June 11, 2008 § 1 Comment
With Open Everything Toronto a week behind us, blog reflections, notes and photos are starting to trickle online. One of the highlights so far: Amanda Yilmaz‘s write up of the Seneca Open Source Course session.
David Humphrey and his colleagues at Seneca run a number of courses that throw computer studies students into the deep end of communities like Mozilla, Open Office and Fedora. They don’t work on theoretical code. They work on the real thing with real open source contributors. From the notes ….
The biggest point of this Mozilla course is to show students the skills they need to get into a large open source community. This is not quite as chaotic as you may think. It starts with a look at the tools you need to work in an open open source community. This includes some technical skills, like how to develop for Mozilla and communicate using IRC. But it’s also about how to work within this big, distributed meritocracy, how to function within this environment.
With help from interviewers Nora Young, Tonya Surman and Michele Perras, Dave provided an under the hood look at how these courses work … and what students learn from working inside an open source community.
The practical benefits of Seneca open source course model are pretty clear. Students learn the soft skills needed to work on large scale open source projects, and distributed projects in general . They also get to contribute to a real product that ships to tens of millions of people (one of Dave’s students wrote the animated PNG module for Firefox 3). Mozilla, Open Office, et al get a small cadre of well briefed and mentored young programmers to work on small tasks that no one else in the community is picking up. It’s a nice bargain all around.
However, the most interesting bit was Dave’s riff on how these courses turn assumptions about teaching and learning totally on their head:
The key to teaching this course is being willing to humble oneself. Mostly, I teach things I don’t understand. I need to go in there and show my students that I am willing to try things, fail and learn from others. I need to show them how to be lost, how to drift, how to get back on your feet. This is the experience they need to work in open source. And it’s an experience that I can’t give them through the ‘professor as expert’ model.
Seneca can do this, whereas a school like Stanford can’t. This is because we are a pragmatic community college. Professors like me don’t need to focus on journal papers or use IEEE curriculum. We can focus on teaching and learning.
What Dave and his colleagues have created is not just a nice co-op program. It is a radical and disruptive educational innovation. Using open source community and collaboration as a springboard, the Seneca model takes the teacher off the dais and throws him into the peer learning pit with his students. It also emphasizes experience (what did you learn from having your code ignored or rejected by the module owner?) over achievement (please hand in your coding assignment!). These are not things that most higher ed institutions value, or even tolerate. Yet, they are central to the way we learn and work in the 21st century.
For me, this is the big picture potential of the Seneca model: infecting higher education with open source ways of working and learning. Certainly, this is already happening across the open education movement. However, few people in open education have connected their day-to-day teaching into the rough and tumble world of a large scale open source software project. If we want to invent more open, participatory ways of teaching and learning, I suspect this sort of connection is worth a great deal.