POSSE Monday: How Seneca got involved

July 21, 2009 – 8:57 am

The transcription detail level gets much less ambitious as the day goes on. I’m learning how to pace my hands.

Chris and Dave started by explaining how Seneca got involved in teaching open source. The school had been consuming open source for a long time – 15 years now – made its labs dual-boot in 2001; the challenge was getting things into a situation where the students were not just using, but also contributing.

This finally happened when Dave did a project with a small Canadian company that made (in the pre-iPhone era) a technology that could detect your hand above/near a surface; the company asked Dave and his students to make a demo for them, and Dave said yes. Instead of building the demo on Windows, Dave suggested, “what if we approached Mozilla and said ‘let’s do a touch-based version of Firefox?’” After getting approval from the company, Dave and his students asked Mozilla if they could pay an engineer to visit and teach them for a day; Mozilla responded by sending an engineer for free. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

“The most important thing is learning to do work at that scale within the context of community,” said Chris. “How do you get students to be part of this kind of gigantic process, some of the largest projects in the world? So we’ve developed a series of courses where what we teach is OSS contribution. And that has allowed us to do some really interesting work.”

“Later in the week we’ll look at some student projects, and talk about failures and successes,” added Dave. “But right now, when Firefox ships, I can point you at the features that my students wrote. And it’s really cool to be able to do that, and for students to be able to show that on their resumes. That has had tremendous leverage – so another thing we want to talk about some of those opportunities and challenges for getting involved in that.”

“One thing we need to learn, as professors, is how to bring people in, how to sustain them… One thing we found as a value-add was we brought to our projects what a new contributor experienced, over and over again. We brought an awareness of what’s hard about being new, and also a bunch of people who could fix that – we made tons and tons of documentation, tutorials….” Dave went on to talk about how you could make up all sorts of excuses about your students not having experience or time, but the reality is that there’s tons that those people can contribute – even just making the experience easier for others.

On how professors could give back: “There’s a ton of opportunity for teaching inside an open source community. OSS is about sharing code, but it’s also about sharing the how – teaching one another. And as professional educators, we have a lot to give them in terms of knowing how to teach.” The worlds of being a professor in academia and simultaneously a contributor to OSS communities are not perfectly mergeable (for instance, release cycles and academic semesters usually don’t coincide, but both have something valuable to share.

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