Posts tagged ‘open source’

The Open Source Identity Crisis, limiting the potential for legitimate peripheral participation

An interesting new piece on identity within the open source community.  Noah Slater addresses a concern that I have, that the definition of contribution in open source communities limits the opportunity for legitimate peripheral participation.

Perhaps the most obvious way in which the hacker identity has a hold over the open source identity is this notion that you have to code to contribute to open source. Much like technical talent is centered in the tech industry, code is seen as the one true way to contribute. This can be such a powerful idea that documentation, design, marketing, and so on are often seen as largely irrelevant. And even when this isn’t the case, they are seen as second class skills. For many hackers, open source is an escape from professional environments where collaboration with these “lesser”, more “mainstream” activities is mandatory.

via The Open Source Identity Crisis, by Noah Slater | Model View Culture.

September 17, 2014 at 8:37 am 4 comments

The Meme Hustler: Free Software vs Open Source

A difficult but fascinating piece.  I found most interesting this contrast between Stallman’s “free software” and O’Reilly’s “open source.”  These are important distinctions for computing education, as we think about the culture that we’re inviting students into.

This stood in stark contrast to Stallman’s plan of curtailing—by appeals to ethics and, one day, perhaps, law—the freedom of developers in order to promote the freedom of users. O’Reilly opposed this agenda: “I completely support the right of Richard [Stallman] or any individual author to make his or her work available under the terms of the GPL; I balk when they say that others who do not do so are doing something wrong.” The right thing to do, according to O’Reilly, was to leave developers alone. “I am willing to accept any argument that says that there are advantages and disadvantages to any particular licensing method. . . . My moral position is that people should be free to find out what works for them,” he wrote in 2001. That “what works” for developers might eventually hurt everyone else—which was essentially Stallman’s argument—did not bother O’Reilly. For all his economistic outlook, he was not one to talk externalities.

via The Meme Hustler | Evgeny Morozov | The Baffler.

April 18, 2013 at 1:56 am 5 comments

OSS is led by an “elitist circle,” and newcomers don’t get access

There are efforts to engage undergraduates in open-source software development as a form of service learning, to be part of a developer community, or as a way to gain experience with significant code bases.  I’ve mentioned before that the OSS community doesn’t have a great track record for diversity and welcoming newcomers. Here’s a new study describing how hard it is for newcomers to connect with the oldtimers in OSS.  These results suggest that undergrads doing OSS for a course are still providing a service and are likely still gaining good experience working on a larger code base, but they’re unlikely to become part of the established developer community. It won’t really be an apprenticeship model — they’ll mostly just be talking to each other.

“Taken together, we found that accomplished developers tend to connect with other accomplished developers, essentially forming an elitist circle in the OSS (open source software) community. By contrast, it is more difficult for less successful developers to establish collaborative relations, and even if they do, they tend to connect with others who have a similar lower level of performance and experience,” Shen writes in the article.

via Research Shows Dynamics of Online Networking – UT Dallas News.

September 9, 2011 at 11:10 am 9 comments

Are all textbooks created equal?

An interesting piece in this morning’s NYTimes that I’ve been thinking about all morning (since Alan kindly sent me the link):

Mr. McNealy, the fiery co-founder and former chief executive of Sun Microsystems, shuns basic math textbooks as bloated monstrosities: their price keeps rising while the core information inside of them stays the same.

“Ten plus 10 has been 20 for a long time,” Mr. McNealy says.

Early this year, Oracle, the database software maker, acquired Sun for $7.4 billion, leaving Mr. McNealy without a job. He has since decided to aim his energy and some money at Curriki, an online hub for free textbooks and other course material that he spearheaded six years ago.

via Ping – In School Systems, Slow Progress for Open-Source Textbooks – NYTimes.com.

I’m really glad that school districts are finding ways to incorporate open-source textbooks.  That alternate path should exist, and it’s disappointing that it’s taking school districts so long to work that through their system.

I do have concerns and questions about open-source textbooks.  Some of them are obviously biased by my being a for-profit textbook author.  Others are questions that I have as a computing education researcher.

  • Quality process? Commercial publishers have a long series of checks over the quality of their textbooks, from the prospectus, to external reviewers, to copyeditors.  While there can be arguments about the effectiveness of the process (e.g., are professors-as-reviewers really our best prediction of the quality of the product, as measured in student learning?), there is a process.  I am sure that open-source textbooks can construct a similar process, but without the same teeth.  Commercial publishers hold a contract and royalty checks as the carrot at the end of the process.  If an author doesn’t like the result of an open-source textbook quality check, does he just release the book anyway on his own?  I worry about insuring quality for millions of schoolchildren when the track record of most open-source software projects is that they tend to care about the usability of a handful of expert users, rather than making sure that everyone can use it.  That won’t work with schools.
  • Does quality matter? “Ten plus ten has been 20 for a long time,” says McNealy.  Is that all there is?  Does the quality of the textbook matter at all for the student learning, or are all textbooks essentially the same — as long as the facts are presented and the exercise opportunities are there, the learning difference is insignificant?  As an author, I hope that the effort I put into exposition and interesting examples matters, but as a researcher, I know that often such fluff distracts from learning rather than enhances it.  I know that there are textbooks that stood out for me as a student and do now as a teacher, like Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs and How to Design Programs.  Will such notable, standout textbooks arise from an open-source process?  (Why haven’t they so-far?)
  • Can innovation arise from an open-source process? Some of those textbooks that so stand-out for me are because they are innovative, a markedly new approach, regardless of quality.  I’m no expert, but my sense as a computing user and a computer science professor is that open-source software tends to copy others’ innovations rather than be innovative itself.  I got the chance to spend several hours with Andrew Tanenbaum once, the grandfather of Linux.  He told me in some detail about how Linux was derivative, lacking innovation, and lacking good design choices. I note that GIMP is often referred to as “open source Photoshop,” and I rarely hear about features of GIMP that designers wish Adobe would adopt into Photoshop. Will open source textbooks fare better?  Will the next innovations in textbooks (because we certainly need them!) arise from an open-source effort?  I am skeptical that the economics will work.  Innovations arise from people who know their stuff really well (see the ongoing discussion about creativity on an earlier blog post).  People who know their stuff well get paid for that.  Might they also volunteer time in their area of expertise, when they might get paid for that time?  Maybe.
  • Is the innovation in the approach or the textbook? While there is a lot of evidence that Media Computation improves on school’s “traditional” approach (for what that’s worth, since we don’t have a strong measure of what “traditional” means across schools), I can’t say that that’s because Barb and I wrote such great textbooks.  It could be the approach (e.g., the examples, the focus on a motivating context, the libraries and tools), which some schools are adopting (without the textbooks) by grabbing the free materials from MediaComputation.org.  Do we need the innovation in the approach or in the textbook?  Will it work if someone pays for the innovative approach development, while the book might be free?  That’s the approach that Deepak Kumar and colleagues took with the IPRE textbook.  Microsoft paid for the development of the IPRE robotics approach, with NSF sustaining the effort, but the textbook is free.  Does this result in the quality (in terms of student learning and motivation) that we want?  Does it result in enough innovation to improve computing education?
  • Sustainable? Perhaps my biggest concern about the open-source textbook model is sustainability.  Who makes sure that material gets freshened up regularly and new editions come out?  Maybe McNealy is right, and once you show that 10+10=20, you’re done, and the examples don’t need to be updated, the language stays the same, and no mistakes are ever discovered.  Commercial enterprises offer an incentive to sustain effort, to keep making things better, and economics shows that people respond to incentives. Open-source textbooks offer an opportunity to serve and to have impact, which is certainly important.  Is it enough of an incentive to keep the effort going?  It would be great if it was enough, but I’m skeptical.

August 1, 2010 at 11:55 am 20 comments

Mellon Foundation Closes Program Funding Sakai: It’s not about PowerPoint

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is closing a grant program that financed a series of high-profile university software projects, leaving some worried about a vacuum of support for open-source ventures.

Mellon’s decade-old Research in Information Technology program, or RIT, helped bankroll a catalog of freely available software that includes Sakai, a course-management system used by Stanford University and the University of Michigan; Kuali, a financial-management program recently rolled out at Colorado State University; and Zotero, a program for managing research sources used by millions.

via In Potential Blow to Open-Source Software, Mellon Foundation Closes Grant Program – Wired Campus – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This news got me thinking about something completely different from Sakai.  I went to one of the early meetings when the Mellon Foundation was forming these coalitions.  There was a lot of excitement about universities working together to create open source software to solve important educational problems.  At the meeting that I attended, a number of wish-lists were generated: What should future educational software include?  Then these lists were sorted into what absolutely, positively had to be there, what would be useful to have, and what was unlikely to happen. What surprised me at the time was how much was on that “absolutely, positively” list.  Some of the items didn’t seem so absolute-positive to me, like image databases (for fields like mechanical engineering) that could search based on similar images (e.g., “Here’s a picture of a gear.  Where do gears of this pitch and size show up in other pictures?”).

One of those items on the absolutely-positively list was called “PedaPoint.”  The idea was to create a kind of PowerPoint that enforced what we know about good Pedagogy (“Pedagogical Powerpoint” => “PedaPoint”).  At the time, I thought that that was an outlandish goal.  Today, in reflecting back on the Mellon Foundation’s ending of this research program, I realize that it was also the wrong goal.

I’ve been reading more of the literature to which Carl Wieman pointed in his SIGCSE talk.  It’s not rocket science, looking at it from the cognitive/learning sciences perspective.  It’s totally obvious considering it from what we know about learning.  And yet, as Carl pointed out, we don’t teach correctly from a scientific perspective.  It’s not what we say, it’s what the students do.  Getting the students to think, getting the students to argue, getting the students to make decisions, and get those decisions corrected if they’re wrong — that’s where the learning comes from.  You can’t make learning work much better from fixing PowerPoint so that a teacher only says the right things.  (Of course, you can make learning work better by changing PowerPoint so that it’s more about what the students do!)

Sakai probably helped student learning more than a PedaPoint might have.  We use Sakai here at Georgia Tech, and there are lots of people worried now that Mellon support has faded.  Still, Sakai is a learning management system, and while that’s the “standard” for online courses, I do hope that we can do better.

March 29, 2010 at 12:49 pm 2 comments

Open Source Development: Not Very Open or Welcoming

We had a visitor at Georgia Tech today, alum Mike Terry, who has been studying the usability practices of open source development teams, like for Gimp, Inkscape, and Firefox.  The short answer is, “There are no usability practices,” but that’s a little too pat.  It’s a little bit more complicated than that, and actually even more concerning from an education perspective.

The folklore is that open source developers start because they have “an itch to scratch,” something that they want developed.  Mike thinks that that’s true, but that scratching that itch doesn’t actually take long. Social factors keep open source developers going — they care about their developer community and working with them.

Mike finds that few projects really care about usability.  The argument, “If you made your usability better, you’d increase your user base,” is not enticing to most open source developers.  Open source developers have no layers (like salespeople or tech support) between themselves and the public users.  Thus, they get inundated with (sometimes ill-informed and even downright stupid) bug reports and feature requests.  The last thing open source developers want is more of those.

Since open source developers soon stop being users of their own software, and they don’t want to talk to lots of users, how do they deal with usability?  Mike says that the top developers develop close relationships with a few power users, and the developers design to meet those users’ needs.  So there is some attention to usability — in terms of what high-end, power users want.

So what happens when a User Experience person wanders into the open source fold?  Mike has interviewed some of these folks (often female), and finds that they hate the experience.  One said, “I’d never have done it if I wasn’t being paid to do it.”  I guess there’s not much of an open source usability developer community.  The open source developer community is not welcoming to these “others” with different backgrounds, different goals, and most of all, not a hard-core software development background.

Mike believes that the majority of our software will be open-licensed.  I expressed concerns about that future in terms of education.

  • How do people get started in developing software in an all open-source world?  Mike suggested that open source is a great way for high school students to get started with software development.  I pointed out how unfriendly open-source development communities have been to newcomers, especially females, and how open-source development mailing lists have been described as “worse than locker rooms.”  Mike agreed with those characterizations, then said, “But once you get past that…”  Well, yeah — that’s the point.  Margolis and Fisher showed us years ago that those kinds of subtle barriers say, “This is a boys-only club — you don’t belong!” and those can prevent women and underrepresented minorities from even trying to enter the community.
  • I worry about the economics of open-source and what signals it sends to people considering the field.  Mike assured me that companies like RedHat are making money and hiring programmers — but there are many more unpaid programmers working on RedHat than paid programmers.  If the world goes mostly open source, how do we convince students that there are jobs available developing software? Many kids (and parents) already believe that software jobs are all being outsourced.  How do we convince them that there are good jobs, and they don’t have to work for years for free before they get those paying jobs?
  • Finallly, I really worry about the lack of thought-diversity in the open source communities.  People who care about usability are driven away from these communities? While we educators are trying to convince students that not all of computing is about programming, the open source community is telling newcomers that programming is all that matters.  If the whole software industry goes open source, we’re going to have a hard time selling the image of a broad field of computing.

I found Mike’s work fascinating, and well grounded in data.  I just find the world he describes a little disconcerting.  I hope that  the open source community considers the education issues of its next generation of developers.

January 21, 2010 at 9:02 pm 39 comments


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