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A note to readers of this document who may come from the Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FOSS) world: I use the term “open source” to encompass Free/Libre and Open Source software by all its names (FLOSS, FOSS, OSS, etc). While there are important and subtle differences between these terms that matter a great deal to some members of these communities, the working practices of these communities are similar enough that I've chosen to use the shortest possible phrase in an attempt to explain them to an academic audience. Please feel free to edit, clarify, expand upon, and disagree with the thoughts in this document and to point to other supporting, clarifying, or contrasting works out there that might help frame these ideas in a broader context. That's why it's open-licensed, after all. Drawing boundaries: what I am and am not writing about This is a preliminary and extremely incomplete literature review surveying the current academic scholarship on open source and education. It can be summarized in three words: there's not much. I'll begin this literature review by discussing what I am not looking at, since it is easy to come to the wrong conclusions about my research focus when one hears the words “open source” and “education” together. I am not looking at the use of open source software in educational contexts. Several papers provide case studies centered around specific pieces of software and their implementation in schools (Chumney 2008 is an illustrative example) and others investigate the policies and attitudes of the schools themselves towards open source (van Rooij 2007 is an illustrative example). Both these papers frame open source as an IT solution. Nor am I looking at open source with a focus on content licensing, as do many of the essays included in the collections Opening Up Education (Iiyoshi and Kumar, 2008) or Handbook of Research on Open Source Software (Amant and Still, 2007). These collections discuss digital libraries, copyright concerns, open educational resources, and open source research in various branches of the humanities, among other things. They frame open source as an information access solution. This is closer to (and a prerequisite for) what I wish to discuss, but is also not quite there. Instead, I am concerned with an analysis of what sorts of practices and processes for learning are exhibited in open source communities themselves and how these practices might be made transferable back to the classroom. In other words, I see open source as a way of operating learning communities: radically cross-functional, collaboratively constructed realtime transparency. Some useful theoretical frameworks for looking at learning communities Educational theorists and social science researchers have provided us with several useful concepts by which we can discuss the sorts of learning activities that take place in open communities. One is the concept of situated cognition (Brown et al, 1989), which says that knowledge is inseparably intertwined with the context in which it is used. An engineer cannot simply “write requirements;” he or she must write them for a specific project. If we ask how that engineer acquired the knowledge of how to write requirements, we are then led to situated learning (Lave and Wenger, 1998) which posits that learning is similarly inseparable from the contexts in which occurs.
In order to avoid having students inadvertently train themselves into only being able to function in an artificial school environment, Brown and his co-authors point to the idea of cognitive apprenticeships (Collins, Brown, and Newman, 1987) which includes teaching methods involving expert mentors modeling desired behaviors to novices and coaching those same novices through reflecting on their skill development. The idea was inspired by a variety of master-apprentice traditions in craft fields, except that instead of learning hands-on skills, the apprentices are now learning mental ones such as basic reading, writing, and mathematics. Note that Collins and his coauthors actually provide a lovely example of situated learning in their paper as they explain and transfer certain aspects of apprenticeship from a manual-labor context to a cognitive one, in this case general K-12 education skills. We can do the same by picking up the idea of cognitive apprenticeship and taking it a step further into the context of post-secondary STEM education. (It is probable that others have done so as well, but for the sake of keeping this literature review to a reasonable scope, I've left this open as an avenue for later exploration.) In the case of engineering education, it's also interesting to note that this is in part a reverse-transplantation; when we speak of engineering students in machine shops or building “real products,” we've returned to the context of hands-on labor that Collins and his coauthors drew their inspiration from. If cognitive apprenticeships demand a context within which to situate their learning, where can we situate our students in, other than conventional classrooms? Here the concept of communities of practice (Wenger, 1998) becomes relevant by giving us the vocabulary we need to describe open communities to teachers as an alternative type of learning environment their students can be “in.” For instance, the duality of participation and reification provides a way to understand how newcomers to a project make sense of the reflective phase that regularly follows a software product's release date, and the concept of "practice" itself provides a way to talk about common activities across a wide range of mini-projects within a community that involves people from many different (and in some times competing) organizations. In particular, the radical transparency exhibited by successful open communities can be seen as an enabler of legitimate peripheral participation (Lave and Wenger, 1991) which enables novices to situate their activities in a context of authentic practice as suggested by Brown and Collins. Open source communities as communities of practice Of course, the communities of practice framework was not specifically created to describe open source communities. It is a framework created by sociologists to describe a broad range of groups, technical and nontechnical, “open” and “closed.” Even though some members of open source communities have informally adopted the term “community of practice” and write informally online about several of the key aspects of the framework, it is extraordinarily difficult to find scrutiny of any significant depth on the topic, let alone scholarly works that apply the framework to open source communities in a way that is relevant to this literature review. A chapter from a recent collection of essays on open source provides an example of this. “Communities of Practice for Open Source Software” (Humes, 2007) examines “the use of communities of practice in disseminating open source software” in the context of a university in Brazil, but it sends us right back to viewing open source as an IT solution, something that might transform the server rooms rather than the classrooms of an educational institution. Academics participating in open source communities Actually, the words “recent” and “open source” are almost redundant; The Free Software definition was written in 1986 and the term “open source” emerged in 1998, making the open source (“FOSS”)
movement somewhere between 13 and 25 years old as of this writing. This may explain why the only in-depth scholarly application of the communities of practice framework to open source communities as of this literature review was written by a novice researcher. A System That Works For Me is an unpublished 2007 masters thesis by Andreas Lloyd at the University of Copenhagen (Lloyd, 2007) and centers around Ubuntu, a popular Linux distribution. Another important note is that Lloyd himself was a user of Ubuntu (IT solution mentality) prior to writing his thesis; he became a contributor (learning community mentality) by volunteering as a documentation writer for the project during the research process, and his public Ubuntu profile site consists mainly of links explaining his research process to the Ubuntu community and sharing as much of his data with them as possible. Lloyd's thesis specifically pays homage to the work of Biella Coleman, an anthropologist who examines politics and ethics in hacker communities, with “hacker” being the a common word contributors to Free and Open Source software projects use to refer to themselves. Coleman has a relatively long history of publishing in the open source space (long, that is, compared to how long the open source space has existed and how long others have been doing similar kinds of work). Her research includes a study of in-person gatherings in the Debian community (Coleman, 2010) that hints at aspects of cognitive apprenticeship with depictions of how neophyte hackers are exposed to the stories and practices of more experienced ones during these periodically-scheduled, intense, comradeship-building events. However, this work does not specifically analyze the learning that takes place in such events from an educational standpoint. Coleman has also successfully used phenomena from the open source world to illuminate theoretical constructs from another discipline and vice versa, such as in her use of jurisgenesis (Coleman, 2009) to examine Free Software in the light of free speech; this mutual illumination is a key component of what I hope to do with the worlds of engineering education and open source in my own academic work as time goes on. Although Coleman focuses on the development of legal awareness in open source contributors, this parallels my desire to look at the development of technical and technosocial awareness in open source contributors, and it is likely that I will draw inspiration from many of the methods she has used. From what I can gather from public chronologies, both Coleman and Lloyd began to research open source communities before they began to contribute to them, but both have become contributors along the way. This is is important, as open source and academic cultures have both distinct cultural similarities and stark differences (Ellis, Hislop, Chua, and Dziallas, 2011) which can lead to very different interpretations of the same events unless open source contributors and researchers educate themselves about each other's worlds. As explained above, Lloyd began writing documentation for Ubuntu during his thesis work; similarly, Coleman served on the local planning team for Debconf 2010, the major annual gathering of contributors to the Debian project. Both are examples of people who started as part of an academic community of practice and then joined an open source one. Open source contributors emerging as researchers There are also researchers focused on open source who have gone in the opposite direction. A good example is one of Coleman's co-authors (Coleman and Hill, 2004), Benjamin “mako” Hill, who was (and remains) an active leader in the Debian and Ubuntu communities before becoming a graduate student at MIT. Coleman served on the committee for Hill's Masters thesis. Another example is Martin “madduck” Krafft, who had a similar leadership standing in the Debian community before beginning
his PhD studies at the University of Limerick. Note the usage of online handles (“mako” and “madduck”) to identify the latter two researchers; their open source identities are as important to understanding their work as their publication histories. Also note that all three of the academics we have just mentioned have young research careers, another sign of the youth of the field as discussed previously. Coleman received her PhD in socio-cultural anthropology from the University of Chicago in 2005, Krafft received his PhD in computer science and sociology from the University of Limerick in 2010, and Hill is still completing his interdepartmental PhD at MIT as of this writing in 2011. Krafft's research has centered around innovation diffusion in open source communities (Krafft, 2010); like Coleman, he uses phenomena from the open source world to illuminate theoretical constructs from another discipline and vice versa. Krafft's experience in open source communities seems to have informed his approach to reasearch; for instance, his choice of the Delphi method fits nicely into the way open source contributors are already used to discussing complex matters over public email lists. However, this also means Krafft's work has centered around subjects who are already mature contributors; in other words, it assumes the existence of some learning process that has taken place in the past, but does not explain what that process is , which leaves room for future work in education. Quantitative work on open source communities Thus far we have only discussed qualitative research, as all the academics we have profiled are from the social sciences. Quantitative work is more likely to be familiar to readers of this document (engineering educators and open source community members). Most high-quality scholarly work on the processes of open source communities has been qualitative in nature thus far; the quantitative work available tends to largely employ surveys of limited scope and sample size (and therefore validity). Sometimes this is due to a lack of direct experience with open source communities; the “academic” interpretation of an experimental design and dataset may not agree with the “open source” one. For instance, a social network analysis of an open source community (Shen and Monge, 2011) argues that newcomers to an open source community are excluded from the conversational circles of the elite. However, this network analysis is based on a sample that experienced open source contributors will tell you excludes newcomers by construction – in other words, from an “open source” perspective, the researchers selected experienced contributors as their subset for data collection of connections, so it should be no surprise that they only found evidence of collaborations between those experienced contributors. Besides, if it is true that open source communities exclude newcomers, how would they ever grow? Every experienced contributor must have once been a new one at some point. Once again, junior researchers that have firsthand experience with open source communities are doing some of the most intriguing work in this space; two graduate students from the University of Texas recently presented “Learning in the GNU/Linux Community” (Davis and Jabeen, 2011) which is the first large-scale academic tally of evidence of legitimate peripheral participation occurring in open source communities. It appears that the field is wide open and ripe for exploration. Bibliography (in order of citation) Iiyoshi, Toru and M. S. Vijay Kumar, eds. Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008.
Chumney, Wade M., and Zehai Zhou. “Legal and Business Perspectives of Open Source Education Software.” Journal of American Academy of Business 13.1 (2008): 208- 14. van Rooij, Shahron Williams. “Perceptions of Open Source Versus Commercial Software: Is Higher Education Still on the Fence?” Journal of Research on Technology in Education 39.4 (2007), 433–453. Brown, John Seely, Allan Collins and Paul Duguid. "Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning." Educational Researcher, 18.1 (1989) 32-42. Lave, Jean, and Etienne Wenger. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Collins, Allan, John Seely Brown and Susan E. Newman. "Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the craft of reading, writing and mathematics." BBN Laboratories Technical Report No. 403, Centre for the Study of Reading, University of Illinois. January, 1987. Cambridge, MA. 1987. Wenger, Etienne. Communities of Practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Humes, Leila Lage. “Communities of Practice for Open Source Software.” Handbook of Research on Open Source Software: Technological, Economic, and Social Perspectives. Ed. Kirk St. Amant and Brian Still. Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference, 2007. pp. 610-623. Amant, Kirk St. And Brian Still, eds. Handbook of Research on Open Source Software: Technological, Economic, and Social Perspectives. Ed. Kirk St. Amant and Brian Still. Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference, 2007. Lloyd, Andreas. A System that works for me: an anthropological analysis of computer hackers' shared use and development of the Ubuntu Linux System. Thesis, University of Copenhagen. 2007. Coleman, Gabriella. “Hacking In-Person: The Ritual Character of Conferences and the Distillation of a LifeWorld.” Anthropological Quarterly. 83.1 (2010) 99-124. Coleman, Gabriella. “Code is Speech: Legal Tinkering, Expertise, and Protest among Free and Open Source Software Developers.” Cultural Anthropology. 24.3 (2009) 420-454. Ellis, Heidi J.C., Gregory W. Hislop, Mel Chua, and Sebastian Dziallas. “How to involve students in FOSS projects.” Frontiers in Education, October 12-15, 2011, Rapid City, SD. IEEE. Coleman, Gabriella and Benjamin Hill. “Iconic Tactics: How Free Became Open and Everything Else Under the Sun.” M/C a Journal of Media and Culture. 2004. http://journal.mediaculture.org.au/0406/02_Coleman-Hill.php Web. 14 December 2011. Krafft, Martin F. "A Delphi study of the influences on innovation adoption and process evolution in a large open-source project — the case of Debian." Diss. University of Limerick, 2010. Web. 14
December 2011. Shen, Cuihua and Peter Monge. “Who connects with whom? A social network analysis of an online open source software community.” First Monday 16.6 (2011) n. pag. Web. 14 December 2011. Davis, Don and Iffat Jabeen. “Learning in the GNU/Linux Community.” SIGITE, October 20-22, 2011. West Point, NY. ACM.