Friday, September 9, 2011

Can You See Free Code in Your Future?

"Do you pine for the days when men were men and wrote their own device drivers? " (Linus Torvalds, creator of the Linux kernel, and David Diamond, Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary, Collins, 2001)

Open Source and free digital content have been big in education news this week, and I couldn't help but notice. For example:
  • Google concluded the seventh Summer of Code this week. More than a thousand college students from 68 countries participated this year, all dedicated to creating and sharing code. The program pairs students with mentors, with the purpose of writing code for 175 open source organizations. Students get a shot at sampling future employment, and the organizations receive the benefit of expert and peer-reviewed programming. The rest of us benefit from source code that we can use or adapt.
  • A major database of academic journal articles, JSTOR, declared this week, "we are making journal content in JSTOR published prior to 1923 in the United States and prior to 1870 elsewhere freely available to anyone, anywhere in the world.  This “Early Journal Content” includes discourse and scholarship in the arts and humanities, economics and politics, and in mathematics and other sciences.  It includes nearly 500,000 articles from more than 200 journals." You may recall that on July 19, Aaron Swartz of DemandProgress was indicted for capturing nearly 5 million of JSTOR's articles onto a laptop hidden in an MIT closet. Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. Attorney for the State of Massachusetts, was quoted saying, "Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars." Ironically, the "stolen" articles are now free for the taking.
  • Michael S. Hart, inventor of the e-book and founder of Project Gutenberg (the first producer of free e-books), died this week. Read his obituary here.
  • A "crowdsourced" e-book, Hacking the Academy, was published this week by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. The work was compiled from a week of blogs and tweets posted in one week in May of 2010. As Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt explain in the Preface, "We asked for contributions to a collectively produced volume that would explore how the academy might be beneficially reformed using digital media and technology. The process of creating the edited volume itself would be a commentary on the way things are normally done in scholarly communication, with submissions coming in through multiple channels, including blogs, Twitter, and email, and in multiple formats—everything from a paragraph to a long essay to multimedia. We also encouraged interactivity—the possibility that contributors could speak directly to each other, rather than creating the inert, isolated chapters that normally populate edited volumes. We then sent out notices via our social networks, which quickly and extensively disseminated the call for submissions. Finally, we gave contributors a mere seven days, the better to focus their attention and energy." The result: 330 submissions from 177 authors. And, of course, it's free.
As director of projects that offer content to educators and students, I'm happy to see so many signs that free access to educational content is a shared goal of peers and pioneers around the world.

It was a good week.

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