Principles of FLOSS and education transfer

I’ve been in Thessaloniki for a couple of days, at a meeting of the FLOSScom project. The project is looking at the principles of open source communities and whether any of these can be found or transferred to education.

Rudiger Glott from Merit gave a good overview of FLOSS communities, based on a survey they have conducted. The key question to me is whether some of these characteristics are fundamental to the success of FLOSS communities, or whether they are incidental. Here are some of the significant characteristics as I see them:

i) The communities are constituted mainly from young men – at around 2% the proportion of women in FLOSS communities is much lower than it is in IT generally (around 25%). There may be many reasons for this but  for our purpose the point to consider is whether this is a necessary characteristic for how these communities operate. If so, then they obviously don’t have much to offer higher education.

ii) Reuse is a vital characteristic. One of the key things members felt they learnt was how to write software that can be reused. Part of your status is determined by how often your code can be reused and also how easy it is to reuse. In some respects reuse is a proxy for writing clear, concise code, but it also demonstrates that reuse is seen as a good thing. In higher education we don’t hold reuse is the same regard – in fact we punish it and call it plagiarism usually. Again, the extent to which the high regard for reuse is fundamental is an interesting question, as it would necessitate some significant changes in higher education practice (although these would probably be worth making).

iii) There is a reasonably objective measure of quality. The dictum that the code decides isn’t quite absolute, as there are often aesthetic qualities to coding, but the final product does offer some degree of objectivity. If you fix a bug, then it can be demonstrated that you have contributed. This level of objective measure is not always present in discussions in higher education. The software also acts as a binding factor for the community, in a very clearly defined manner, which again might not be found in many subjects.   

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