Introducing college freshmen to FOSS and the FOSS community

I’ve been toying with the notion of encouraging faculty that teach our “welcome to the IT major” courses to include information on FOSS and the FOSS community.  Specifically, I’d like to see students exposed to IRC, blogs, wikis, etc., earlier on so that they can tap into the wealth of knowledge available out there and (hopefully) give back to the community.

I discussed this idea with some folks from TOS and they’re all for it.  Unfortunately, after discussing it with a professor in the IST department here (at RIT), he opened my eyes to the flip-side of what may occur when pushing students to access these resources: the “cheating” aspect.  This certainly poses a challenge because, as I was talking to Mel about this, I was able to clarify that there are some hardships that students need to go through in academia to genuinely grasp some of the material they need to learn.  Having access to the various FOSS resources, like IRC, may allow them to skip the hardship that would detriment the learning process.  The example I made was how in our Computer Science department, students need to code different data structures by hand while students in Information Sciences and Technology department don’t need to code data structures by hand.  Being an IT student myself, I still don’t necessarily know which data structure might be best for certain situations (regardless of how much I’ve read up on them), while some of my friends who went through the CS curriculum know it like the back of their hand.  My point is that directing freshmen to access to different FOSS resources might cause them to skip the ‘hardship’ of learning how something genuinely works.

The primary solution I see to this conundrum would be introducing students to the FOSS resources and community later on in their academic career. (say…sophomore or junior year).  The reason I feel this would be more effective is because students have gone through the initial learning experiences/hardships and may be a little more independent when solving problems without automatically falling back on the community as a crutch.  I feel that this would also allow them to be more effective in giving back to the community.

Mel pointed out that by having students blog about their experiences with an academic hardship and how they fell back on the community may also be a solution, but I still feel there might be some loss in the educational value of some content if students are readily able to fall back on a community resource to solve their problem.

Thoughts?  Please comment and give me feedback!  I’m hoping to get some other perspectives and thoughts on this so I can find the best way to help the FOSS community and resources penetrate into our curriculum earlier.

Database Operations Engineer at Box, Inc., RIT Grad, and all around Linux and database guy.

2 Comments on “Introducing college freshmen to FOSS and the FOSS community

  1. Wow, what a fascinating idea, that IRC and other FOSS community mechanisms would enable someone to cheat!

    If that is true, I guess I have been cheating my employers for the past 21 years since I got my first job writing databases at an unnameable company and learned about it through an SQL discussion group, the first developer group I ever joined. I also read the documentation, of course, but it was the community involvement that helped me understand the documentation.

    I had to learn the job, and the company didn’t want to pay for me to do so (even at my $7/hr salary – not kidding). I had to make sense of the docs from Informix, which were the first real technical docs I had ever seen. I still have them up on my shelf right now, and they are just as impenetrable to a novice now as they were then. Short of taking a database class, the community was really my only recourse, since no one else in my group knew how do do it either.

    My pay certainly depended on results, just as a letter grade would. I had to understand the material to a certain level in order to progress. There were plenty of examples in the docs and on the discussion forum that I used to understand, some of which I also used out of hand, but I had to *understand* them in order to modify them for my own needs.

    Was I cheating? That company didn’t seem to think so. Nor did the following dozen companies where I have worked over the years. Research and discussion are not cheating. I would argue that they literally can not be cheating; communities don’t solve problems, they enable individuals to solve problems. It may take the “hard” out of the hardship, but there is no way to skip the understanding part and still get a passing grade in a university-level course, unless the instructor is phoning it in.

    Thus have I inflicted my cranky .02. Great post, please keep up the out-of-box thinking.

  2. It has been my experience that the Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) community is a meritocracy. We look for intelligent people to use their intelligence. That includes understanding the cost/benefit ratio of cheating versus learning. There have been several times the regular members of a mailing list have recognized someone requesting we provide a solution for a homework assignment. The IMMEDIATE response is “DO YOUR OWN WORK! We’ll help you understand something, but we won’t do the work for you.”

    We no more want to work with someone who doesn’t understand than you want to confer a degree on such a person. If you’re worried that someone is backsliding, do what any good Manager should, schedule a private meeting and ask them how they got their work done.

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