How an open-source education can help students gain an edge

Commentary: Many colleges are proficient at using open-source technologies, but they're lagging when it comes to teaching the benefits of open-source development.

Colleges and universities have long used open source to build their websites, create educational software, improve access to learning tools and more. Some, such as San Jacinto College , are actually making college more accessible and affordable through innovative uses of open-source software. Others, including Indiana University , are actively part of the Open Source Initiative .

But although they are proficient at using open-source technologies, many colleges and universities appear to be lagging when it comes to teaching the benefits of open-source development. Even schools that focus on technology offer limited numbers of open-source development classes.

The Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) is an exception to that rule, having launched the nation’s first interdisciplinary minor in free and open-source software and free culture. RIT recognized a growing demand for open-source development skills among employers that want to accelerate innovation within their companies by hiring developers who have experience working in open-source communities.

Indeed, according to a 2018 report by The Linux Foundation , hiring open-source talent is a top priority for most hiring managers. Clearly, there is an opportunity for institutions of higher education to equip their students with key skills that will serve them well in our open-source-powered world.


The right place to cultivate open-source talent

Fortunately, colleges and universities are in prime positions to create the next generation of open-source developers, primarily due to their deep familiarity with the technology. The higher education sector has been using open source for at least a decade. In fact, many colleges are actively involved in global open-source projects or have set up their own.

Moreover, the culture found within most universities reflects the collaboration and creativity that has become the hallmark of the open-source development community. That community functions very differently from a development group at a proprietary software company, which starts at the management level and then proceeds in an orderly hierarchical fashion.

Open-source software development is less structured and more free flowing, relying on the ideas and (sometimes brutally honest) input from developers from different backgrounds. Like a team of students working on a group project, open-source software is created from code written by many different contributors, some of whom may be halfway around the world, constantly iterating, innovating and having fun.

As such, an open-source curriculum can expose students to various like-minded people from different and diverse backgrounds while preparing them to be better technologists and work in a field that demands their services.


Preparing students for open organizations

It is also no coincidence that many of the organizations seeking open-source skills have adopted the methodologies that define open-source software development. They want young people with fresh ideas, but they also want people who know how to work with and seek input from others.

Simultaneously, college graduates want to make sure their voices are heard, not be shot down because they suggested something their bosses may not have considered. Exposing them to the world of open-source development while they are still in school helps amplify these voices by giving them the chance to develop their own code, have it critiqued, modified, shared and enhanced by their peers.

It also creates a body of work that spruces up their resumes, which, combined with internships, distinguishes them from their peers and demonstrates their communication skills and work habits. This experience prepares them for the work that lies ahead in organizations that have become far more open to the input of many rather than a few.

No more old-school thinking


Colleges and universities must recognize the value in teaching open-source software development. They must encourage students to work with the community and develop their own code and commit it into control systems like Git . They must formulate and create courses that involve discussions and hands-on experience with the latest open-source tools and collaboration practices. And they must support educators committed to teaching open-source development processes and invest in curricula that take their knowledge of open source directly to students so they have the best possible chances for success after they graduate.

Bill Hirsch is a senior solution architect at Red Hat.

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