Analysis of the Informal Learning Environment of FLOSS (Free / Libre Open Source Software) Communities

TitleAnalysis of the Informal Learning Environment of FLOSS (Free / Libre Open Source Software) Communities
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2007
AuthorsGlott, R, Meiszner, A, Sowe, SK
Date PublishedJuly

The general concept behind Free/Libre/Open Source Software (henceforth FLOSS) is making the source code of software accessible to anyone who wants to obtain it. Binaries or executables are available via the Internet and can be 'freely' downloaded and used. Prolific licensing agreements such as the General Public License (GPL) define the rights users have over the product. In the literature, many terms are in use to describe the FLOSS phenomenon. Notably, Free Software (FS), a term used by Free Software Foundation (FSF) and Open Source Software (OSS) used by the Open Source Initiative (OSI). In addition, Free Open Source Software (FOSS), Libre Software (LS), and Free/Libre/Open Source Software (FLOSS) are terms frequently used by researchers. In this report the term FLOSS is used to refer to users??? freedom to use, modify, distribute, or even sell the software with little obligations as in propriety or closed source software. When a user modifies the software, he/she can either choose to keep changes made private or altruistically return them to the FLOSS community so that everyone can benefit from his derived work. FLOSS development did not begin with the inception of the Linux operating system, in 1991. Rather, the concept existed since the formation of SHARE ??? a working group set up to coordinate the programming work of the IBM 701, in 1952 (Sowe, 2007b). In the academic environment, software development and distribution among researchers and departments is not new, and goes back to the earliest days of software in university environments when software was developed to solve practical problems and could be freely shared. However, what is now true is that FLOSS has fundamentally changed the way we develop and distribute software. Enable by the Internet, geographically distributed individuals voluntarily contribute to a project by means of the Bazaar model (Raymond, 1999). Extensive peer collaboration allows project participants to write code, debug, test, and integrate software. Communities in various projects provide support services such as suggestions for products features, act as distributing organs, answer queries, help new members having problems with the software. FLOSS development not only exemplifies a viable software development approach, but also a model for the creation of self-learning and self-organizing communities (Sowe, et al. 2006c). FLOSS is also a virtual learning context in which both professional software developers and novice users benefit by leveraging their knowledge and information access repertoire. The context enable them to participate at their own convenience and learn (coding or other software related task) at their own pace (Sowe, et al. 2005; page 297). Furthermore, learners can conclude on the learning scope themselves (what to do) and decide on the method of acquiring the knowledge (how to do it). Knowledge acquisition is accomplished, for example, by having access to a large code-base, studying online documentation, asking more experienced members for assistance. In essence knowledge is acquired in FLOSS through learning by doing, which represents the drill-and-practice approach in normal constructivist environments. However, the FLOSS virtual learning context is not without its downside. Apart from physical isolation and detachment from face-to-face interaction commonly associated with virtual learning environments, learning in FLOSS requires access to Internet and moderate computer facilities. In addition, a high degree of computer literacy, reading, writing, and typing is required to participate effectively. The environment is also not conflict free. Flaming, the feeling of being ignored in a dominant discussion, disinterestedness, long delays in receiving responses from communities, the expenditure of searching through discussion archives to see issues previously raised in the communities, access rights to participate in some community activities are all major concerns in the management of the FLOSS learning context (Sowe, et al. 2005). In recent times, FLOSS is making inroads not only in business and software industries but in colleges and universities as well. There is increased interest in the FLOSS learning environment (Sowe, et al., 2004; Bacon and Dillion, 2006) and in FLOSS projects as bazaars of learning (Sowe, et al., 2006). As Faber (2002) noted, FLOSS is both an alternative teaching methodology and an educational model. The main objective of FLOSSCom is using the principles of informal learning environments of FLOSS communities to improve Information and Communication Technology (ICT) supported formal education. Despite the influence and popularity of FLOSS and the benefit inherent in its methodology, educational institutions have been slow to adapt. This can partly due to the fact that the FLOSS environment is fundamentally different from the formal learning environment in most institutions. The focus of this report is collate and report on the learning activities of individuals in various FLOSS communities. The report benefits from the experiences and expositions of various authors in order to provide a synergy and a fresh look into the learning environment of FLOSS communities. FLOSS communities, like other online communities (e.g. Community of Practice (CoPs)) have many interrelated elements that define the dynamics of the community. As such, this report is divided into 5 major sections, each focusing on a specific aspect of the learning environment of FLOSS communities with a 6th section summarizing the main findings. Section 1: The first part of the report is an introduction to FLOSS. The historical account of FLOSS is presented together with the many meanings of the term. This is followed by the demographic distribution of FLOSS participants and an explanation of what FLOSS communities are. Section 2: The next chapter examines the role of learning and knowledge exchange within the FLOSS community. It includes a description of the composition and roles of members within communities and what motivates various groups of individuals to participate in FLOSS. Section 3: After clarifying the role of learning in the FLOSS community the next chapter focuses on the content of learning processes in FLOSS. This chapter examines both, what skills are learnt and how the skills learnt within the FLOSS community are evaluated. The latter aspect is considered from the perspective of FLOSS community members as well as from the perspective of employers. Section 4: The fourth chapter examines how learning is organized within the FLOSS community. It examines the interaction between community members with regard to learning processes, the learning resources (except for technological resources) that are available and used within FLOSS communities, and the concrete learning processes. Section 5: This section looks at the technological resources used within FLOSS communities. FLOSS projects are almost exclusively administered online and one of the most important prerequisites for their coordination and cooperation is provided by the functionality of various communication and groupware tools. Section 6: The last section of the report proposes the project???s approach to learning in FLOSS. A preliminary set of guidelines as they apply to the principles of informal learning environments of FLOSS communities to improve ICT supported formal education are offered. These preliminary guidelines will be continuously amended in the following phase of the FLOSSCom project.

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