I'm just back from the first lecture in our Seneca Mozilla Open Source courses. Chris and I are team teaching it this time, and we spent today introducing our way of working, and what open source is all about. This year we're going to try and film our talks and demos, and we'll be posting today's next week. Here's a test video and introduction we did yesterday. I don't know how I'm going to take to being filmed all the time, but I'm going to give it a shot.
One of the reasons I've always been hesitant to film what we do is that our method of teaching is very here and now. We're often asked for teaching materials, curriculum, things so that others can reproduce what we do, etc. We've tried to create some of this over the years, but the truth is, most of what we do is respond to, and reflect on what we see happening. We don't teach something that sits still long enough to be photographed. You really have to come with us to see it, and the experience is different every time.
I learned this my very first time teaching Mozilla, when I asked the students to build Firefox and document their method. I wanted them to hand it in. That night students started working together on the wiki, posting, improving, and correcting info until it was all done. Like done as in, "you can't do this assignment again, Dave, cause the answer is right here on the web."
Over time we learned that this was a good thing, and not something to be controlled. Don't want your students to collaborate and publish their work? No problem, you can clamp down on such things. But why would you want to do that? All of the academics I know collaborate, publish, and try to continually absorb existing knowledge as they innovate on top of it.
When you don't teach with a curriculum, and instead look toward real events and people to provide an authentic experience of learning, you have to make a decision to radically alter your gaze. Where previously you watched students go round the race course (that's what curriculum is), this new method involves opening the gate at the end of the track, and having them run through it. The students still run, they just don't run in a circle.
Something else has to happen, though. If you want to watch them now that they've left through the gate, you're going to have to go with them. You can't stand in the middle of the stadium any more, behind your lectern, and simply officiate. You have to get on the road with them, right there among them. You have to keep pace.
I'm pleased to say that I know other professors who understand this, and are committed to it also. I had two of them, two friends, get in touch with me today, inviting me to participate in their classes with them. Think about that for a second. I'm also a professor at another school with my own students and research, and they want me to spend my time working with them and their students. Can you imagine how ridiculous this is? I said yes to both.
Luke Hill is teaching a class on literature, and he's decided to teach his class in the way I've described above. He knows that the only true account of reading he can offer his students is the one that comes from his own reading, and showing them what happens. You can join his class too if you like, and I'd encourage you to consider it.
Greg Wilson is teaching a capstone project course on open source. He's made good on an idea he told me about a few years ago to bring students from different institutions together in order to work on the same software projects. He's playing a coordinating role in Toronto, and helping to connect these students and institutions not only to each other, but also to the open source community at large. That's how you teach software in 2009. You can follow the work of his students on their blog planet here.
I said earlier that you have to run along side your students, and I also plan to do just that with mine. Before I went on holidays I released a piece of open source software that I'm particularly proud of called DXR. When I say "proud" I don't mean of the code itself--it's a horrible mess of hacks that needs tons of work. But, in it's current 0.1 state, it points toward something great. This year I'm going to be working on DXR as my project for our open source course. I'll be releasing updates to it on the same schedule as my students, blogging like they will about my progress, failing and succeeding just like they will. Just as Luke plans to offer his own reading to his students, I'm going to offer my experience of open source in a Mozilla context to the students.
Now let me throw this challenge out there, to my colleagues at other institutions: open the gate and let your students run, and go run with them. We love to talk about "just getting out of students' way," as though we regularly do that. But I hear more people saying it than doing it. I'd love to hear about more people who are doing this now. We need to know about each other, and encourage one another because too often, the institutions in which we exist don't understand the value of doing real things in collaboration with each other.