OSCON 2008 Proposal

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'You do what with your students?!' Mozilla and Seneca


The best way to get open source into higher education is to move it into a pragmatic curriculum, and to teach students how to become contributors in community open source projects. Students are capable of amazing things with community support and the freedom to do real work with real software. I will demonstrate how to do this successfully from years of experience teaching Mozilla development.


Many schools attempt to teach open source development practices, but few manage to scale their involvement beyond a few projects or semesters. Many open source projects are looking for student involvement, but the demands of new contributors can be overwhelming and making sustainable links with schools is difficult. Many students work on open source software during school, but not as part of their curriculum.

At Seneca College’s Centre for Development of Open Technology, we have spent the past three years solving these problems. The core of the solution was a partnership with the Mozilla project (Foundation and Corporation), and the realization that our faculty had to join the project in order to understand and teach it. By focusing on a single, large community open source project we have been successful in grafting the students into the existing community, and developing sustainable relationships and knowledge among developers and faculty. We have created two courses that teach students how to function within the Mozilla community, from culture to tools to development processes. See http://zenit.senecac.on.ca/wiki/ for more details about the partnership, courses, and projects.

As much as possible our method has been to favour the real-world over the academic. For example, we use and teach all of the tools in use in the Mozilla project, making it easy for students and Mozilla developers to collaborate. We also work with Mozilla to identify useful development projects, instead of having students choose their own. This has lead to a lot of interesting work being done by the students, code contributed to Firefox, student internships, full-time jobs with Mozilla, and also funded research on Mozilla projects.

The goal of this talk will be to help demonstrate to educators and developers the benefits and challenges of doing open source collaboration with academic institutions, from moving open source into the curriculum in a pragmatic and applied way, working in partnership with a large open source project, and focusing on real-world projects. Other academic institutions and open source projects can adopt the model that Seneca and Mozilla have established together.