Open source software: for students, by students.

Last summer, the Google Summer of Code 2005 debuted as a project designed “to introduce students to the world of open source software development.” Programmers from dozens of open-source software projects signed up as mentors, and students from all over the world turned out a really impressive depth and breadth of projects. The project was so successful that it’s being repeated with an even longer list of organizations and projects.

What I find really fantastic:

~The Summer of Code places importance not on the end product, or on knowledge flowing from the mentor to the student, but on making sure the students learn what they want, how they want, when they want, with the mentor providing guidance along the way. Education is the key; useful working code is a bonus.

~Although the organizations are under no obligation to use the new code, the projects are not dummy tasks created to fill time. They’re real projects that, if done well, could make a real (if invisible) impact on the way who-knows-how-many people live and work on- and off-line. Some examples:

    – a translation coordination system for Debian Linux
    – improved Unicode support in Apache and Bricolage, an “open-source enterprise-class” CMS)
    – support for text messaging with Skype users within Adium, and adding MSN Messenger protocols to Gaim
    – refining OpenRecord, a wiki engine geared towards databases and spreadsheets (instead of pages of text, for which MediaWiki is built)
    – an automated method for collecting “high-quality Creative Commons-licensed [educational] content” for redistribution with the One Laptop Per Child project

~Although many of these projects can and will affect the classroom in one way or another, some students have the opportunity to help directly shape their own learning and that of their peers regardless of discipline. Several organizations specializing in classroom software (Moodle, Drupal, Daisy CMS, and Joomla, among others) are supplying mentors. Brilliant – who could more appropriately tweak, poke, break, fix, extend, and enhance than the target audience? Involving students offers no guarantee that the end-product will be any more useful for education – it can’t make up for limitations inherent in CMS/LMS software – but they’re trying, and that’s more than one can say about most technology companies.

Ryan has been proudly maintaining and contributing to Language Lab Unleashed since 2005, and is the current President of SWALLT. Since the summer of 2013 he's been causing trouble with his all-star colleagues in the UMW DTLT; when not wrangling websites Ryan can be found doing strange things with heavy objects.

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  1. Laura · July 29, 2006 Reply

    I think, if I recall, that Google didn’t get any submissions for women or some paltry amount and they had to do outreach and reopen the program for women.

  2. Ryan · July 30, 2006 Reply

    Only one sponsoring organization within the Summer of Code did the outreach: GNOME (the makers of a graphical desktop environment for Linux).

    I have mixed feelings about this sort of outreach. For one thing, I wonder how they determined that no women applied – did they come to this conclusion just by looking at the names of the applicants, which can be highly problematic? Or was there an application form with M / F checkboxes? And if an application form did ask for gender, why didn’t more organizations notice this trend – or did they notice and just not care?

    On the other hand, who is / should be responsible for making sure women are properly represented? Google? The sponsoring organizations? Should there be some kind of quota system? If so, does the quota only apply to applicants? Or also to the acceptance process? And who oversees the whole process? It’s a good idea, and I appreciate what GNOME was trying to do, but frankly, it seems a little patronizing.

  3. Laura · July 30, 2006 Reply

    Yeah, I agree. I think the issue is primarily a matter of pr. A similar thing has happened with female faculty not applying for awards in the sciences. I think they need to develop some strategies for dealing with this. One possibility, contact cs faculty and get them to suggest to their female students that they should apply. That’s a slightly more positive outread in that the students will get a little boost in confidence when they’re supported by their faculty.

    It’s a tough question. But I certainly don’t want the tech world run by men.

  4. Ryan · July 31, 2006 Reply

    Or any world, for that matter. 😉

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