GNU high school: teaching kids by contributing to open source

Today I'd like to spotlight TurnKey's unlikely relationship with Chelsea School, a high school in suburban Maryland. I'm going to try to tell this story on two levels:

  1. The straightforward who-what-why.
  2. Why you should care.

I'll start with the latter. If it works maybe you'll stick around for the full story.

Kids collaborate with NASA, discover cave on Mars

Recently, a 7th grade science class, using the raw data from a NASA satellite, made a remarkable discovery: a mysterious cave on Mars.

I found myself fascinated not only by the discovery itself and what it means for future Mars exploration, but also in how it was made. A discovery on another planet, made not by a team of highly credentialed professionals, but a bunch of kids! When I was in middle school this sort of thing could only happen in a cartoon. But it's 2010, and this is real life.

Granted this isn't the sort of thing that happens every day. But I think it questions the assumption that school kids can only learn by being spoon fed cookie-cutter, artificial assignments that bare little resemblance to real work, at least until they graduate.

What if instead we could teach kids by challenging them with authentic assessments? Real solutions to real problems, and not just in science where the bar to making new contributions is often set very high...

Open source and education: a match made in heaven?

All over the world millions of kids are studying computers and technology. Imagine what a difference we could make if we could figure out how to help the open source community embrace that opportunity.

What if we could help kids explore how computer systems in the real world work in a friction-less playground that allows them to crack open the box, explore its insides and tinker.

Imagine if with a bit of guidance we could teach them how to leverage open source and the unprecedented wealth of knowledge Google puts at their fingerprints to learn autonomously faster and better than we could ever spoon feed them with traditional methods.

Before you know it kids will be applying what they've learned and using open source to solve real problems in their environment. Remember, you don't have to be an experienced developer to add value to the open source community. There are many ways to contribute. Especially now that there is such an abundance of free components that often the real challenge is in discovering the good stuff and figuring out what to mix and match to get stuff done.

A pipe dream you say? Our recent experience suggests otherwise...

Chelsea School: greater expectations

Let me get something off my chest. I tried not to show it, but when Rik Goldman, an English teacher at Chelsea School, started posting to the TurnKey forums I was initially somewhat skeptical.

Chelsea School is a school that specializes in teaching students with language-based learning disabilities. Rik was in the process of guiding 6 students in their attempt to leverage off-the-shelf open source software to solve a real problem they had encountered: how to serve audible editions of assigned texts to students who would otherwise have difficulty accessing these materials.

The students had decided to focus their efforts on Ampache, a streaming audio and video server which they setup to serve as a compromise between text-to-speech software and an actual human reader.

They made it happen. In fact, not only did they leverage open source successfully in solving their local problem, they embraced the open source spirit, took the initiative and worked with us to help make it easy for everyone to use Ampache.

Chelsea School students realized that setting up an open source based solution like Ampache can require technical skills that would scare off your typical school. Not content with just solving the problem for themselves the students built and configured a virtual appliance in which Ampache was pre-installed and pre-configured on top of Ubuntu, a popular Linux distribution.

This made it possible to distribute and run a fully functional Ampache server from a USB key drive.

If that wasn't remarkable enough they then proceeded to develop and document a high-quality patch that would allow us to add Ampache to the next release of the TurnKey Linux Virtual Appliance Library.

Their patch automatically installs the required software components and then configures filesystem permissions, the Apache web server, MySQL database, and the Samba file sharing service. We couldn't have done it any better ourselves and we're supposed to be experts.

Frankly, this impressed the heck out of me.

This was no toy assignment. It's a working technology product that thousands of other users all over the world will use. An authentic assessment of the skill involved in planning, developing and implementing an innovation. A genuine achievement.

And they did it the same way we would do it. By googling, reading technical documentation, and consulting with others in the community. That along with a willingness to experiment through trial and error.

Then, as if to show us this was no accident, in the following weeks they would do it again and again with Elgg and LimeSurvey.

Allow me to emphasize that when they started out these high school students had no prior exposure to Ubuntu or Linux.

According to Rik, the students reacted strongly to working with Ubuntu and the open source community. They were keenly interested in the community development process and were eager for feedback regarding their contributions. They read excerpts from Stallman on the philosophy behind the free software movement, and signed the Ubuntu Code of Conduct.

Four of the six students even committed to maintaining the appliances as Ampache matures, even after they've left Chelsea School.

Meet the Chelsea School team

Rik Goldman: trained as an English professor, Rik formerly taught University and College literature and composition classes. Today Rik teaches English and technology at Chelsea School's high school division, which predominantly serves students with language-based learning disabilities that can have profound effects on reading comprehension and writing fluency. Besides literature, Rik has always been interested in computers, dabbling with everything from web development to system administration. This eventually led him to transition from English professor to instructional technologist and it's through this experience that Rik lost his tolerance for proprietary, closed software in education.

Adrian Madison: a junior interested in pursuing a career in Information Technology. At home his personal computer is now running Ubuntu and he's happiest learning new command line arguments. Adrian is hoping for a summer internship where he can put his new skills to use.

Curtis Fawcett: a senior in the software class that is debating between a major in English and a major in engineering. He's an avid reader with an incredible memory and a natural strength for critical thinking and analysis. He's putting these assets to use by taking a college class in CAD during his senior year. Curtis now runs Ubuntu on his home computer.

Jerel Moses: also in the software class, is enthusiastic about Ubuntu and the possibilities it offers for customized distribution. Jerel is simultaneously pursuing course work in web and graphic design. If he chooses to pursue a career in technology, he'll be the third generation of computer techs in his family.

Maurice Quarles: a junior whose at his best navigating a GUI efficiently to perform OS tasks and maintenance. Maurice is interested in pursuing a career in game design.

Steven Robinson: currently a freshman in the hardware class. He's the first student to start the Info Systems course while only in middle school and has a strong memory regarding hardware components and specifications. Steven's laptop is now running Ubuntu.

David Walton: a freshman, interested in pursuing a career in game design. He kept the team laughing when they ran into problems, and insists that when Windows XP shuts down, it's singing "have a nice day". David, like Steven, is an avid gamer and is eager to start a career in game design.

Plans for the future

Rik's plans include teaching more students about technology through authentic assessments. Starting an open source lab right in the school, and expanding the IT curriculum to include more advanced studies of Linux and the basics of programming/scripting languages such Bash, Python and PHP.

How do we scale this up?

Chelsea School has proven teaching students by contributing to open source can be a win-win for both education and the open source community.

In my mind the main question now is, how do we scale this up? How do we bring together more schools and open source projects? Just imagine if we can figure out how to make this happen on a large scale, what a difference we could make.


JustSomeNick's picture

Just wow. Beautiful stuff.

I was really smiling when I was reading this. This is the reason, right here, why Linux will win it in the long run. These kids just jumped on this, and had done so much! I myself am a Linux newbie too (about a year and a half now of use) and already I'm attempting to give back to the community by tinkering with Wine and certain niche games (ie: OpenSuSE 11.3 currently has an issue with Fallout 3 in Wine- After an hour or two of tinkering, I got it running).

The idea of scale here might be a little different than just proportion. The idea of scale akin to that of spectrum is called upon here. I am 25. Not a kid anymore really (Well, at heart mayhaps)- and I am getting into this. These kids are younger. Age is -not- an issue. How many times have I met folks, or seen posts how people give Linux to their grandmothers/elderly/parents/etc and they love it or at least have no issues using it?

Brilliant stuff. This article here is the epitome of the FLOSS community. What these kids have done is truly admirable. Wow.

Charlie Smotherman (porthose)'s picture

Rik, you and your students should consider appling for ubuntu membership :)

You have my endorsement.


Liraz Siri's picture

Charlie is perhaps too modest to mention it, but he was a key member of the Ampache team that helped and encouraged Chelsea School in their endeavors. Way to go man!

Also, I agree wholeheartedly that Rik and the students would make fine candidates for Ubuntu membership.

To echo Liraz, Charlie was a tremendous help. However, I also want to call attention to the entire community at #ampache (freenode), who were eager to help us overcome any and all obstacles - even when those obstacles were unrelated to the Ampache project.

luke's picture

At Yorktown High School in Arlington, Virginia, we've got a GNU/Linux LTSP lab set up using Ubuntu Linux, and have a fairly thriving hacker community. (or so we like to think) At the nearby Arlington Career Center, we have summer classes in Scratch and Python programming, and are working on introducing more students into problem solving via OSS development. SchoolTool was developed here, and we're working on releasing an application for volunteer time tracking that's used by the local NHS. 

If you ever plan on expanding this program to more schools, shoot me an email!

Luke Faraone
Student, Ubuntu MOTU, Debian Maintainer

Liraz Siri's picture

Yorktown high school sounds awesome! I wish Python was taught when I was in high school. I had to suffer through Pascal. Ugh.

You know, I bet there's another great story to be told regarding the work you've been doing over at Yorktown bringing together open source and education. Sharing it might be a good way to light the way for other schools. Maybe even start a movement...

Also, there isn't exactly an official "program" per-say, but we'd love to help get additional schools involved in a similar framework though I'm not sure exactly how to reach out to additional schools.

Belinda Lopez's picture

I've been working on an amazing project called FLOSSInclude.  Sponsored by the European Union, they have researched and now are in the final stages of publishing all the case studies of the barriers to greater FLOSS use in education and government settings.  The results are not at all suprising; lack of awareness, lack of teacher training, policy and decision-makers unaware of FLOSS alternatives and not trusting open source.  Part of the project is to reach out to others in the world to collaborate on overcoming these barriers.  Our work can be found here:

The scaling issue is one that is near and dear to my heart.  Education and open source are a natural match, as you said, but getting that word out and scaling it as been far more difficult than anyone has imagined.  The barriers are more social than technical.  The next steps for the FLOSS Include project are to figure out just that problem.  For me it's a tiered approach that involves teacher training, educatiing policy and decision makers and getting out of the way of students and teachers who tackle such amazing work like these kids. 

There also needs to be a sponsored either commercial, governement or NGO that steps up and fully backs these efforts.  Unfortunately open source still suffers from a crediblity issue fed by proprietary vendors and even IT workers who do not fully appreciate or recognize just how viable open source solutions are.  That is slowly changing but still much slower than those involved in open source and education would like.

Liraz Siri's picture

It's no secret that proprietary vendors have the resources and motives to lobby against open source in government and education. Today's students are tomorrow's IT staff. That's a challenge.

I think it's a testament to the value open source provides that it's been gradually gaining momentum despite not having a comparable army of dedicated salespeople and lobbyists on the ground pushing it's adoption.

On the other hand, with all due respect to salespeople and lobbyists there's nothing more convincing that an authentic endorsement by someone who has direct positive experience with open source. So perhaps it wouldn't take that much to catalyze more people (like Rik) to get involved and spread the word, grassroots style, one person at a time.

One of the principle problems has been lack of awareness. People are naturally afraid of what they don't understand. Part of what we're trying to do with TurnKey is to bridge this gap. Make open source solutions so easy to try that anyone can do it. Use that as a hook to get people to consider the alternatives to closed, proprietary software.

Jeffrey Anthony's picture

I've been doing research and canvasing the local community of Portland, Maine attempting to set up a very similar open source peer classroom environment known as EPIC. I'm happy to hear it's working elsewhere. 

Anonymous's picture

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when I read: "According to Rik, the students reacted strongly to working with Ubuntu and the open source community. They were keenly interested in the community development process and were eager for feedback regarding their contributions. They read excerpts from Stallman on the philosophy behind the free software movement, and signed the Ubuntu Code of Conduct." Especially: "They read excerpts from Stallman on the philosophy behind the free software movement". Do you do realize the political aspects? You do understand that not everyone in the community agrees with these "excerpts from Stallman"). Do you realize the consequences of doing such political work in a public school?
Liraz Siri's picture

Open source software isn't any more political than science. In fact, it's inspired by the same spirit of collaboration that allows us to stand the shoulders of others and reach higher instead of continually reinventing the wheel.

Besides, I don't want to live in a society where schools censor any teachings that someone, somewhere might deem political or controversial. You'd have to throw out evolution, human rights, political science, economics, etc.

I personally don't agree with everything Stallman says and that's ok. There's nothing wrong with exposing students to a diverse range of ideas, even if you don't personally agree with some of them. Let them make up their own minds.

I'm not clear by what's meant by "politically correct" teaching. I'm especially unclear when "excerpts of Stallman" is criticized without questioning what specific texts were read or how they were read. That is a concern; to keep that in mind and give a substantive response is difficult.

That aside, reading, interpreting, and critiquing Stallman is as political a move as leaving him out of the discussion. Assigning Stallman without discussing the ramifications, the context, the political implications, and spaces for dissent from Stallman is as politically irresponsible as reading Thomas Jefferson, Locke, Du Boise, Rousseau, Mill, Woolf, or Joyce uncritically. Real political danger comes from those who teach with the assumption that they are doing so without making political assumptions.

Knowledge is political. When that assumption is shared by everyone in the learning community, students become invested and develop as critical thinkers. To dismiss the notion that knowledge is constructed and political may be more irresponsible than dismissing an act as politically correct by relying on false or fallacious assumptions.

Guest's picture

You guys are starting to sound like a cult to me. Makes me even glad that I quit using Linux a few years ago.

Liraz Siri's picture

Hate to break it to you, but unless you live under a rock you haven't stopped using Linux or open source software. It's literally everywhere. Especially on the web. You're just not using it on your client.

I invite you to give up all of your worldly possession and join us in the Church of Emacs. The end is nigh, repent!

Jeremy Davis's picture

I've made no secret previously about how impressed I am with what Rik's been doing but its great to see it so nicely written up all in one piece. I think its fantastic what Rik is able to offer these guys. Being able to allow students to actually create real world solutions rather than mickey mouse projects I think is fantastic. And what a confidence boost it must be for these students to have their product out in the public arena. Its exciting to hear others are looking at similar possibilities in their areas. I don't see how proprietry software could offer the same experience.

Great work Rik, great work students, great work Liraz & Alon. Turnkey Linux - what a team!!

Your encouragement throughout the process was enough to get us to overcome some of our most difficult obstacles. Your dialog is the purest example of what a strong community can look like that I can imagine.

Max's picture

That sounds like an awesome project! If any of those (incredibly talented) students happen to read this, they should really check out GNU Generation. It is a project by the FSF to support a community of high school aged students interested in software freedom. Hop on the IRC channel, shoot an email to the mailing list introducing yourself, or check out the Task Box to see what GNU Generation is all about!

I'll definitely be taking a careful look at GNU Generation and prolly ask my students about their impressions. Looks like one more great way for them to feel invested in the FOSS community. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

My thanks to Liraz and the rest of the community for your feedback, encouragement, and suggestions.

AddiyaB's picture

Wow! They are so great! You can seldom see kids like that nowadays. They are truly a proud of the school and especially their parents. Congratulations for the parents for raising their children well. Understanding universe and the bodies of it needs a lot of understanding and patience. Imagine that you are imagining yourself being one of the sand grain. That's amazing. This kids should be given special assignments and studies because I can see that they are having a great future on their hands.

Chintan Kanadia's picture

Nice One, we are trying for same in India

Vince 's picture

I looked at that "cave on mars" and I don't see it. I see a black hole in the center of the picture and another round thing next to it. But what intrigues me more are the 3 other round opjects in the upper right corner.

I agree with open source education. I think it's high time we change the way we teach kids these days. Not all of us learn the same way. Some of us learn by using auditory sensors, visual sensors and some learn by example or application (doing).

It doesn't surprise me at all the kids made this "discovery" (although I'd like to see some more photos) because it's not about how many degrees someone has, it has to do with motivation, persistence and drive.

Ryan Hall's picture

They've probably hidden it for another conspiracy theory at work. hehe

Regarding different types of learners, I agree that there are kids who learn more when they read, others learn more when they listen. Sadly, there aren't any schools that are willing to invest resources in trying to determine which kids learn the certain way...


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