distinct
expectations, timing, and interaction it takes to present a compelling case
to educators. They still have more information to gather, but even now
other open source projects can learn from their progress.
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