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FSOSS 2007 – Report by Lukas Blakk for DPS909


On Thursday October 25th, 2007 I attended the Free Software and Open Source Symposium at Seneca College. This involved a lot of rushing around since there was absolutely no time in between talks to travel to the next talk. Immediately following the opening keynote speech I rushed to “Developing a Linux Administration Course for Beginners” with Mike LeVan from the Transylvania University in Kentucky.

Mike LeVan talks about "Developing a Linux Administration Course for Beginners"

Mike is the Associate Professor of Math at the university and he was a very comfortable and well organized speaker. He started off the presentation(video) by asking Why Linux? Why should we be teaching open source? Why is it important? To Mike, it appears that the importance lies in the way that open source can take you away from more conventional and potentially problematic business models. His example was WalMart – sure things are affordable but when you look under the hood there are some unsavoury practices. In a classroom situation, explaining to students how using Linux is a great way to move away from corporations and monopolies can often spark their interest since college students are often learning for the first time to re-examine previously uncontested beliefs about how things are. Another great way to get a student’s interest in Linux would be to have examples where they are already using it and perhaps not aware. Pointing out a cell phone or website where Linux is already in use is a good way to show students the practical application.

The talk progressed into textbooks and resource material. Although the textbook used is totally dependent on the type of class, Mike recommends choosing a book that covers the historical, philosophical and technical aspects of using Linux. While “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” can offer a student insight into the theory of Linux it doesn’t go into enough of the practical details. His weapon of choice was “How Linux Works” by Brian Ward (which I promptly ordered and am now diving into along with the new release of Ubuntu) and he found it to be quite adept at covering a bit of history and a lot of the inner workings of Linux. The importance is placed on a student learning how to figure out things in the Linux environment because they understand why it does what it does. Mike then holds up the book “The complete guide to Linux system administration” and reads from the back – it sounds good but when you start to read the software requirements? Windows! You can’t even use the software included with the book on a Linux distribution.

The next point is distribution. What flavour of Linux you choose is also dependent on the type of class – Slackware can be great for teaching complete customization all the way up to Ubuntu which is more than likely the easiest Linux to use. Live CDs can be a great option for letting students try a variety of flavours without having to install.

Mike then goes over a list of topics that can be covered in an introductory course. There is not a lot of time in a semester and so he chooses to spend more time with desktop integration because he finds that getting students to use Linux for their needs in playing mp3s and other daily tasks can really make adoption and learning interest much higher. Topics in a course might include the history, open vs. closed, super user vs. regular user, directory structure, boot process, installation, cli vs. gui, user admin, ssh, cron, sotware admin, compiling kernel, backups, adding hardware – and many more options to one’s liking. In order to assess a student’s progress the standard tests, quizzes and labs are great but Mike mentions a few other schemes. In one, he comes in before the class arrives and “breaks” their systems by running a script. When the students arrive and discover the bugs they are then challenged to try and repair the damage. This is a great way to give students a real life situation and in some cases Mike doesn’t allow any books or network so that the student must rely on their knowledge of Linux to solve the issues.

Concluding his talk Mike shows us linux-classroom (not live yet) which is a site he is working on to create an online textbook with modules for teaching this course. It is based on Moodle which is a free, open source course management system and has lab assignments and scripts already, hopefully soon it will be live and educators can benefit from his work.

Mark Surman talk about "Open Sourcing Education in South Africa"

Interestingly, the next talk I want to report on also focuses on education and open source software but it goes in a totally different direction. Where Mike is building up an open source course online Mark Surman is working on just the opposite. As part of his talk on “Open Sourcing Education in South Africa” (video) Mark explains to us that while South Africa is arguably the “wealthiest” region in Africa, most areas of the country are still not connected to the internet and so in looking at ways to bring open source and education to the people of South Africa, the results have been pointing to physical texts instead of websites.

There is momentum behind the concept of open education and places like South Africa can certainly benefit from additional resources for teaching children the math and sciences that are lacking from their current curriculums. What came about from the Cape Town Declaration (a group of very smart open source movers and shakers) was a way to bring the knowledge of many to the classrooms of South Africa.

Mark Horner was at a science fair, giving a demo on wave theory when the students approached afterwards to ask if they could copy his notes. They were so excited by the concepts he spoke of but their textbooks had no information for them to turn to. This discovery led to Hack-a-thons (essentially sprints like in agile modeling) where textbooks were written in an open source manner – with tons of authors hammering away at the material and creating a complete curriculum. These books are then copied and distributed to the ones who need them.

Where is this all heading? We are on the cusp of new ways of teaching and learning. The One Laptop Per Child project and other philanthropy are aiding in this movement towards peer learning and access to materials for learning analytical thinking through programming and computer use. Mark told us about Alan Kay’s “squeak” which is an analytical program in the form of a simple game – similar to Logo –what if we take the theories from the 60’s and 70’s and get two students using simple computer languages to teach each other? Kusasa (Zulu word for tomorrow) is such an educational tool where kids can learn and teach with open source programs. In the test runs the students were extremely excited by the software and asked if they could take it home with them.

Mark mentioned that MIT has Open Course Ware where people are free to download and learn with full course material in a wide variety of topics. This is creating a peer to peer university. He is extremely optimistic that all this openness is leading to a prevalence of open culture including business and government. What kind of changes will we see in education in this generation who are growing up with Facebook and the expectation of collaboration? A new pedagogy that can’t even be imagined is coming whether we want it or not.

Comparing Apples and Apples?

While both speakers are adamant about the availability of course material being online and in repositories, Mark Surman also comes across as believing in open source as a method of creation, not just an end product. His perspective is on the collaborative nature of developing class materials where Mike’s aim was more on the availability of access and less on the creation of course material. However, I think that Mike is also interested in working on developing his introductory course with other educators to make a course that would work across a wider variety of audiences.

The nature of the talk about the Linux administration was a bit less on the conceptual side and so its points were mainly on getting students excited about using Linux for their computing needs. Teaching people to be system administrators is important. It was clear that Mike LeVan believes this strongly. He wants anyone to be able to tackle this subject and come away with the skills.

Mark Surman believes in people getting the opportunity to learn math and science. He believes in the importance of having the analytical skills that this learning can give. His talk was very much about making sure that our standard practices of making things “accessible” by using the internet and open source repositories are not the only methods of getting information to the masses. We can take the process of open source, the community aspect, the collaboration, and turn it into physical tools as well.

How has this changed my perspective on Open Source?

The talks today, both focusing on education, have inspired me to think differently about learning as well as teaching. As someone who is excited to be a teacher in the future, I found both talks to be riveting and optimistic about a future where learning is something that can be engaged in whatever way works for the student. To be that flexible is admirable. To be able to teach the same material to students in Kentucky as the students in Cape Town would be a dream come true. Using whatever methods are at hand.

What sticks out for me about open source after these talks is the way that a programmer personality is one that is always looking for new solutions and paths through a problem. When faced with a lack of internet connectivity in South Africa, the involved parties were not deterred. They quickly regrouped and moved on with a new plan. I hope that when I am faced with challenges in this manner that I can also respond with ideas until one works.

The picture of open source that I had before today’s talks was one of community and energetic collaboration but what has been added to that was the prospect of this spirit moving into government structure and the current business models. If this kind of change is possible in those areas then I am excited for that day to come.

Is there a room for everyone in Open Source?

Another talk (video) I attended today went to great lengths to try and dilute the meaning of open source. The speakers attempted to propose that the term “open source” is open to interpretation and that we should be willing to let it mean different things to different people. To each their own? I’m not sure I totally agree with that. The Open Source Initiative has 10 rules that create a definition of open source as they promote it. I agree with their definition and feel that the open source that I want to see in education and beyond is one that follows that model as closely as possible. It would be a shame to see the term “open source” lose its meaning and to become something that just means feedback is encouraged or bugs can be opened. Open Source should be something like what Organic tries to be – something you can count on.

What happens to the term "Organic" - the attempts to sully its reputation as with the attempt to pass a bill that allows sewage sludge to be used on crops - could happen to Open Source. People want in on it because they see that more and more communities are gravitating to the genuine transparency and accountability of these declarations. Companies are using the term "Open Source" to raise 'perceived quality' rather than 'real quality'. Just as corporations like WalMart are trying to take "Organic" and slap it on their existing products while making as few changes as possible to how they operate IT companies are trying to find ways to stake a claim in open source with as few compromises as can be made. The scary part is that these big companies have clout lobbying to change regulations instead of changing their own business structure. This is where the business model could really use an open source makeover. To take open source and fit it to the current structure of most capitalist businesses is to try and make open source something it cannot be. The way I see it open source is not meant for business, it’s meant for community.

This is not to say that business and open source cannot or should not mingle. I would like to see more businesses try and use the open source models and build upon the knowledge base that already exists. It’s going to take more than just steering the ship in a new direction, I believe it might take building a new ship, perhaps a hybrid?


What attracts me to open source is that there is room for learning, teaching, arguing, sharing, helping others, working hard on projects that you believe in and bring a part of something that is bigger than your own interest. I walked away from the symposium full of confidence that there is something for me in open source. Even though the projects that I will work on don’t exist yet, the framework is there for me to get started on them. The community exists. There are some really smart people who care a lot about this stuff and will keep it alive while at the same time passing along their enthusiasm and knowledge using tools that get more and more accessible each day.

I really want to see this open source education structure where teachers and students are practically the same. Where learning and teaching is something done by both at any given time. I want to see businesses casting aside the imperatives of creating and maintaining proprietary software and instead embracing their user base and starting to create with instead of for them.

When considering open source products a new user, and especially an inexperienced user, should be able to count on a particular meaning of open source. They should be able to trust that association without having to do the research themselves each time they want to try something new. Just as a shopper would want to buy an organic apple and know that there are standards protecting the way that apple is grown, an open source association on a piece of software should inspire the same confidence.

After the conference a lively discussion was held in our DPS909 class and I had the opportunity to hear about many of the other talks, including the Facebook talk and this lead to quite a conversation about why people (read: companies) would open source their projects. Most of what came of this was a debate that covered what I have written about here but also brought up some interesting points about the mentality of the companies who choose this path. Some reasons might be because a project has little use to anyone else, or so that the company has their own open source version (eg. Microsoft's version of SourceForge, CodePlex) of a popular project. We also touched on the importance of committers, that these will be the people that companies go after to pull into their fold so that they can have influence in projects. It's a brave new world where perhaps there will be a lot of developers working hard with little compensation but committers will be wooed on a regular basis.

What I came away from that class with was the idea that in order to be successful in open source it's important to gain committing status and to be a visible member of the communities you work in. To have an internet trail of bugs filed, fixed, blog posts about projects worked on, tangible evidence of your role in a community will be an asset in the future job market - be it open source or commercial. I'm taking this to heart, while at the same time it sounds like trying to be a politician whose votes can be bought. Sounds like the more responsibility you take on in a community the more you will have to weigh your decisions against the wishes of your fellow community members and corporate interests. An extreme balancing act played out in a very theoretical field.

Parting Food for Thought

Speaking of politicians - I wonder what an open source government would look like?

For Dave