"students want to produce meaningful output"

A number of people sent me a link to this story about Kyle Brady and his ordeal getting his school to let him post the source code to his assignments.  In the spirit of the academy, Kyle wanted to share the results of his work.  His professor said no and threatened to fail him, and it was only through escalating it to upper administration that he was finally allowed to do it.

This story amazes me.  Here are a couple of quotations that resonated with me:

The most important lesson from it for me is that students want to produce meaningful output from their course-assignments, things that have intrinsic value apart from their usefulness for assessing their progress in the course. Profs -- including me, at times -- fall into the lazy trap of wanting to assign rotework that can be endlessly recycled as work for new students, a model that fails when the students treat their work as useful in and of itself and therefore worthy of making public for their peers and other interested parties who find them through search results, links, etc.


I've always thought it was miserable that we take the supposed best and brightest in society, charge them up to $60,000 a year in fees, then put them to work for four years on producing busywork that no one -- not them, not their profs, not other scholars -- actually wants to read. Might as well get them to spend four years carving detailed models of ships from sweet potatoes (and then bury the potatoes).
There's an important lesson for educators here.  Students want to:

  • work on things that matter.
  • have the chance to participate in the production of knowledge.
  • share.
    I've written before about the idea of permission in an academic context.  This is proof that there are still serious barriers to mixing education proper with the web.  At the same time that we're hearing stories like this one, there are an increasing number of stories about the opposite, and people who see the value of letting go of closed approaches to knowledge in favour of collaboration.

Take the example of Srirang Doddihal in India.  Srirang, or brahmana as he's known in the Mozilla world, was a student when he did a Google Summer of Code project.  After completing the project and graduating, he kept going with Mozilla as an active contributor working on things like the Download Manager.  He also had a vision for his old school: if he could work on Mozilla as a student, why couldn't other students?  Over the winter he's worked with Mozilla Education and his old professors to work toward establishing a new course in the fall on Mozilla at his old school.

Srirang's story is unique, but not singular.  We're talking with other schools interested in doing the same thing, and the only thing stopping us from working with you is that first email you need to send.  It doesn't matter if you're a professor or an individual student, you can start working on things that matter right now as part of Mozilla.

For Kyle and his professor, it's worth noting that Mozilla provides some significant solutions to the problems they faced:

  1. Mozilla source code is freely available for study, modification, and contribution.  The ambiguity of what you can and can't do has been removed, helping students and professors alike avoid these sorts of battles.
  2. Mozilla is large enough that you can give different assignments all the time but still use the same content.  For profs it's hard to come up with variations on the same thing year after.  Mozilla is an endless supply of similar but unique types of work.
  3. Mozilla does significant and important work, both from a technical and public good point of view.  Working on Mozilla means a lot of different things.  You can work on enhancing the open web, accessiblity, graphic design, compiler optimizations, static analysis, web tools, build systems, HCI and UX, cross-platform development, mobile, localization and internationalization, automation, quality assurance, testing, technical documentation, extensibility, etc.  The list is as varied as the people who do it.
  4. You aren't alone in finding things you can do or getting help doing them.  Mozilla keeps track of its work using a public bug tracking system, and even flags bugs appropriate for student projects.
  5. Over the past 10 years, Mozilla has proven that you can succeed by doing things in the open, using the web to collaborate, and sharing what you know.  We're beyond the point where people like Kyle's professor can claim that this is a nice idealism with no practical benifit, or not how the real world works.  In fewer than 35 days, Mozilla will show you how well this approach works in the real world.
    More students need to follow Kyle's lead and take their learning seriously.  What he did is what Mozilla does every day, and if you're ready to try this, we're ready to help you succeed.