The Commons Initiative at SF State

Image: Photos of SF State students

Teaching open source community skills to business students

On Monday, September 24, I had the chance to address Sameer Verma's ISYS 573 class at San Francisco State University, a "Detailed study of the management of open source software and related processes." We talked about mailing lists, IRC chat, bug trackers, netiquette, and how all that interacts in real open source projects like Debian.


The class, and open source at SFSU

The class is part of SFSU's Information Systems program. The course is intended to be an exploration, primarily for business students, of licensing and business models available within open source. Professor Verma also explained to me that students appreciate the chance to use Linux during the course; he sets up an Ubuntu LTSP-based lab for it. As far as he knows, this is the only full-semester course anywhere that exposes business students to the world of open source. He has been teaching it since Fall 2005!

I was invited as a guest of Professor Verma through the Commons Initiative at San Francisco State. (I'm on its advisory board.) The Initiative is a cross-campus working group of activities that promote free, open source software and free cultural works. You can get a sense of the Drupal-, Wikipedia-, and OpenHatch-related events the Initiative has organized from its event calendar. SFSU also home to the most visible Software Freedom Day celebration in San Francisco, to my knowledge.


Catching up after the talk, he and I discussed the difficulties of promoting open source in a university IT environment defined by vendor relationships. I had to admit to him that I had my own experiences with those difficulties as an undergrad, dragging my heels against Johns Hopkins IT. Beyond that, Professor Verma's ongoing efforts with One Laptop Per Child, his experience as an engineer, and his interest in activism and real-world change make for a very interesting person to catch up with!


(Photo credit: by Sameer Verma.)


My talk

The talk was a revised version of the one I gave at the JHU ACM as part of an Open Source Comes to Campus event. The idea of this talk is to explain in plain terms about how I personally first got involved in open source, show the audience how others do, and teach students basic online netiquette to help them participate actively in communities building software they care about.


One of the focuses of the talk is that contributing to open source goes beyond writing code and submitting patches. When I explained that free software contribution is anything that helps push a community forward to achieve its goals, even a mailing list post, I then asked if any of the students in attendance had done that. I was expecting a fair number of hands to be raised.


Instead, the room was silent. I kept going, and during the Q&A, I learned that at least one student had a problem with an open source add-on to NetBeans; he had discovered others the same problem discussing it on a web forum, but wasn't sure how to proceed. I asked him if he had filed a bug, and I think I saw a lightbulb switch on. The key, I explained, is bringing up technical issues in the environment where the project maintainers will see it.


I tried to drive this point home by using the Debian OpenSSL key fiasco as a closing example. That story (if you don't know it, read Russ Cox's telling) is an amazing case of communication going almost right. In hindsight, my delivery of the example may have been a little too technical, but I believe most students got the drift.


Of the about 30 students in the class, most didn't bring laptops. Luckily, Sameer's good-natured encouragement helped get about 11 students onto IRC! Here's what that looked like:

IRC screenshot


Resources for following up

Presentation resources:

Thanks to all who came, and to Professor Verma for inviting me!


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