Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

Beyond idealism: university-level training in free technology

“Software, technology, knowledge and culture should be free!” summarizes the battle cry of the activists of “free”. It’s only by by putting free technology in the hands of free and empowered people that one can achieve wider freedom in the 21st century, according to Benjamin Mako Hill. But this situation can only be achieved by realism, hard work and training.  “An education in free technology means an important step toward being able to realize ones autonomy as granted by free software” says Hill, who was a guest lecturer in the inaugural year of the Free Technology Academy (FTA). The FTA wants to provide university-level training to IT-professionals, educators, decision makes and IT-students. Is it possible to move beyond free activism and provide real-world training that appeals to university students and graduates and the market place? Is there a future for the Free Technology Academy? In order to answer this question, Jan Stedehouder, journalist and Dutch open source activist, looked into the first year results of the FTA and interviewed current students and the 2010 guest lecturers Benjamin Mako Hill and John “Maddog” Hall.

by Jan Stedehouder

The FTA was launched on January 25, 2010, with two courses: The concepts of Free Software and Open Standards and The GNU/Linux Operating System. With that, the FTA became the first international master-level program about Free Technologies. One year later seven courses had been taken 161 times by 75 students from 26 countries. Apart from tutoring by teachers from the participating universities the students got the chance to be taught by Jon “Maddog” Hall and Benjamin Mako Hill, with a guest lecture by Richard M. Stallman coming up in 2011.

“Free” doesn’t mean “gratis”. The FTA was made possible by a € 300.000 grant by the European Commission. The final report to the EC made for a perfect starting point to answer our questions.

The European building blocks of the Free Technology Academy

The FTA was created by a consortium consisting of the Free Knowledge Institute (The Netherlands), the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC, Spain), the University of Agder (Norway) and the Open University of the Nederlands. Their aim was, and is, to provide high quality training to IT-professionals, educators, decision makers and IT-students. Appropriate for the core topic of the training, free technology, the online learning environment needed to be build using free technology with all learning materials being made available under free licenses.

It wasn’t necessary to build the FTA from scratch. Its online learning environment was build upon the University Campus software developed by the UOC. The FTA Virtual Campus can use either Moodle or Sakai as learning management system. The SELF Platform, developed by the Free Knowledge Institute, was used in translating and pre-publishing the learning materials for some courses. The learning materials themselves were released as Open Educational Resources under the GNU Free Documentation License or Creative Commons ShareAlike license. Some of the materials were already available in Spanish and Catalan and were translated into English for the FTA.  And the FTA didn’t need a physical building as all course were offered via the virtual campus, using the method of distance learning.

The course programme was expanded gradually, beginning on January 25, 2010, with the courses “The concepts of Free Software and Open Standards” and “The GNU / Linux Operating System“. The second round, which began on April 26, 2010, offered the courses “Web Application Development “and” Software Development “. Round three, from September 6 onward, discussed “The concepts of Free Software and Open Standards”, “Legal aspects of the Information Society” and “Network Technologies“.  Thus, each round provided for a limited number of courses.  This changed in 2011. Students can now choose from a wider range of courses in each round. Students of the UOC, the Open University and the University of Agder can obtain credits for their regular university training by successfully completing FTA-courses.

Though all materials can be downloaded for free (as in “free beer”) from the website, following an FTA course isn’t “gratis”. Each three-month course carries a tuition fee of € 380, –.  In the third round of courses 17 scholarships were granted to students from developing countries.

Throughout its first year the FTA expanded its international appeal by developing a network of partner organisations and educational institutions. This network focuses on sharing knowledge and experience, on cooperation and on establishing the FTA as a full Masters program.

Is there really a need for free technology education?

Both in the industry as in government the use of free and open source software continues to grow, and with that the demand for skilled IT-staff. So, yeas, there is a need for more expertise on free technology is by IT-professionals, teachers and decision makers who decide on the procurement and deployment of IT.

Jon “Maddog” Hall looks at the FTA from an educational perspective: “First of all, you have to realize that FTA is oriented toward a Master’s Degree, which means that the student should have an undergraduate degree. For me the question really goes to the fundamental goal of higher education.  I have always felt that the goal of undergraduate study is how to learn from books, how to gather data and create information. The Master’s Degree is to practice finding a problem and solve it, and the PhD is the culmination of all of that. Ergo I think the most important thing about FTA is not to provide “training”, but to show people how to use free and open source software to solve problems, and (more importantly) show them how to contribute their own learnings”.

Speaking about ‚free technology’ without taking a higher, more ideological framework into account is almost impossible.  At least, it is important for Benjamin Mako Hill, a free technology activist. “An important reason, and the one that makes me most interested in the project (FTA), is that it helps increase the number of people who are empowered and able to determine how their technology works. Technology defines what I can say, how I can say it, when I can say it, and even who I can say it to”. He compares it to describing a beautiful sunset which you want to describe to a loved one on the other side of the world. “Today’s communication technology makes this possible. In the process, however, the technology in question puts constraints on message communicated. For example, if I pick up my cell phone, my description of the sunset will be limited to words and sounds that can be transmitted by phone. If I happen to have a camera phone and the ability to send a picture message, I will be able to communicate a very different type of description. If I’m limited to 150 characters in an SMS message, my message will be constrained differently again”.

Considering the possibilities and constraints of technology the question arises who controls the technology: “As information technology becomes increasingly central to our lives, the way we experience, understand, and act in the world is increasingly controlled by technology and, by extension, by those who control technology.” According to Benjamin the struggle for freedom in the 21st century boils down to obtaining the freedom to control your own technology. “Free software can be understood as an answer to this question: An answer in the form of an unambiguous statement that technology must be under the control of its users. When free software triumphs, we  will live in a world where users control their technological destiny. We simply cannot afford to fail”. Education in free technology is an important element to achieve this: “In this sense, an education in free technology means an important step toward being able to realize ones autonomy as granted by free software. By creating people who not only control technology but do it with a strong basis in free technology, they do a huge service both to themselves and to the rest of the world”.

Are people interested in following FTA courses?

This is all fine and well, but is it worth paying € 380,– per course for? Are people willing to pay to be trained in what is essentially free? The answer is yes. The report to the European Commission mentions the following numbers of students enrolled in the various courses:

Round Participants
1 68
2 43
3 50
Total 161

Most students came from the Netherlands (33), then from Belgium (7), Germany (5), Uganda (4), Brazil (3), Rwanda (2) and Tanzania (2). The other students came from 19 different countries each.

Participation by students from the Spanish and Norwegian consortium partners was almost absent (one from Norway, none from Spain). Wouter Tebbens of the Free Knowledge Institute can explain this: “The UOC offers a full masters program in Spanish and Catalan which makes it less likely for students to participate in the courses given in English at the FTA. The University of Agder (Norway) joined the consortium later on which might explain the low participation from Norway”. The two Dutch members of the consortium were both founding members and widely published the new FTA in their respective networks.

Most students were IT-professionals with full-time jobs who wished to deepen their knowledge on free technology. A second group consisted of teachers. The professional background of the students is visible in the average age of the participants.

The FTA also wanted to attract decision makers as students. It appears this group mostly participated in the first course (The concepts of Free Software and Open Standards). The staff isn’t completely sure, as not all students provided information on their professional backgrounds.

The report to the European Commission mentions a high level of satisfaction by the students. The interviews with two students, Peter Rock (Canada) and Harry Thijssen (The Netherlands) seem to confirm this.

Peter Rock (38, IT-teacher on a secondary school) works with and teaches about free software since 2001. So, he is not a novice in this field. „I am taking the ‚Concept of Free Software and Open Standards’ at the moment. It is a general course and a good portion is review for me. But part of it is brand new and I am learning a lot from this course“.  He is going through the FTA modules one at a time: „I am a full-time teacher, I don’t have enough time to go at a faster pace“. For Peter, enrolling in the FTA is an investment (he pays the fees out of his own pocket) into one day getting his Masters’ degree. „I completed my B.Ed in 1998 and wanted to pursue my masters’ degree for some time, but I needed it to be a program that matched/meshed with something I was really interested in“. Though getting a full masters’ isn’t possible with the FTA at the moment, Peter hopes it can be achieved one day.

Harry Thijssen (54, working for the government) is an experienced IT-professional and an active supporter of the development of PSPP, an open source version of the statistical software SPSS (helps with translation and building the Windows version of PSPP). The financial support of his employer allowed him to participate in four courses. „My employer stimulates the professional development of it’s employees. The courses we want to follow need to be reasonably priced and be put to practical use immediately. The FTA courses meet those requirements and are in line with the Dutch governments’ action plan for open standards and open source software, Netherlands Open in Connection“. The virtual campus with students from various countries were one of the attractions for Harry: „Free and open source software appeals to me and in my opinion there will be an increasing demand for it in the coming years. The courses are not locked-in to vendors and not even to countries which brings the knowledge and skills to a more abstract and a more widely applicable level. And it’s just fun to realize that, in principle, a researcher in some research station in the Antarctic or a sailor on ship somewhere between Shanghai and Rotterdam can both participate in the FTA without any problems“.

Collaborative learning, distance learning

What comes to mind when you hear about a virtual campus and distance learning? The freedom to study where and when you want to. The FTA does provide distance learning and collaborative learning via the virtual campus, but its courses are offered with specific starting and ending dates. Lex Bijlsma, from the Open University and responsible for the FTA, states this was a deliberate decision. „Our traditional model of distance learning allowed students to begin a course whenever they wanted to and finish it a their own speed. However, we did notice a substantial dropout due to loss of motivation. The last couple of years we experimented with a new model of distance learning, with fixed start- and ending dates and help from professional tutors. It had a profound impact on the study results“.

For Peter, currently working at the Kaohsiung American School (Taiwan) and who taught on schools in Egypt, Canada, Lebanon and Cameroun, this method works. By following the FTA courses, he was able to work and learn together with like-minded people: „I can now study these topics with experts  and fellow students from around the world who share a desire to learn  about these matters. I also like the fact that many (though not all)  fellow students see acquiring knowledge of free technologies as a way  to help make life better for others.“ All course materials are available online but „enrolling in  a class provides an easy opportunity to form relationships with others  interested in the same topic and receive feedback and teaching from a  knowledgeable instructor“.  To interact with guest lecturers like John „Maddog“ Hall en Benjamin Mako Hill added to Peter’s positive experience with the FTA. „I feel quite fortunate to be able to engage in discussion with these experienced Free Software personalities“.

Teaching via the virtual campus was a bit of a challenge for Benjamin Mako Hill. He recorded his lecture at home, sitting behind his laptop. “Lecturing to my laptop in an empty room makes it difficult to gauge one’s audience. It makes it harder to ask questions and to tailor one’s message. I find that, as a lecturer, I tend to really feed off audience dynamics. Keeping energy high while talking to myself in an empty room is hard. Perhaps I would get used to if I did it a lot. As it stood, I thought my ability to communicate was lessened”. Benjamin did see some benefits: “I really enjoyed the ability to talk to lots of people who, due to distance and limits on travels (both theirs and mine) I would never have reached. More than 8,000 people have seen my lecture to date. I’ve never talked to a room that big. The potential of reaching more people is certainly a benefit of this model”. The virtual campus allowed for other forms of interaction: “The online back and forth is useful and leads to some very thoughtful discussion. I really enjoyed it and found it very fruitful. That said, there are benefits to the urgency that real time communication brings as well. I’m not sure which form of discussion I like more”.

Fixing bugs, promoting re-use

FTA’s first year served as a shakedown cruise to fine tune the new program. As an example, in the second round the tutor for „Economic aspects of Free Software“ became ill and a replacement couldn’t be found on such short notice. Thus the FTA decided that, in principle, each course now has a backup tutor to prevent this from happening in the future. It also appeared that some learning materials were outdated (for instance lacking attention for HTML 5) or limited in scope (as noted in the course module Open Networks).

Part of the learning materials had been developed by the UOC and translated into English for use in the FTA. Other learning materials were developed specifically for the FTA. Currently all ten books can be downloaded in PDF and ePub formats, or ordered via print-on-demand. To stimulate the collaborative development of the learning materials, all books will be made available in either DocBook or LaTex. The virtual campus will provide the tools necessary to work on the learning materials in teams.

The re-use of these Spanish materials is noteworthy. The Netherlands more often has an Anglo-Saxon orientation. The Bulgarian Varna Free University (VFU) recently joined the partner network and aims to offer the FTA-program in Bulgarian. Wouter Tebbens considers this a good example of the use of free technology: „The UOC, together with 9 Spanish Universities and the MIT, invested strongly in the campus technology which, in turn and together with already developed learning materials provided a good foundation for the FTA. Currently, the Tampere University of Technology (Finland) offers a course in open source software based on the FTA-course book „Introduction to Free Software“. The VFU wants to offer a complete masters’ program based on FTA materials, which they only need to translate into Bulgarian. ‚Free’ doesn’t mean ‚gratis’, but every investment is made only once“.

Avenues for further growth

Can the FTA gain enough traction to continue after the first year? How many students are needed to offer a sustainable programme of higher education in free technology? Wouter Tebbens is confident it is possible to achieve a sustainable programme: „You have to remember that most running costs are directly related to the number of actual students and active courses. With the virtual campus we don’t need to pay for a physical infrastructure. We estimate that with 20 to 25 courses a year, and 25 students average for each, we can continue to offer the FTA-program on a sustainable level“.

In order to achieve this kind of enrollment the FTA wants to expand its network of partners. „The FTA-model is actually quite attractive for universities. If they want to offer a course in free technology, all they have to do is use what has been developed already. If needed, students can enroll in courses offered by FTA-partners. Every institute for higher education can begin right now, without prior investment to in-house knowledge. And from there on there are many opportunities for cooperation and exchange“.

Developing a full Masters’ program is next on the list. „We are working on it“, explains Wouter. „We have a working group of universities designing the curriculum for the Masters’ program“. Recently it was decided to go forward and it is now the matter of funding that decides when the Free Technology Master’s becomes a reality.

Jon „Maddog“ Hall counsels the FTA to stay on a realistic course: „Avoid the Free Software people who are not realists.  As FOSS people we should aim for the ideal, but recognize that we are in a transition, and it takes time.  Lecturers should recognize that FOSS has warts and problems as well as great features, and be honest with the students on these.  Likewise companies are not all evil.  They do not all sit there trying to disenfranchise users.  There are real reasons why some of them to the things they do”.

Current FTA students won’t have to worry about the market value of the FTA courses, according to Benjamin Mako Hill: „There is more free software (in terms of number of applications and number of installations) than there was last year. This has been the case for basically every year for the last 25 years. So yes, it seems clear that there will be rising demand.”

Peter Rock has a clear answer to the question: “How should the FTA develop from here?”: “Continuing to add more courses as options would be great though I understand that doing so requires resources and the FTA should focus on making what they have solid, before expanding. I also think focusing on bringing in quality instructors is key. I don’t have a particular complaint, but making sure all instructors meet a minimum of expectations and are given opportunities to learn how best to run an online class can help. If students continue to have a good experience, the program as a whole has a much better chance of getting stronger and growing”. So far, the FTA lived up to his expectations.

Harry Thijssen wouldn’t mind a stronger international presence in the FTA: “I believe the discussions in the virtual class will benefit if there is a wider geographical participation. At this moment most students come from the Netherlands, the Flemish part of Belgium and Germany”. He sees a need for stronger PR, but, as he states: “this goes for the entire free software ecosystem”. A higher enrollment will benefit the quality of the education, he believes: “The tutors now work part time for the FTA and have to share their time with other responsibilities. If the number of students increases, so does the amount of time they can spend on the FTA”.

The Free Technology Academy contributes, in his opinion, to a higher quality in the use and promotion of free technology. “The FTA enhances your knowledge in free software and provides a better image of what it involves. With these university-level certificates you can add weight to your arguments”.

Finally, determining the added value of the Free Technology Academy

There are various ways to describe the added value the Free Technology Academy provides. In terms of value for the development of free technology, for governments and industry and for the students and their value on the labor market. Peter Rock points to a value that most free software activists will subscribe to: „I am taking the courses because I care about Free Software and find these studies personally enriching. Perhaps these classes will lead to something in the future but my plan is to continue teaching. I do however, bring some knowledge from these courses into my teaching. As I said, I teach IT classes using Free Software (like GNU/Linux) so my courses only help make my instruction better.” And this will be of benefit to a lot of new students.

About the author

Jan Stedehouder writes about open source, open standards, open content and everything else free and open. He wrote multiple books on Linux and open source and contributed articles about Linux and *BSD to various media. As an open source activist he is passionate about achieving sustainable, independent and secure access to one’s own digital information.

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