Open Source Education

Open Source

This post was written by Mel Chua. We asked her to write it in response to the recent developments in UK computer science education, in order to provide a different take on what an 'open source' education means. The text is available under a CC-BY-SA 3.0 license. We hope you enjoy this guest post.

There's been a lot of hubbub lately about CS education in the UK. Since you're reading this blog, I'll assume that you are probably familiar with the basics of Free and Open Source Software, and that you have positive sentiments towards it. When we think "open source and education," we typically think of usage -- filling computer labs with Free and Open tools rather than licence-encumbered ones, teaching students how to use those tools. Today I'm writing about taking that one step further: what if we taught students to contribute to F/LOSS projects as part of their education?

That's exactly what a group of professors and hackers called Teaching Open Source has set out to do for the past few years; instead of "studying abroad" in, say, Brazil, students have their immersion experience in Fedora. Or GNOME. Or Mozilla. They get to work with an ace team of international collaborators on a real-world project that feeds directly into their public portfolios -- no NDAs to wrestle with, no fake textbook projects with no purpose, just a chance to make a difference in the lives of actual people. Since most faculty don't have direct open source community experience, we run an annual summer workshop called the Professors' Open Source Summer Experience (POSSE) to kick-start those curriculum revisions, and we're happy to talk with anyone interested in joining our community of practice -- just drop an introduction and a question by our mailing list and we'll do our best to help you out.

Going through the archives of the TOS mailing list reveals a somewhat US/Canadian bias to membership -- but there's plenty of activity going on in Europe as well. Dave Neary, a Free Software developer and consultant based in France, was kind enough to give me pointers towards some of the intriguing goings-on across the ocean. Here's a very, very incomplete list of some of the folks teaching open source across Europe.

First is a one-year Masters post-graduate degree in Free Software development taught by a company named Igalia. It's been taught in several locations in Spain -- Vigo, A Coruna and Madrid -- and all their course materials are freely available online, an amazing treasure trove that includes articles, slide decks, homework, and more. Alongside that is the Libresoft research group from the Universidad Rey Juan Carlo in Madrid -- you'll need to read Spanish to get through some parts of their website, but it's well worth a look; not only do they investigate open source communities and the software engineering techniques they use, they also develop open source tools for analyzing them. If you're looking for scripts to help you parse mailing lists, bugtrackers, or version control repositories to track community activity in your project, take a look at Libresoft's stuff.

Mark Foley, from the Dublin Institute of Technology's School of Computing has his GIS (Geographic Information Systems) students doing their capstones with FOSS projects. Also in Ireland is Barry McMullin from Dublin City University, who teaches many of his courses using open source communities as models. Across the water and in the UK is Mark Little from Red Hat, who worked with his company to open up a cloud computing lab at Newcastle University, where Little also works as a professor.

For those who read French, there's the "Diplomes" course series from Libre Software group April. I don't read French, so Dave had to translate. This site lists 4 post-graduate courses in France that use or teach Free Software. Two have simple descriptions -- a sysadmin graduate diploma in Nancy, a Systems/database/networks gradaute diploma in Angers -- but then there's also CoLibre, a professional (graduate) diploma in communication studies that teaches CMS, graphic design, multimedia creation, etc... entirely using Free and Open Source Software tools. Instead of Photoshop, they use The GIMP. Instead of Illustrator, they use Inkscape. Imagine what would happen if all our graphics designers were taught that way. For the more technically-minded, the Université du Littoral in Calais offers a masters in "Ingénieurie du Logiciels Libres", which translates to "[Software] Engineering with Free Software." Also in French (but based in Lebanon) is Cofares, a Free Software focused course in Software Engineering.

So there's plenty of activity going on close to home. And there's plenty more across the sea; the folks at Teaching Open Source come from big research institutions, small teaching-focused liberal arts schools, huge public universities, community colleges... almost any sort of school you could think of. And we teach everything from first-year undergraduate writing seminars to graduate IT project management classes, plus journalism, intro programming, natural language processing research, senior capstone projects... even first grade. We're here because we see the potential for teaching Free and Open Source as something beyond a suite of software tools we use -- we see the potential for teaching it as a way of thinking, learning, and collaborating.

How about you?


Update:Apologies for the confusion between Ireland and the UK. The reference is fixed now.

Mel Chua is a contagiously enthusiastic hacker, writer, and educator with over a decade of teaching and curriculum development experience and a solid track record in leadership positions at Red Hat, One Laptop Per Child, Sugar Labs, Fedora, and other Free, Libre, and Open Source Software (FLOSS) communities. Based at Purdue University, she bridges academic research on successful communities with deep personal experience getting her hands dirty building them.

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Your comments

Dublin in the UK? Again?

Dublin was in the UK, up until 1922. Ireland is not in the UK any more. (You can keep Newcastle).

I hate to be a nag but...

I really wish people would stop equating programming with computer science. They really aren't the same thing at all. Mechanics aren't mechanical engineers but we don't constantly conflate the two. Teaching somebody to change break pads or to replace an alternator doesn't make them qualified to design an air conditioner any more than learning to "hack" some open source code qualifies them to design a processor or prove the worst case time complexity of a sorting algorithm. They are somewhat related, but quite different.

Great job

If anyone should know the difference between programmer and a computer scientist, it should be someone like Mel Chua.

It is refreshing to see all these organisations working together on such a project. It needs to expand and become the norm. Please keep up the great work you do.


See I was confused. I thought this was about open source and hacking and programming. I guess they are teaching people actual computer science then? Time complexity analysis? Data structures? Machine Learning? Quine–McCluskey and probability based testing for circuit? P vs NP. Context free grammars?

Of course not. I'm sick of people watering down a serious branch of applied math by associating it with every 16 year old "hacker" who doesn't know his elbow @$$ from his elbow.

Don't get me wrong, there isn't anything wrong with people learning how to program, just like there isn't anything wrong with people learning how to cook, but we don't equate people who made brownies using a box mix with

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