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POSSE is Back!!!

April 14, 2022

I’m so excited! After an almost 3 year hiatus, POSSE is back! We will meet May 24 and 25 at Nassau Community College in Garden City, NY. We’re looking forward to adding more colleagues to the community of instructors who are supporting student involvement in humanitarian open source software! More details here:


Open and Online Education

January 10, 2021

I really appreciate Bryan Behrenhausen. Bryan is a community architect in the Open Source Program Office at Red Hat. I’ve known Bryan since 2014 when he attended a Professors’ Open Source Software Experience workshop. I remember Bryan providing workshop participants with helpful understanding that adeptly bridged the domains of open source and academia. Most recently, Bryan has been involved in producing a series of books for the Open Organization. Bryan is my “go to person” when I have questions about openness and how that translates to a variety of environments, including the classroom. He and I have had many conversations about ways to integrate open principles into my classes and I find his insights invaluable in understanding the application of openness.

I’ve been reading Bryan’s most recent effort is called Human at a Distance – An Open Organization Guide to Distributed Teamwork. I’ve been finding some helpful ideas for organizing my classes. For instance, Sim Zach’s chapter on Building cohesive remote teams has great guidance for both instructors and students when interacting remotely. In particular, I liked the advice to “Assume good intent; it’s possible you aren’t reading the message in the same “tone” it was intended” and “Try not to use sarcasm, cynicism, or other communication styles that require the kind of nuance that can’t be easily understood through some channels”. And I really like the idea of asking team members to share something they appreciate about the team. That could go far in creating community in the classroom. Chad Sansing’s chapter titled Building a movement from home is a great guide for managing online class sessions. I’m going to look into using more emojis as a way to allow students to communicate non-verbally.

This book is an easy and interesting read and I encourage folks to take a look. Great work Bryan and company!

Open Source Community and Socially Distanced Education

December 29, 2020

My Software Engineering class has come to a close and I’m turning my attention to the Capstone class this spring. The same cohort of 12 students will be transitioning from Software Engineering to Capstone. In Software Engineering, we started by exploring the software to support Western New England University’s Bear Necessities Market. We spent time exploring requirements, design, testing and how the project is structured with the goal of positioning students to be able to make a contribution in the Capstone course this sprint.

As I’ve been preparing, I’ve been considering how teaching a project course in a socially distanced environment is much like creating community in an open source project. Both require forms of asynchronous interactions. Both require good communication skills. Both require good time management and attention to detail. Both require some appropriate technical background and the ability to ask accurate questions. And both depend on the community for success. I was aware of these similarities, but somehow having to teach in an environment where I’m depending more often on electronic forms of communication has made this more clear to me. I will continue to reflect on these similarities and how I can leverage open source principles to improve student learning. Feel free to join me in the TeachingOpenSource community and by starting conversations on the TOS mailing list.

Leveraging COVID-19 in the Classroom

July 12, 2020

As the summer progresses, I’m finding a new rhythm to preparing my fall classes.  It is clear that even though my institution is hoping to hold the majority of classes in person, I need to be able to take all of my classes online at any moment. And yes, the does mean that class preparation is at least doubled.

I have been focusing on my Software Engineering course which is a fairly standard coverage of Requirements, Design, Test, etc.  In my case, I am setting students up for their Capstone class which meets in the spring term. In Capstone, students will be contributing to the Bear Necessities Market which is an HFOSS application to support the food pantry located on Western New England University’s campus.  BNM is one of several food pantry applications being developed by instructors within the Libre Food Pantry community. In my Software Engineering course, we use BNM to investigate real-world requirements, design, test and more. We also learn the environment of a real HFOSS project so that students are able to make code contribution in the Capstone course.

As I’ve been thinking about how to best support learning, I realized that, due to COVID-19, the BNM will Likely need to implement some form of a visit schedule in order to support social distancing as our pantry has very limited space. I can see lots of ways that I can bring this into my classroom and I’m excited at the possibilities the provides for students to solve problems that are of critical immediacy! What are you all doing? Please share your ideas on the TeachingOpenSource community mailing list.

Chatting with Students

June 9, 2020

The Western New England Center for Teaching and Learning is running a series of Zoom seminars on online tools that can help in our courses in the fall. We expect to be in person in the fall, but we also need to be prepared to go online at any time. I volunteered to talk about how to maintain “instructor presence” in online education.  I’m going to talk about Slack and Discord and how I’ve used them in the classroom. Rather than post the notes elsewhere, I thought I’d blog about my thoughts. Warning: I have used both Slack and Discord, but I’m not an expert on either. My goal is to talk about how I helped facilitate my classes using these tools. 

Why should you use chat?

In an online environment (and in a face-to-face environment), students want easy accessibility to the faculty member and to each other. Communication tools like listservs and email conversations have threads that can get long and can be unwieldy to search.  Chat is a way to be “present” for students, similar to when a faculty member hangs out in their office and students drop by.

Chat also has the benefit that it is an immediate communication mechanism. It provides instant accessibility and allows students to “drop in” and ask a quick question.  It also has additional benefits in that it allows the faculty member to keep track of who is talking and provides a short-term history of class interactions.  Last spring, I especially liked it when students had conversations among themselves as it helped raise spirits.  I have also found that many students who are not comfortable speaking out loud in the classroom will be much more interactive on chat.

The tool I used last spring when we all went online in a hurry was Slack. Slack is a chat application that was built for business. It has over 12M users and its owning company is valued at more than $20B. The main functionality is chat, however it also allows you to share tools and files.  It uses workspace/channel vocabulary where you set up a workspace for each major unit of work and channels for each different type of interaction within the workspace. It also supports direct messaging for person-to-person chat.

Discord is a similar application, but it has roots in the gaming community.  It has over 250M users and is a combination of chat and online video. It supports voice, video or text.  Discord uses server/channel vocabulary where you set up a server for each major unit of work and channels for each different type of interaction. One advantage to Discord is that you can create bots to do things like automatically welcome new users with a message personalized to your course.

Which chat app should you choose?

I personally like the look and feel of Slack. It also has the advantage of being widely used in business so familiarizing students with its use can be helpful to them in the business world.  However, many students will already be familiar with Discord (due to gaming) and therefore will have little or no learning curve when using it in your course.

I have freshmen and seniors. I’m going to poll my freshmen and if the majority is familiar with Discord, I’ll use that.  My seniors are going to be working on Libre Food Pantry which uses Discord for a communication mechanism so I’ll likely use that for them.  I’m guessing that I’ll be entirely on Discord this fall.

How should you structure the chat for your class?

Generally, my suggestion for using either Discord or Slack is to do the following:

  1. Create one workspace/server per class
    • Note that you could also create workspaces or servers for all of your advisees, your research team, etc.  We have a department workspace on Slack that is very useful.
  2. Create the following necessary channels:
    1. A channel for general – I use this for general questions like “when does registration start?” and “are we meeting on Thursday?”
    2. A channel for classwork – I use this for all class-related questions.
  3. You may want to also consider the following additional channels
    1. A channel for introductions – This centralizes all of the introductory information on students into one place.
    2. One channel per team, when using a teams. This is the chat analogy to breakout rooms in Zoom.
    3. One channel per topic. You could centralize the discussion about specific topis in one place.

What do I need to know about using chat in my class?

  • I usually open Slack or Discord and keep it open while online. My students quickly learned that if I didn’t respond immediately, I would get back to them when I could. And I could just peek at it periodically through the day. I also used it to “poke” students who had things due or if I had a question for a specific student.
  • You’ll need to monitor chat, especially on Discord which means you should think about the number and names of channels carefully in order to help manage the monitoring. You might also have a TA monitor in addition to yourself.

  • If using Discord, students may be accustomed to using Discord as an informal form of communication. Therefore, they will likely need to be educated about proper interactions for your workspace or server in order to maintain proper classroom culture in the chat.

  • It may be helpful to create a set of guidelines for using chat. This will help guide students as to which chat channel to use as well as proper vocabulary.

  • History is not always saved so use email or your LMS for more formal communication. In addition, students may not always go back and read all chat conversations that they missed so I always use a different mechanism for important announcements.

  • Do feel free to ignore chat if you are working on something and a student pings. You may need to draw boundaries if students are overly enthusiastic about contacting you. I didn’t find that to be the case, but your mileage may vary.

I hope that you find this helpful!


11th NSF Funded POSSE!

March 31, 2019

The foss2serve team hosted the 10th NSF-funded POSSE (Professors’ Open Source Software Experience) workshop in January in NYC.  A huge “Thank You” to the folks at John Jay College for hosting and to Susan Imberman for getting us started and helping with all of the arrangements. The 11th POSSE is planned for Philadelphia, PA, June 17-19. Join us if you can!

When I started with HFOSS (Humanitarian FOSS) in 2006,  I had no idea how student engagement  in HFOSS would impact both faculty members and students.  Since then, I have seen both instructors and students be excited, motivated and generally get hooked by the ability to “do good” via open source.  I’m delighted to be part of a group that shows others how to support student learning in HFOSS. And I’m amazed that we are hosting our eleventh NSF-funded POSSE workshop!


Encouraging Participation

September 12, 2017

I’m currently at the Open Source Summit in LA and I’ve been reflecting on our progress so far in our Freshman Seminar class. This is the third week of class and students are attending a required two-class sequence on Information Literacy put on by our library while I’m gone.

In the past two weeks, I’ve been concerned about how to foster more participation. In an ideal world, students would participate because they’re vested in the outcome of decisions made in class. However, I’ve had low participation, anywhere from 10 to 15 out of 27 students, in several recent online activities. Many students also seem to be reluctant to participate in class.

For instance, We’ve been brainstorming things like the grading distribution for three different kinds of deliverables to fulfill a Personal Development course outcome. We had a good conversation in class and came up with four different point distribution options with two modifications based on dropping the lowest grade. However, only 10 out of 27 students voted on the result. At this point, I can’t tell if this low response is because students are having difficulty navigating the course management system to fill out the surveys, if they don’t have time to fill out the surveys, or if they don’t care enough to find them.

This has left me wondering how to get students to stand up and take control over their learning experience. I’ve provided them with multiple opportunities to direct their own learning path, but students haven’t taken advantage of these opportunities and I’m not sure why. I understand that the experience in our Freshman Seminar is different than their high school experience and I also understand that this is a typical transition for freshman. When I get back next week, I will announce that I’ve rewarded two early contributors to our community with 1% extra credit on their final grade. I’m hoping that this will gain students’ attention, but I’d like to create some intrinsic motivations that go beyond course grades. Still pondering….

Getting Started….

September 1, 2017

This first week has been an adjustment week for all of us. My Freshman Seminar class (2 sections) meets twice a week for 50 minutes. I have two upper-classmen who help with the class and serve as a combination of TA and peer mentor. I’m used to teaching twice a week for 75 minutes and 50 minutes goes by very quickly. In addition, I drastically underestimated the time that it would take to walk through the syllabus. This was compounded by the fact that I’m using an open source-based  Code of Conduct as part of the syllabus which is new to freshman. The result of this was that we spent the entire first class going over course organization.

In the spirit of Open Organization, in the second class we collaboratively designed the Late Assignment policy and the Absence policy, one per section. I outlined the problem and the constraints and teams of students proposed ideas. We then listed all of the ideas and discussed briefly and eliminated the ones that wouldn’t work. In one class we voted on a solution and we’ll vote electronically on the other as we ran out of time.

This was an interesting exercise and gave me insight into student thoughts. I learned that coming to consensus when doing design in large groups (13 students per section) is difficult and that having more time to focus and refine ideas would be helpful. For instance, one initial proposed solution for the Late Assignment policy was “Two days after the due date you lose points” which resulted in a discussion about what is an appropriate due date and time and how many points should be lost. I’m now debating the value of more clearly defining the problem versus allowing students to work through these issues.

Another difference in thinking between myself and my student assistants and the freshman is the idea of “lateness”. The proposals for when someone was late for class included:

  • Being late means 5-15 minutes is late, after 15 minutes is absent
  • 3-20 minutes is late, after 20 minutes is absent
  • 5-20 minutes is late, after 20 minutes is absent

We’ll talk next week about what does it mean to arrive 3-5 minutes after the start of class. What do we call that time after the beginning of class but before one is late? In addition, students thought that up to six total absences and latenesses should be allowed, not including legitimate absences/lateness for things like illness and sports travel.

We’ll do continuous improvement and revisit these policies in five weeks to see how they are working and to adjust as needed.

On an Adventure

August 28, 2017

Today I’m starting on an adventure. I’m teaching two sections of Freshman Seminar using Open Organization principles. My goals are to see how Open Org principles can fit the classroom and to see if using those principles will impact student engagement.

I really want students to own their learning and the beginning of the freshman year is an ideal place to introduce a new culture.  At what point in ones life are you more ready for change?  I’ve been working with Bryan Behrenshousen who has provided very helpful insights int0 how this might work as he preps an Open Source course for Duke.

First up is collaboratively defining the late and absence policies.  I’ll keep you posted!

POSSE Moves to the West Coast!

January 28, 2017



After hosting six Professors’ Open Source Software Experience (POSSE) workshops on the east coast, several at Red Hat’s headquarters in Raleigh, the next POSSE will be held at Google’s San Francisco office, April 20-22, 2017.  I’m really excited that Google is interested in hosting POSSE!  The workshop focuses on helping instructors support students involved in Humanitarian Free and Open Source Software (HFOSS) projects.

There is so much to learn that we run the POSSE in three stages:

  • Stage 1 consists of 8 weeks of online activities to learn HFOSS tools and concepts. The effort is 2-3 hours per week.
  • Stage 2 is a 2.5 day face-to-face meeting, this time in San Francisco.
  • Stage 3 consists of additional online activities and group interactions.

These workshops are run by the foss2serve team which comprises includes Greg Hislop  from Drexel University, Stoney Jackson from Western New England University, Darci Burdge and Lori Postner from Nassau Community College, and Clif Kussmaul from Muhlenberg College. We now have a growing community of over 100 faculty members who have attended POSSE workshops and we are looking for additional instructors to expand our community further. Oh, and for faculty members looking for publications, POSSE alums have generated a growing number of papers, posters, and panels.

If you are a full-time faculty member at a U.S. institution interested in supporting student participation in HFOSS, apply now! More information may be found on the foss2serve site. Because much of the funding for the workshop is coming from the National Science Foundation, we can only accept full-time faculty members at U.S. institutions. However, if you are interested in joining us and can self-fund, please do apply!