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Re: [Osdc-edu-authors] Draft article: a professor's perpsective - the landscape of academic participation in open source projects
- From: Mary Bitter <mbitter redhat com>
- To: Mel Chua <mel redhat com>
- Cc: OSDC Education authors <osdc-edu-authors redhat com>
- Subject: Re: [Osdc-edu-authors] Draft article: a professor's perpsective - the landscape of academic participation in open source projects
- Date: Thu, 18 Nov 2010 13:56:10 -0500
I can take it through proofing on this end if there aren't any edits
from this group -- any edits? I'll also get this article in the queue
for an image.
Also, Mel, if Heidi will register as a user, we can set her up as an
author etc. & add her to this email list.
Mel Chua wrote:
Heidi Ellis from Western New England College has a draft article up
here, text also pasted below:
Comments welcome. Will try to get her accounts + list memberships set
up soon so I don't have to be a go-between. :)
I must start this with a huge "Thank you" to Mel Chua for visiting us
in Connecticut and for prompting/prodding me to think more deeply
about how open source and academia work together to accomplish
education. I believe I now have a better picture as to the landscape
of student and academic participation in open source projects.
At first look, student participation in open source projects seems
like it should be relatively easy to accomplish. Sure, from the
teaching perspective, there are issues related to selecting a project,
learning curve for the project, finding a mentor, identifying ways
that students can participate, figuring out how to grade things, and
more. But these things are surrmountable. From my perspective of
trying to do this over several years, some rocks in the river have
appeared that make navigating the current of open source involvement
trickier than it first appeared.
When two groups collaborate, they typically do so to accomplish some
common goals or to work together to accomplish goals for both groups.
In this case, the goals of the two environments differ. The open
source environment seeks to create a product that meets user needs.
The academic environment seeks to produce students with certain
knowledge and skill set.
More importantly, the goals of the groups in the collaboration between
open source and academia differ. Open source communities would like to
see larger numbers of developers contributing to their projects (as
would I!). And some in the open source community view students as a
possible source for these future developers (I happen to agree).
Adademia sees open source as an opportunity for students to gain
real-world experience, learn professionalism, and have some evidence
of software proficiency that they can demonstrate to potential
employers. Making a contribution is helpful, but not essential.
Can open source/academic collaborations accomplish the goals of both
groups? I think so, but there are some differences in the environments
which present... well, we'll call them "learning opportunities." In
order for a particular collaboration to be successful, it helps if
both groups understand these differences.
While talking with Mel, it became clear how much the two environments
differ with respect to pace, planning, and constraints. The open
source way is very opportunistic and flexible while academia is very
planned and structured. The open source way emphasizes short-term
optimization and taking immediate advantage of resources (e.g.,
developer expertise, time, funding) as they appear. Resources can
become available and disappear relatively quickly. Due to the fluid
nature of participation, it is difficult to estimate long-range (one
or more years) resource availability in the open source environment.
This is not to say that open source projects do not do long-term
planning, but that the development process is sufficiently flexible to
be able to select among different paths to a long-term goal as new
paths open up.
Academia is built around long-term optimization and allocating
resources over time. Academics have a fairly fixed set of resources
(e.g., time, instructors, students) which vary little over the long
term (several to many years). In addition, academics operate under a
series of constraints on those resources. Academia is bound by time
constraints such as semester schedules and class hours. It is bound
curricularly by syllabi, learning outcomes and grading. These things
cannot typically be changed within a 3-4 month timeframe and sometimes
not within a year. This limits the ability of academia to take
advantage of the opportunities that arise spontaneously from open source.
The pace of the two environments is very different. The open source
environment tends to be fast-paced and less predictable (more
intermittent?) as people have more or less time to contribute to
projects over time. Academia has a much slower (some might say
glacial) pace that has higher predictability due to the regularity of
the academic schedule.
Note that class schedules are frequently created six to eight months
before the term starts. In addition, curricula plans must include the
four years of a student's stay at an institution. Therefore, classes
must be supplied to meet the curricula that was in place at the time
that a student entered the institution and changes in curricula are
typically phased in one year at a time over four years.
Clearly there are some large differences in culture. But I think that
open source/academic collaborations can work as there are also some
strong commonalities between the groups. The open osurce and academic
environments share a desire to "do something", to produce a product
that people will use. Both groups have a love of learning and both
groups are based on the precept that something (knowledge/software)
should be accessible to everyone. Both groups have a desire to belong
to a professional group, to be interacting with like professionals and
participating in ongoing professional activity. And interestingly, I
think both groups share a desire to be self-directed, to have control
over what they do.
What have I learned? Lots!
Participation in open source definitely benefits students. I have
observed students gaining lots of professional knowledge and
experience and also forming professional networks through their
participation in open source. Many students are motivated by
participating on an open source project and they get a better
understanding of why the content of those courses we made them take
Setting expectations is important. Expectations are important for both
the student and for the open source community. The differences in
cultures identified above must be understood by both groups in order
to support a successful collaboration. The actual participation in an
open source project looks different from the academic and open source
I can be more opportunistic. My preferred approach is to plan things
out well in advance. Talking to Mel made me realize that there were
lots of opportunities that occur spontaneously and that with little
effort, I could take advantage of these opportunities if I'm willing
to abandon my "plan". For instance, with 2 days notice, she and I set
up a Hack Share where we invited Sebastian Dziallas to come "hack
live" and teach students how to package an application. I would not
have attempted this on my own, assuming that I would need lead time to
advertise, get resources, etc. However, it was very well attended and
a huge success on a small scale. Could I have gotten a larger
attendance? Sure, but not in my window of opportunity. The outcome was
that by not having the time to plan, the Hack Share may have reached
fewer people. But if I had to take the time to plan, the event might
not have occured at all. So the trade-off is to reach fewer people in
smaller ways. The conversations with Mel have caused me to be more
considered in evaluating and better able to take advantage of
opportunities that arise.
Academia needs to be sure to give back to the OSS community. One very
real danger in student participation in OSS is for students to learn
from the community, to gain from the community but not provide
anything back to that community. This violates the open source way and
could easily contribute to the break up of open source/academic
collaborations. Professors must find a way to provide some value to
the open source community. This value does not necessarily need to be
in the form of code and could easily take the form of documentation,
wiki gardening, etc.
I believe that our efforts in involving students in open source
projects will pay off for the open source community. However, I
believe that many of these benefits will not be reaped for several to
many years. I say this for several reasons. First, many students are
focused first on getting their degree and then on getting a job. These
are folks who are (rightly so) spending most of their energy on
establishing careers. This means that for a year and perhaps longer
after graduation, these folks may not have time to contribute to OSS.
Second, I believe that students will carry the banner for open osurce,
but that it will take time for the idea to spread. Remember that
students are not professionals and they are learning open source
participation in addition to all their other classes. They typically
will have a much longer entry timeframe into open source than an
experienced developer. Lastly, academia moves at a snail's pace
compared to the open source world. It will take time for professors to
understand the opportunities offered by involving students in open
source. And it will take them even longer to be able to change their
own classes to include open source and longer still to have open
source integrated across a curriculum.
These observations are both positive and negative for the open source
community. The bad news is that there is not likely to be a huge
influx of new open source developers coming from college students in
the near future. The good news is that there is likely to be a trickle
of such developers and that this small stream is likely to continue
over several to many years. And hopefully, the stream will grow as
word spreads and as more professors adopt approaches to involving
students in open source projects. One significant benefit is the
growing awareness of open source within the computing student
population and beyond.
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