FSOSS 2008 Wrap-up: Toward Open Source Education

I've finally recovered enough from last week's FSOSS to sit down and write a bit about it.  The event was a real success, and I had a great time attending and participating.  This year I focused on speakers and content instead of logistics, which meant I got to actually attend the talks, imagine!  Hats off to Chris, Rose, and others who shouldered the rest of the heavy lifting.

I want to talk about one of the major outcomes of the symposium, namely, open source education.  But first, I want to say a huge thanks to our many Mozilla friends who presented:

  • Andor Salga and Cathy Leung talking about their work with canvas3d and c3dl.org
  • Former Seneca-Mozilla students, Tom Aratyn, Andrew Smith, Armen Gasparnian, and Lukas Blakk
  • Dan Mosedale and David Eaves, for their very insightful discussion about creating healthy community
  • Frank Hecker and Mark Surman, who helped bring a Mozilla perspective to our education track (more on that in a sec)
  • Shane Caraveo from ActiveState and Komodo fame
  • Johnathan Nightingale for his excellent talk on security practiced in the open--I'm still getting feedback on this one!
  • Mike "I can't believe I'm a Mac now" Hoye and his crew of entertaining Mozilla Pecha Kuchas: Mike Beltzner, Joe Drew, Madhava Enros
  • And last but not least, Stuart Parmenter, who gave a really excellent talk about Mozilla and mobile that also shed light on how Mozilla goes about making trade-offs when solving hard problems.  Stuart has a great blog post up about some of his ideas too.
    More than 50 great talks in all, and we've filmed them again this year.  However, unlike previous years, we're going to take more time releasing them as we attempt do do some post-production.  I'll blog when they are ready.

One of the things that was most exciting about FSOSS this year was the focus on open source education.  Chris organized an entire track on "Teaching Open Source," which featured a day of various panel discussions ranging from students to professors to administrators to open source project leaders.

Mark has blogged his thoughts from the day already, as well as notes from a brainstorming session he, Frank, and myself had the day before FSOSS.  Others have started to respond too.  You can read Chris' reaction here, and Red Hat's Greg Dekoenigsberg's call to arms here.

What I like about Mark and Greg is that they both get the need for open source projects to act on this stuff, and are taking steps to address it.  Too many people are talking about it but not jumping in with both feet.  For starters, it would be good to know how many of us there actually are out there doing this now.

I was also pleased to meet some new professors who are thinking seriously about taking their students into the open source world.  For example, Rob Cameron (CS prof at SFU) and I had a great discussion about how to get his students working in the Mozilla/Messaging space, and bounced around ideas for experimenting with his xml parser and unicode research.  I think this sort of inter-institutional collaboration around a single open source project (Mozilla) is a very interesting idea, and I'll be following-up with him to help get it started.

The day left me still struggling with one large question: are open source communities really ready to take on students (and therefore new contributors) at the rates they claim?  Let's say we are successful.  Let's say open source and community involved collaboration takes off around the world.  Are projects like Mozilla, Eclipse, OpenOffice.org, Fedora, etc. ready to take hundreds or thousands of new contributors?  Take it from someone in the trenches that it is very difficult to find even 30 good student projects every semester!

How do we get better at this?  How do we insure that energy (not the same thing as talent, at first) gets properly situated and nurtured?  How do we find sufficient landing sites for people to add value, work on real things, not swamp the existing community and momentum, and provide the kind of mentoring new students/contributors need?  It's a problem I'm intimately aware of, and one I work daily to solve.

Today Dan Mosedale and I discussed this at length over IRC.  Dan has been very supportive of our Mozilla-Seneca work, and often helps us find projects for students.  We're realizing that this model doesn't scale though.  It's easy to go to the well too often, and inevitably it dries up.  Another problem is that those closest to the project are often thinking about the wrong sorts of work for new people; that is, they are focused on what is going into the next release.  However, what students or new people really need (not always, but usually) is something smaller and a bit off to the side, something that won't hold a ship date if they drop the ball or take too long getting up to speed, but also something that people care enough about to help with, review in a timely way, etc.  People tend to say, "developers scratch their own itch."  Well, that's true of the people in your community now (i.e, those who find their way there by themselves).  But when you bring students in, they are there for a different reason, and may not realize that Mozilla is scratchy yet :)

As Dan and I discussed this, one idea that came up was that professors could/should join the various weekly Mozilla calls.  This would facilitate a new sort of triage, which seeks to find good project work for students and new contributors, and flags/wikis/blogs this info as such.  Chris has been doing this with Fedora for a while, and it's working well.

The "Teaching Open Source" issue is a huge discussion with not one but many solutions that all need to happen together.  I'd encourage you to get engaged in this discussion.  Perhaps you're a student wishing your school was doing open source education.  Maybe you're a professor constrained by the "publish or perish" guidelines set out by your school, and without enough time to get engaged in a community.  Maybe you're in industry and want to help mentor the next generation of students/contributors/employees.  Where ever you are, this discussion involves you.  It's not a problem just teachers have.  Healthy community is how healthy open source grows and flourishes, and the problem of how to get new people engaged and settled into productive roles is a project-wide one.

So please comment here, write to Mark, Frank, myself, blog your ideas and experiences, join the list of people working on this stuff, and get involved in helping us remake education.  This stuff is possible, difficult, rewarding, challenging, exciting, and most importantly, it's the future.

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