Open@RIT: Helping Students Embrace the Power of Open Source

Creative, exciting applications of open source software can be found worldwide, and who better to share the details of new use cases than the practitioners themselves. In this blog series we’ll feature guests who told their open source stories during Practical Open Source Information (POSI) 2021, an online conference hosted by OSI. Five blogs will be featured in this series, so visit the OSI blog frequently to learn from what these open source advocates have to share.

Creative, exciting applications of open source software can be found worldwide, and who better to share the details of new use cases than the practitioners themselves. In this blog series we’ll feature guests who told their open source stories during Practical Open Source Information (POSI) 2021, an online conference hosted by OSI.

The Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) not only offers a minor in free and open source software and free culture, but it also recently created an official Center of Excellence called Open@RIT. It’s dedicated to fostering the collaborative engine for faculty, staff, and students working on open source projects. The goal is to discover and grow the footprint of RIT’s impact on all things open across many disciplines, both within the university and beyond. This includes open source software, open data, open science, open hardware, and open educational resources and creative commons licensed efforts, which collectively they refer to as Open Work.

Mike Nolan, Assistant Director at Open@RIT and Django Skorupa, Strategic Designer, walked POSI participants through their work, and you can watch their presentation, the video of which is embedded at the end of this post.

Through their Open@RIT Fellowships, students interested in careers working with open source have the opportunity to serve on a project accelerator, offering them exposure to the launch or conversion of projects to open source. Open@RIT Fellows can begin building a community around and collaborating on on-campus projects to get first-hand experience in the maintenance and structure of the community, an important facet of open projects that balances the contribution of community members. Essentially, Open@RIT is a cooperative education program set up as a consultancy where student fellows are placed on a team that provides services such as design, development, technical writing, and project management on Open Work being developed by members of the RIT community.

In its early days, the program focused on the creation of a methodology playbook detailing how Fellows work with faculty members, staff, and students on their open projects and how they create, build, and sustain communities around that work. This methodology playbook offers a framework for fellows to follow in their efforts to better understand and support the community that surrounds the Open Work. Leaders at Open@RIT give credit to the Mozilla Open Leadership Training Series and the work of Nadia Eghbal in her book Working in Public for inspiring their program and the development of the methodology.

The consulting process used by Open@RIT with Fellows has three steps. Step one is contextualization, asking questions that allow student fellows to understand the scope and goals of the project. Step two is identification of stakeholders and contributors and how they’re attracted to a project, examined through an archetypal model. Here, goals of the stakeholders and contributors are compared with the goals of the project, revealing gaps in the contributor pathways. This naturally leads to step three which is identifying shortcomings. This step uncovers the role Open@RIT can play in support of the project, moving it toward a unified goal. This step develops a ground-up solution, reframing the problem as many times as necessary until an end-to-end pathway is established. Services provided by the fellows include project documentation, marketing inbound materials, feedback systems, and outreach and networking strategies.

Many Open@RIT Fellows have never worked in open source before. The program offers them a valuable opportunity to learn about open source terms and methods while actually doing the work. Developing open source projects in an academic setting offers students an ecosystem that embraces questioning, teaching, and mentorship, which aligns with the definition of open source itself and equips these students to step into careers in open source with experience that sets them up for success.

Watch Nolan and Django of Open@RIT at the POSI event:

Come back to catch our next featured member from the Practical Open Source Information (POSI) 2021 next week.

To promote and protect open source software and communities...

For over 20 years the Open Source Initiative (OSI) has worked to raise awareness and adoption of open source software, and build bridges between open source communities of practice. As a global non-profit, the OSI champions software freedom in society through education, collaboration, and infrastructure, stewarding the Open Source Definition (OSD), and preventing abuse of the ideals and ethos inherent to the open source movement.

Open source software is made by many people and distributed under an OSD-compliant license which grants all the rights to use, study, change, and share the software in modified and unmodified form. Software freedom is essential to enabling community development of open source software.