Educating on open source: Not as easy as it seems

With open source nowhere on the radar in collegiate technology curriculum, some in the OSS community are working to change that.

One of the primary problems for the open source community is a lack of understanding of what open source really entails, and that comes down to education.

So few colleges or universities offer their students an education in open source, advocates say, and that's a problem. Perhaps just 10 across the nation offer coursework, said Luis Ibáñez, technical leader at Kitware, a profitable open-source company in upstate New York. He and Kitware founding partner and CEO/President Will Schroeder have worked with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to develop a program there and are working with other OSS companies, including Red Hat, to opensource a curriculum that can be used by any educational institution.

"We have a selfish motive, which is trying to find good students that we can eventually hire," Schroeder said. "The longer term motive is to promote open source business models, ethics ... to encourage our biz to grow in a more direct way."

What makes a course about open source different than other computer science offerings is that a lot of it doesn't focus on the actual technology, Ibáñez said.

"The spirit of how you collaborate in an open-source community," he said. What students need to know about copyright, patents and trademarks, licensing, coordinating among far-flung colleagues.

Among the requirements in the RPI classes is for the students to work on an open source project. However, that causes problems for students trying to find a project where they can help out.

"We could use a lot friendlier communities," Schroeder said. When students approach an OSS project or community they're interested in and explain what they're doing, too often the community isn't quite so welcoming. It's understandable, Schroeder said, as the students are likely to be around for just a couple of months, and many projects in OSS can take quite a bit longer.

So Schroeder and Ibáñez have worked with some OSS communities to develop lists of "junior jobs" on any given project — jobs that a student, a newcomer to OSS can come in an do with little oversight and in a relatively short period of time. It will give the students much-needed exposure to the community and provide the community labor to do some small tasks and concentrate more on the larger issues at hand.

"We're working in collaboration with people we know ... [to] create a system where you can rapidly absorb the students," Ibáñez said.

Problem is, he said, college really is too late to start teaching many of these things. In fact, kindergarten wouldn't be too early to start instilling the basic tenets of open source:Share everything and play fair. But the standardized assessments in every state make it difficult to weave new aspects into the curriculum in middle or high school.

Middle school, especially, is the vital age for getting girls into tech (and women are even more underrepresented in open source than in tech fields overall), and they'd love to start getting to teach students at those ages. Red Hat is working on an open-sourced textbook about open source that they hope to get into many students' hands.

The most surprising thing in approching universities about open source, Schroeder and Ibáñez discovered, was that education seemed to be so compatible with OS, but in practice most universities use proprietary tools for their teaching. Students are given or required to buy laptops with pre-installed, proprietary software; professors use proprietary tools in teaching.

"The consequence is that students don't get exposed to see how things really work," Ibáñez said. "They become users of tools rather than understanding how these software packages work."

But governmental institutions, from the White House to the Department of Defense, are seeking more contractors to work in open source projects. While they are concerned about the proprietary nature of their data, they prefer to use non-proprietary systems for their data storage and collection because they aren't as locked into a single vendor, Schroeder track this year for the first time, and more and more educational institutions are open-sourcing their education, offering their courseware online, free to anyone interested:

With all this in mind, OSCON created an

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