Educating the Next Generation of FOSS Developers

Luis Ibanez (KITWARE Inc.)
Location: D133
Average rating: ****.
(4.00, 6 ratings)

The engineers that you will be hiring in 2015 are now sitting in college classrooms all across the country. Many are now being trained in the exclusive use of proprietary products, plagued with restrictive licenses. They often don’t know what a command line is, much less what ssh or netstat are. Most of them will never see a piece of code longer than 500 lines during their entire college education. Most of them have never read a software license. Many of them still wonder if Free and Open Source Software is used in real-life applications. Most of them are puzzled by the idea that a business model may be based on giving away something for free. We have been collectively raising an entire generation of engineers who are ignorant of the essential inner-workings of hardware and software due to the widespread use of proprietary products in college campuses which has prevented them from learning how things really work.

This talk is about how we are changing this unacceptable state of affairs and how you can join us in this endeavor. For three years now, we have taught a course on Open Source Software Practices at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). In this talk we will describe our experiences in teaching this class and our many experiments, including success and failure reports. We will also be looking for your advice and suggestions on ways we can improve our teaching practices.

Some details about the Open Source Software Practices class at RPI:

Our course at RPI covers four main areas: (1) laws and software, (2) economics and collaborative means of production, (3) social implications, and (4) software engineering practices. The course covers, in depth, topics on copyright, patents, trademarks, collaboration platforms, business models, social freedom, and community participation. Students get practical experience in practices of test-driven development, agile development, and participation in distributed teams. As part of the course, students are required to participate and contribute to an open source project. They have the option of starting a project from scratch or joining an existing project. The guiding principle of the course is to empower students to find their own way in the prolific environment of open source communities, by giving them a background that will allow them to make educated decisions along the way.

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Luis Ibanez


Luis Ibáñez is a Technical Leader at Kitware Inc. He has been working on open source software for more than ten years. He is an expert on medical image analysis. For three years he has been the main instructor of the Open Source Software Practices course at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). He is also editor of the Insight Journal, an Open Access publication that enforces reproducibility of scientific research via the use of open source software.

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Luis Ibanez
07/24/2010 2:17am PDT


Thank for the comment.

Yes, your point is well taken. I underestimated how much the attendees were already convinced of the importance of getting involved in Education.

This is indeed, great news, because it means that we can now focus on working together to make this happen at a larger scale and with higher quality.

The place to join is “TeachingOpenSource”

The mailing list is:

For all of you who are preparing an Open Source Course, there is reusable material at:

In particular, all the presentations of the RPI Course are available under a CC-By License at:

Some of the big questions at the end of the talk were:

  1. “How to replicate these courses ?”
  2. “How to make this at a larger scale” ?

Options that come to mind are:

  1. Identifying CTOs and CIOs (in industry and government) who are already aware of the importance of FOSS and have them talk to Deans in CS, EE, MBA, and Law departments.(or at least to publish a joint white paper on the matter).
  2. Bringing FOSS ambassadors to Education meetings to raise awareness among the Higher Education community.
  3. Build a larger body of educational material than can be shared and improved (presentations, videos, hands-on labs…). This will reduce the cost-of-entry for professors who are new to teaching FOSS, since they will only have to pick and adapt the material that they want to use.
  4. Setting up a system for bringing notable FOSS speakers to campuses. We have found this to be highly effective at RPI, to dispel the still popular misconception that FOSS is a fringe activity. It is particularly effective to have speakers from mainstream business who have adopted FOSS in some of their IT infrastructure. There are many people in campus, both faculty and students, who are still wondering if FOSS is used in “real” companies. Nothing fixes that better than having speakers from mainstream business being outspoken about the reasons why they adopted FOSS solutions.

...maybe it is time to collect this in a blog, instead of a comment…

Laurie White
07/22/2010 7:20am PDT

This talk was far too much preaching to the choir. We know that this is important; we’re here to see how you address the problem. Putting the syllabus up for 5 seconds made it impossible to see the solution. If you give this again, focus more on the course, the student reactions, and the challenges in teaching it. We already know FOSS is important.

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