Open source challenges students to think

Access to source code of open source software facilitates hands-on lessons so students can get practical development experience, say the technology's exponents.
Written by Sol E. Solomon, Contributor

The "open" characteristic of open source tools helps enhance, rather than complicate, the teaching process, say its exponents.

Roman Tuma, software practice director at Sun Microsystems, Asia South, said the open source model offers an entirely new way for developers and "increasingly knowledgeable", interactive users to collaborate and build upon the shared work done in the development of OSS.

Arun Kumar, senior director, services and pre-sales at Red Hat, emphasized in a phone interview that there are two types of learning--theoretical and hands-on practical learning.

"In the past, I was given a piece of software, I was told how it would work, and I had no way to contribute any kind of valuable feedback," he said. However, he added that with open source, the instructor, in a hands-on lesson on device drivers, would start teaching the theory aspect and then reveal the driver's actual source code to the students.

According to Kumar, this mode of teaching challenges the students to think about how they would write a device driver.

"So it actually makes the teaching process far simpler. It allows the students not only to have theoretical concepts, but also be able to practically use those concepts they learn in the class. You can't do that with any proprietary software because no proprietary vendor is going to expose its source code to a student," Kumar said.

He described as a "myth" the belief that since the source code of an OSS is made available so that any developer can revise it, its development is unstructured and therefore more difficult to learn.

"An open source project like the Linux kernel has thousands of developers spread across maybe a hundred countries, and yet, periodically, this project is able to churn revisions of code, manage the entire issue of version control and software quality, and be done in a completely virtual world," Kumar noted.

"So...on that perspective, if it were not very structured, if there were no systems and clear processes supporting it, you would not see all the open source projects flourish. [Therefore], it's far more sophisticated than one individual software company could potentially manage," he charged.

Not enough places to learn
Tuma pointed out in an e-mail that there are not enough facilities available in the region to educate and support the adoption of OSS. "It's primarily caused by slow adoption within schools and governments in Asia," he said.

Sun's efforts to address this in countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia and soon in Vietnam are through the Java Education and Development Initiative (Jedi) project which provides industry-endorsed IT and computer science course material for free.

"Jedi is an open and collaborative environment for educators and industry players to develop, contribute and benefit from course syllabus aimed at developing skills for student developers in these markets. Jedi materials and resources conform to international education standards," Tuma said.

This initiative taps on the resources of many contributors and provides a professional level of content that grooms the next generation of software developers.

Similarly, Kumar said that Red Hat Academy, a Web-based, hands-on academic program teaching Linux and open source technology, is aimed at young people from high school and universities, to provide them with the expertise for OSS development.

"So when they enter the mainstream, the skills that are required for open source deployment is already there," he said.

The curriculum for the academy is designed for academic degrees and continuing education/workforce development programs in accredited high schools, colleges, universities, vocational institutions and economic development organizations worldwide.

The academy has about six partners in Asean, 15 in China and about 60 in India, said Kumar.

Red Hat's other educational efforts in the region include what Kumar describes as the region's first open source Masters degree program, which is offered in collaboration with UniSIM.

Singapore's universities and polytechnics are leading the way in terms of tertiary-level open source education, Kumar added.

However despite such efforts, Tuma believes that even more needs to be done in the region. "Industry players and educational organizations should collaborate closely with a common goal to groom talent that will drive OSS skills for the future."

Sun sees more potential for adoption and development of skill sets from countries like the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand where cost has always been a key factor when software products are purchased, he added.

Governments should take the leading initiative to promote OSS, said Tuma. "That can be done through education...as well as neutral bodies advising on OSS adoption and support."

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