Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Faculty Development in the Style of Open Source

In December 2004 I attended the Sakai conference in New Orleans. There was a lot of energy at it and enthusiasm for the possible. This was still fairly early in the Sakai development and I remember thinking after sitting through a developer session that these guys were talking at a too high level (this was a discussion about the Sakai Content Management System) and they needed to make some concrete decisions just so they had something real to hang things on. I came to the conference partly as a good citizen because my campus had just joined SPP and I wanted to show the flag, along with Ken Spelke, Associate Dean for Information Technology in our Graduate School of Library and Information Science, who is the PI from our campus, and because I was and continue to be a bit of a Doubting Thomas vis-à-vis Sakai. So I wanted to find out for myself what was going on – to the extent I could understand that – while I know some developers and consider them to be friends, spending a couple of days listening to them talk about their work is not my definition of fun, especially since I’m not really able to follow a conversation “in geek.” Apparently I was not alone in that view and the organizers understood they would have some illiterates at the conference. So they had an Executive Session meant for the paper pushers in the crowd, led by Joseph Hardin of Michigan and Brad Wheeler of Indiana, two of the primary leaders of the Sakai Project. That session was more intelligible for me.

The single biggest take away for me from that conference was a reference to a book that Hardin and others raved about called The Success of Open Source, by Steven Weber. Sakai was riding high on the popularity and the mystery of open source software development. Weber’s book unlocks that mystery. It is a serious read and well worthwhile. I thought about assigning it as one of the readings for my Honors Econ 101 class this semester. Topic-wise it is perfect, because it provides a thorough analysis of an alternative to a market mechanism that seemingly overcomes the Free Rider Problem in production of a Public Good. But I decided it was too hard and perhaps impenetrable by my students, bright as they are, maybe next time.

None of this would have occurred to me had it not been for the fact that a week or so ago I got a phone call from a reporter for our Faculty-Staff news weekly, Inside Illinois. She was writing a story about the new Web technologies and how they were being utilized around campus. She had found my blog and asked me a few questions about it, notably when I got started with it and why. Normally when I get interviewed by a reporter from the student newspaper, the Daily Illini, I have some clue beforehand because my secretary alerts me to the fact that they called and what they are interested in. So I can do a modest amount of preparation mentally, just to frame the issues for myself. This time there was no preparation and I felt that my responses, though truthful, were a bit inadequate and that I could have given something other than my stock response had I been more reflective. Perhaps the Sakai conference and reading Weber’s book created a spirit in me for being more open and the blogging was my attempt at satisfying that spirit. I don’t know. I believe I had a complex set of motives and this could very well have been a part.

This is all connected to something else that has been fermenting in me for the last month or two. A very long time ago, when I was leading the SCALE project, I had an interview with Chip Bruce who was then a faculty member in our College of Education; I believe this was at his request. (Chip has since moved to the College of Library and Information Science.) He had just come back from China and in the haze of my memory fragments of the time, we were meeting about online learning as it related to that trip. Somewhere during the discussion we started to talk about evaluation of online learning and Chip said something that has stuck with me since. (I should note here that I had an intimate acquaintance with the SCALE evaluation but I got involved a little late on that and so mostly was concerned with the faculty interviews and the presentation of the results, but never really had a chance to engage in the framing of how the evaluation was done until we started the SCALE Efficiency Projects.) Chip said that we’re too concerned with summative evaluation, thumbs up or thumbs down, and asking whether the technology is beneficial for learning. He said that instead we should be asking what might seem to be simpler questions – what is the behavior as a consequence of the technology implementation? What do people do, both students and instructors? Don’t ask whether what they do is good or bad, just record what they do, if you can observe it, or if you can’t but can learn from the participants through their reflections of what they do, then record that.

I’ve treated Chip’s advice as truth all these years but not really had a chance to incorporate much of it into my own job. Then recently, doing my regular patrol of Edu blog posts, I ran across Glenda Morgan’s post on Ethnography of Academic Technology, and it triggered a connection in me. Because I was already thinking along these lines I was delighted to see that particular post. It was encouragement that the time is ripe to consider the type of approach I want sketch out in my next few posts – that we do ethnography not as outsiders but as participants in faculty development, which in turn is schemed along the lines of an open source software project. In the remainder of this post, I want to mention a few other sources of connection that are important in tying the ideas together.

At the time of reading Weber’s book, I became aware of The Cathedral and The Bazaar, by Eric Raymond. As I knew it is an ethnographic treatment of open source, my first instinct after reading Glenda’s post was to read this, though by now it is perhaps eight or nine years old, with the latest copyright dating to 2000. Though there is technical gobbledygook in it, there is much that is really worth reading and it is a fairly short Web essay, so unlike Weber’s book, it is accessible to everyone. I am going to rely on it in much of what I have to say. It seems to me it has a lot of excellent points and a good part of what I’d like to know is whether those ideas can translate to other environments that are in some ways similar in that they too are about solving novel problems but are dissimilar in that they are not about software development. Raymond seems to be a smart guy and he makes a very good argument and so much of what he says seems like it would transfer.

But on one key issue he seems totally blind and I’m not getting why, so I want to make that explicit here in case I’m missing something. The Bazaar is Raymond’s metaphor for open source and the essay is about why it is a superior way to develop complex software. (Linux is the quintessential example. Raymond’s essay proves that the methodology behind Linux is replicable because he employs essentially the same approach in leading his own software development for something called Fetchmail. Indeed, his ethnography is based on his own experiences with the Fetchmail development.) The Cathedral, on the other hand, represents proprietary software development as done inside a large corporation such as Sun, IBM, and Microsoft. (Note that these companies have to some extent embraced the open source approach and invested in it.) One of Raymond’s key points is that by assembling hackers who choose to work on some particular code at their own volition, and have them interact with a community of other hackers via bug detection and code fixes, as mediated by a central manager of the sources code (Linus Torvalds in the case of Linux, Raymond himself in the case of Fetchmail), where there are rapid releases of new versions of the code so the hackers have a dynamic environment in which to play and apply their skills, makes for the right type of environment motivation-wise and can nonetheless scale in a decentralized way so also makes for the right type of environment coordination-wise. This seems correct and is the genius of open source.

But hackers need to make some money to live on. Most hackers do their open source coding on the side. They have another job. Some companies, such as IBM, hire programmers to devote toward open source development and obviously that is an important part of sustaining software such as Linux. But there is still much of the coding being done by hackers who have other work. In this sense, the other work subsidizes the hacking, because those folks have to eat and have a roof over their head, and computers to work on, etc. For Raymond’s argument to carry through, the day job of the hacker has to be orthogonal to the hacking work. It pays the rent but is otherwise unrelated to the open source coding. Because if it were related, then the employer at the day job would likely be building a Cathedral and then the awkward conclusion that Raymond would have to make is that the Bazaar is built with the Cathedral (or many Cathedrals) as the base. For whatever reason, Raymond seems to ignore this point. When I translate the argument to faculty development and want to consider faculty members in an analogous role to hackers, I will be very cognizant of their day jobs as researchers and teachers.

Here is one other distinct reference worth mentioning. In David Brooks’ most recent column in the New York Times, All Politics is Thymotic, (you must subscribe to Times Select for the link to work) he identifies the core source of motivation for political behavior and it happens to be the identical source of motivation for Raymond’s hackers. We crave recognition. Finding a mechanism to allow us to express this craving and to thereby earn recognition is perhaps a way of getting human behavior to act in service of the public good. Both Raymond and Brooks make this point. Brooks adds, however, that the thirst for recognition can very well act in selfish manner against the public good, and can be the source for all sorts of hubris, as evidenced by the Bush administration. I think we in the blogosphere understand this lesson well. So in making our translation of open source to faculty development, and in trying to tie Thymotic motivation into faculty exploration of teaching approaches, we should be aware of the risks in that. It might backfire.

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