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Topics in Open Source Development

Subject Description

This course introduces students to the technological, social, and pragmatic aspects of developing open source software through direct involvement in the Mozilla project. Students will learn to use the tools, techniques, and strategies of open source developers. This is a project-based programming course. The Mozilla project has been chosen as an example open source project because of its maturity, breadth and depth of technology, and strong community.

Course Outcomes

Upon successful completion of this course students should be able to:

  • Discuss the issues and currents in open source and open source development
  • Describe the history and philosophy of an open source project
  • Choose between the various open source licenses understanding the implications for users, developers, and the software community in general
  • Use the communication modes particular to the open source world through participation in such things as Github, mailing lists, wikis, etc.
  • Use the tools of open source development, for example: distributed revision control; documentation tools; automated build and test systems; debuggers; source code utilities; tracking systems; on-line resources, etc.
  • Work with a pre-existing large source code base
  • Write software that integrates and interacts with existing open source systems. For example: add-ons; bug fixes; new features; etc.
  • Work collaboratively with fellow students and members of the Mozilla community.

Major Project

This is a project course, and the majority of each student’s mark will come from work done on a real development project. The primary goal of this project is to get students involved in the Mozilla development community and codebase. Through this experience students will learn about the processes, tools, and practices involved in developing software as part of a large open source community.


Many of the practices inherent in open source development will seem to go against the structures often set in place for similar course work. For example, students are typically forbidden to collaborate with peers, to copy from the web, etc. However, these rules must be re-evaluated in the context of proper and pragmatic open source development practices.

First, consider the typical rules around cheating and plagiarism. In this assignment, students are encouraged to work within the set of best practices natural to open source development. Open source developers do not write from scratch what already exists and is freely available for use. Students should be thinking in terms of code reuse. It is acceptable for students to use code from other open source projects, so long as the license is amenable to the use.

Second, consider the typical restrictions on peer-collaboration. In this project students are encouraged to work together, to help one another, to look at each other's code, etc. Open source collaboration is about leveraging the collective knowledge of a community to help solve the problems of the individual.

Third, consider the sharp dividing line between student projects in most programming courses. For the most part, students are evaluated on their ability to do a particular project or to solve a particular problem on their own. The outcome is measured against peer outcomes. However, in this course students are not in competition with their peers; rather, they are all working on one large project (i.e., Mozilla) with many sub-projects within it. As a result, there is no clean line to divide one student’s work from another, or even student work from that of the open source community. This means that collaboration between students and even other members of the open source community is acceptable practice.

To summarize, students should:

  • Help each other, contribute to one another’s projects
  • Work with and within the open source community
  • Give others encouragement and credit when they offer help
  • Use existing open source code whenever possible
  • Be open to helping others and to being helped

Intellectual Property

Given that this course is focused on open source development, and given that students work on real open source codebases, all student work will become open source. The particular license used will be determined based on the particular project and open source project.


Detailed grading information will be discussed later in the term. Below is a breakdown of how students will be graded, and this blog post gives more details about the rationale:

  • 75% - Project Deliverables (e.g., code, documents), marked in terms of quality, quantity, process, etc. Your project will be marked at four milestone releases, the number and values being:
  • 20% - Blog. You will be marked on your blog's quality, depth of explanation, frequency of update, etc. You are expected to blog weekly throughout the course, and many labs will require you to write a blog post in order to submit them.
  • 5% - At the end of the term, you will be marked on a class presentation in which you demo and discuss the work of your releases.