DML Ignite Talk, the "what I think I'm going to say" version.
Productively Lost For Great Justice
Hi. I'm here from Teaching Open Source, a group of faculty members, researchers, and open source hackers dedicated to bringing open source practices into academic environments. Today I'm going to be talking about why being lost is awesome.

My name's Mel Chua, and I'm wearing two hats here; I've been teaching for about 10 years now and do education research at Purdue, but I've also spent 5 years doing engineering and community development for multiple large open source projects. So I'm on both sides of the house for open source and education.

And when I say "open source and education," I don't just mean using free software and creative commons, though I think that's great. I'm talking about practicing the open source way, having students contribute to open projects -- because you can have free software and open textbooks...

...and your classrooms can still look like this. We want to change what people do, we want to change the classroom culture, because we think it's going to benefit our students. How?

Here, have some buzzwords. We claim this is what you get from doing "the open source way" thing in classrooms. And this means absolutely nothing without context, so I'll give some examples.

Heidi Ellis in Massachusetts brought her seniors to a GNOME hackfest. A few months later at job interviews, they could point to public code and say "I wrote this shoulder-to-shoulder with senior developers."

Steve Jacobs in New York had students do design reviews in the chatroom of the project they were working in, and folks from Latin America and Europe started chiming in spontaneously. "How can we test out your games with the kids in our neighborhood?"

Then there was the college application that began "my project's used for teacher training in the developing world; it's been downloaded 10,000 times, and I graduate from high school in 6 months." My point is not "these people are amazing!" but that they became amazing by learning in open communities that gave them these opportunities.

A lot of folks, my former self included, are intimidated and think "oh, I'm not good enough to work on open source." Yes you are! I mean, we had a class of first graders submitting bug reports; there's always something you can do that's helpful. So how do you start?

A lot of folks say "pick a project," but that's like marrying someone the day you meet them. Date a couple first. Check the communities; are they responsive, are they friendly, can they be good mentors for your specific class right now?

Once you find the people you want to work with, ask them how you can stay in the loop of what they're doing, whether that's joining a mailing list or attending a weekly chat -- because open source is very improvisational, what they're doing will change, and you'll want to be able to take advantage of whatever opportunities pop up.

Once you're overhearing all the conversations, you'll start to get a sense of what people need, what work should be done. Once you find that, just do it -- don't ask for permission. Be bold. I don't mean for this to sound easy; it's simple, but it's hard to do.

But if you do it, you're practicing the open source way in your classroom. This is how the best projects work. And your students will have the same mindset the best open source contributors do.

And that mindset is being productively lost. I'm in a huge, complex, chaotic world that's bigger than myself, and maybe I don't understand everything that's going on -- but I can still be useful. Hackers are wonderful role models for lifelong learning.

So we've got this "open source way," this radically transparent culture. Now. Important. This is very, very different from academic culture -- and we need to know that, otherwise we'll be surprised and frustrated.

Academia is well-scaffolded. We know what classes we're supposed to take and when we're probably going to graduate, but not what we're going to do with our degree at the end. The process is clear, the objective is fuzzy. In the open source world, the objective is clear, and the process is fuzzy -- you know what itch you're trying to scratch, the problem you're trying to solve... but maybe not exactly how you're going to get there or how long it's going to take.

This is a great opportunity to work with people who see the world in a fundamentally different way. And as a teacher, you might be a novice in the open source world, but you're an expert on teaching -- so your biggest contribution to an open source project might be showing them, by example, how they ought to teach their newcomers.

There are a whole bunch of us doing this with our classes, and we're always trying to help other teachers get started -- we do a summer workshop called the Professors' Open Source Summer Experience, or POSSE, and we have a mailing list, and get together at conferences like this one and talk about our classes and how "the open source way" is working out for our students.

And we'd love for you to join us. If you're interested in learning more, check us out on, or email me -- these slides are online, and a transcript too. Thank you very much.