An update on Professor Quest.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything substantive about what I’m doing these days, and given the week I’ve just had, I figured this was as good a time as any to catch folks up. Those of you that are interested, anyway.

Today I’ll focus on our shared quixotic attempt to change the way that computer science education works.

This is one of my big goals for the year, both personally and professionally. It all started with a simple premise: wouldn’t it be great if computer science programs around the world could learn computer science by actually *doing* computer science, and helping out the world in the process? Pretty cool idea, right? And also rather obvious, it would seem.

I quickly discovered that it wasn’t as obvious as all that. A big chunk of the last year of my life has been spent learning all about how kids study computer science in college.

In short: I’m not a fan.

On Thursday and Friday of last week, I was at Drexel University in Philadelphia, at the Softhum workshop — an NSF-funded workshop put together by the folks responsible for HFOSS.org. The “H” stands for Humanitarian; the mission of the HFOSS organization is to get kids excited in computer science by giving them project-based learning opportunities in computer science and engineering that have a humanitarian purpose. Learn something, help your fellow man. A simple and awesome idea. Softhum gathered together about 25 professors from around the country, large schools and small schools, all interested in learning more about putting their students to work in the open source world. I was there, along with Frank Hecker from Mozilla, to provide the viewpoint of open source projects.

HFOSS.org and TeachingOpenSource.org are two organizations that share a very similar agenda, and I expect that they will be greatly complementary. TOS.org focuses on identifying and eliminating the barriers that prevent professors from participating in open source; HFOSS.org provides a very specific context in which to put these principles to work. I’m happy to be part of both, and I was delighted to see the people behind Softhum (Ralph Morelli, Heidi Ellis, Greg Hislop) pushing its participants towards TOS.org.

I was gratified to see that one of the biggest questions shared by professors was, “how can I teach open source development practices to my students if I have not myself participated in open source?” It makes me believe that we’re on the right track with POSSE, and with The Mel now driving much of the day-to-day work of making the event happen, and Chris and Humph having the teaching end well in hand, I feel confident that at the conclusion of POSSE in late July, I will be standing high atop the Red Hat parking deck in my flight suit, proudly declaring Mission Accomplished, with a steely gaze in my eye and a spring in my step. Ah, what a fine day that will be. And then, of course, we get to figure out how to make that program scale from seven professors to seven hundred — but one step at a time.

The other big question, though, was a question for which I, personally, am not yet satisfied that there’s A Good Answer For. Of the many unanswered questions that remain, it is this particular unanswered question that will, I think, mark the difference between A Good Idea and A Movement.

That question: “what are the small open source projects that my students can work on, right now, and where can I find them?”

Mozilla is definitely working hard on answering this problem. Which is not surprising; they’ve been out front on this stuff for a while. They’ve instituted the student-project tag for their bugzilla instance, and to date, there are 80 issues in their bugzilla tagged this way. Maybe not perfect — but for a professor who’s considering throwing kids at the Mozilla project, it’s *incredibly* useful. That, combined with the mentoring page for Mozilla at TOS, gives a professor a pretty clear idea of how to get their students involved in the Mozilla project.

We’re certainly close to that in Fedora-land, and with Chris Tyler’s help, I expect that we’ll get closer in a hurry. We need our own project mentoring page on TOS, and that should be pretty straightforward — but figuring out what Fedora projects are suitable for student development may be somewhat more challenging. Looking at the status quo, I see that we’ve got a great list of unaccepted feature requests, which are categorized as “FeaturePageIncomplete” on the Fedora wiki, listed on this single page. (gregdek’s feature request #1: fix mediawiki to put a horizontal scroll bar on this page so you can actually *see* all of them.) There’s very little indication about which of these projects might be suitable for student developers, though, and that’s going to be really important. I’d love to hear recommendations about how to do that.

Anyway, we’re getting closer all the time. Once we’re satisfied that Fedora is Doing It Right, we get to work on all the other projects out there.

Good stuff. I’m excited by our rapid progress in this area in the past few months, and I enjoyed making lots of new friends in Philadelphia. Maybe next summer we’ll hold a POSSE there at Drexel; Greg Hislop seemed to like the idea and was ready to volunteer the space. I hope things go well enough that we can take him up on his offer. Philly’s a great college town.

An update on Professor Quest.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s