Monday, January 18, 2010

Role of teachers in the Edubuntu Community, and more...

I'm not sure who I'm quoting from the Edubuntu list, but in some heated discussion, someone said, "Edubuntu is not software, it's a Community!". That stuck with me. Sure, it is also software and it has been the focus of the community, but still the best thing about Edubuntu is the community. Programmers, advocates in education, and advocates outside of education are key groups that make up this community. And, what a nice community: a community of volunteers and intellects and people who choose to work with children! All groups play separate and also extensively interwoven roles; each group is critical for the success of the whole.

Disclaimer: This post is not meant to be complete!  It doesn't focus on the critical roles of the students, of the supporters of the technology environment, of the evangelists, of the family-based users of Edubuntu, of the philanthropic supporters of open source software nor of the district-level technology leadership.  Nonetheless, it addresses a part of the puzzle.

First and foremost, there are programmers who may also be part of an educational enterprise. Some programmers get paid to develop but most don't; all seem to be volunteers to some degree as all develop the software beyond their work day. These programmers create the software and the documentation and often the wiki 'help pages'. Also, they are a backbone of support via the user list serve and irc for those who are the implementers of the software in the classroom. They are often the visionaries who know the software-context (ie the larger code environment and established social network) and lead the way to the future products. In conclusion, programmers are the producers of products, the producers of knowledge, the providers of help.

Teachers and other implementers of the software are the 'front-line' members of the community. They are often employed in this role though some are not. They all seem to be volunteers in the sense that successfully using Edubuntu requires work beyond their regular work day. These people provider meaning for the community--they are the ones who create the environment where students actually use the fruit of the labor of the programmers. In the communication channels of the community, the list-serves and the irc, these people (especially those most-novice users of the software) are mainly present when seeking help with software and hardware problems. Occasionally, these implementers of the software (I'll call them 'teachers' though it is broader than that group) give ideas for greater functionality and identify bugs in the software, providing a service to the programmers, however they usually represent themselves as consumers of the products provided by the programmers.

I'm seeing 2 issues and some possible solutions. 
  1. The first issue is that teachers are mainly present in the community as consumers of resources in the current communication channels of the community. in other words, it is rare that programmers 'see' the hundreds, the thousands of students in the classes who benefit from what they have made!  In other words, programmers miss out on seeing the great things that their labors make possible.
  2. Additionally, the professional knowledge of teachers is not shared, not developed in our community. How often do you see in the irc or list-serves questions about how to focus students attention on learning the main functionality of tuxtype, for example?
I'm NOT proposing that these questions enter into our current communication channels! What we have currently seem especially well suited for exactly what they are doing at this time. I'm proposing that teachers use 3 new channels of communication:
  1. a new irc eg "#edubuntu-in-action",
  2. a list-serve for teaching in Edubuntu-empowered classrooms where teaching challenges can be addressed,
  3. and an already existent community resource where lesson ideas can be created, co-developed, and reused ie http://LeMill.net.
It is obvious how these additional channels would benefit the implementers of Edubuntu software, the 'teachers'. And, by improving the use of Edubuntu in the classroom it would indirectly benefit the community as a whole but it could also provide direct utility to the programmers by providing a window into the often invisible and private environment where the fruits of their labors are actually realized, where the resultant joys and needs can be more directly seen.

I'm also proposing a new 'member' that is, a new group of members in our community.  I think our community would be more powerful, exciting and diverse if we also had educational researchers here, providing their interests and resources.  The Finnish educational research team that created the LeMill software which powers the site mentioned above and other awesome open source software also produced this quote: "In educational research, software is the hypothesis".  In other words, software plays a critical role in their work.  We could use their (any interested ed researcher) ideas and knowledge and possible financial resources, they could use our ideas, knowledge and implementation of their ideas.  And again, together we would be stronger.

I recently saw a comment on #edubuntu: "I love publicly funded [software] development!"  I've also seen it said on the list-serves that, when major leadership of the Edubuntu community was provided by a financially-based enterprise (Canonical), the leadership and participation by volunteers atrophied.  So, I've really got no idea how public software development monies could be positively infused into our community but at least the possibility is there.  As a teacher who is not more than 2 years away from also becoming an educational researcher, I see much possible synergy between researchers and the current Edubuntu community.

What do you think?  Should we expand our community with additional channels of communication specifically designed for 'teachers'?  Should we seek to invite educational researchers into our community?  Any proposal such as this is fraught with the dangers and benefits of change.  What are the risks and what are the benefits as you see them?

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