gdk at fosdem

I had two big goals to pursue at FOSDEM this year. The first: advancing open source education in universities. The second: advancing the mission of Sugar Labs. I think we made pretty good strides in both.

* * *

My first day in Bruxelles was spent with Mark Surman, the executive director of the Mozilla foundation, and many friends. We were all gathered to answer a simple question: how can we create more college graduates who understand how open source works? Some of us had already met at Seneca College in November to discuss these issues, so I think that we came to the event with a lot of common understanding of our problems.

My own takeaway: it seems like, in growing the number of open source educated individuals, we’ve got two problems with two different solutions. The first problem is to teach the theory of open source, and the second problem is to teach the practice of open source.

Open source theory lends itself well to a curriculum approach. It’s a cross-disciplinary field of study, and it involves the study of licensing, business models, open standards, and the economic theory of distributed development. Putting together a coalition of professors to nail down a curriculum based around case studies shouldn’t be an overwhelming task, especially given the amount of material that’s out there.

Open source practice is a much more difficult subject to teach, largely because it’s all about practice, and most computer science programs don’t get deeply into software development practice. (Some computer science professors will get a bit sniffy and say “we teach theory.” I don’t see how a theory-only education in computer science is all that useful anymore, but I digress.) At an introductory level, there are a few things that we could package into coursework: how to use *any* version control *at all*, for instance. But beyond that, the only way to learn the practice of open source is to participate in it. And participation is not what most universities are set up to do well.

So we had a good set of discussions, and walked away with some action items, and we’ll see where we are in a few months. We’ve got some big players at the table; between Mozilla, Red Hat and Google, we’ve got the industry muscle to make some noise. We just need to bring the right proposals to the academic table. We’re getting closer.

* * *

My second day in Bruxelles was all about Sugar.

My experiences with OLPC and Sugar Labs have all been great lessons for me. The biggest of these: technology is great, but without an *extremely* clear roadmap for applying this technology in a classroom setting, it’s just not enough to make a dent in many of the problems faced by educators.

For those who have been reading my blog, you know that I’ve been considering the question of the curriculum framework for a while now, and that I’ve turned a corner since reading Disrupting Class, which I consider to be the most useful roadmap out there for leveraging the real possibilities of computers in education.

Well, despite the few blogs that I’ve written on the subject, and despite the efforts I’ve made to jumpstart a map of free activites and content to a 4th grade curriculum (which is still very preliminary and quite meager), as of 11am Saturday the talk I was scheduled to give at 5pm Saturday was nothing more than a collection of thoughts swirling around in my head. So I went to a little brasserie, wrestled with my French just enough to procure for myself a beer and a steak, and then I wrote out my entire talk on a napkin.

Apparently it went over well. My thanks for the enthusiastic reception. I’ll be scanning the napkin in for posterity, and I’m sure I’ll be giving the talk again. No new data for those who have been reading my blog, but perhaps it’s all a bit better organized with a bit more punch.

* * *

Bruxelles itself was lovely, and as always it was great to hang out with the Sugar folks who could make it. Bernie, Tomeu, Simon, Sebastian, Andriani, Giulia, and anyone else I did not mention: a pleasure to wander the streets of Bruxelles with you. Looking forward to seeing all of my European friends in Berlin at LinuxTag, if not sooner.

One more night in Amsterdam with Max, and then back to the States tomorrow. It’ll be good to be home for a little while.

gdk at fosdem

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