Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Driving innovation through Education or FOSS as a science

It's just the first week of the new year and 2 blog entries caught my attention. They are related and perhaps intertwined in the context of what I write, work for and whom I work with. While I will not be able to provide as erudite reasoning as Louis the combination of these two entries do provide some kind of shape to the amorphous ideas that have been bothering me about the notion of "education" and thereon FOSS projects having "education as a project".

The fun thing about education is that the moment it is uttered there are various ideas that come up. These range from aspects of pedagogy to aims and objectives of the process of education and thereon to the "public commons" aspect of knowledge as a whole. Not a single one of these perspectives are trivial, but for countries in the BRIC regions education provides a means to attain, sustain and increase technical excellence. This is because the very basis of improvement of conditions is based on innovation and more precisely user-focused innovation. This means that to a somewhat disproportionate extent, innovation is driven by science. The interesting bit over here is that FOSS could be thought of as akin to science and thus participating in FOSS development similar to the process of scientific discovery. I use "science" in the widest possible sense of the term and not the limiting notion of "science", "humanities" and the like. Given that FOSS development and contribution takes place through a predefined workspace that is peer reviewed and transparent, the results of a FOSS contribution can stand up to as much critical scrutiny as a scientific breakthrough can.

So, how does that relate to education ? For me, projects like, Mozilla, GNOME etc who focus on contributions to their codebase and projects by reaching out to academic institutions are not merely doing the obligatory "let us create more potential contributors" work that till now has been the corporate social responsibility of proprietary companies. It goes above and beyond that towards inculcating a spirit of collaboration that is mandated through the curricula that drives such contributions. It interleaves concepts of classic pedagogy of "chalk the talk" with the much more recent "show-n-tell" method of actually doing things.

We love stories and students love them more than ever. Projects that provide students the stories to work with and provide tools to create their own stories have a far greater chance of buy-in from students, their parents and the teachers. Getting changes incorporated into age-old (and tested ?) curricula is difficult. I sometimes get reminded about one of the greatest reformers from my land and how inspite of personal example it took a longer time for his work of social reform to set in and be accepted.

For various logical (and a smaller set of illogical reasons), institutes are loathe to change status quo on their curricula. And to a small extent, every small technology whim and fancy should not mandate that the curricula be changed. An aspect of the projects that encourage and motivate potential contributors have to be that they provide a real life example of the building blocks that are taught in the classroom. Learning that sodium goes up in flames in contact with water is so much boring when one can toss a lump of it into a lab sink and watch the fun. Chemistry, Physics, Electronics etc are disciplines have for long being widely and gleefully accepted because they allow a feeling of tangible results. Theory can be translated into first-hand observations (I have enough scars from lab experiments to vouch that the method works).

It should be a thing that the Education Project should be thinking about.