Making the case for Free Software at Universities

I was encouraged to make a blog post about this. I thought the idea had merit. I thought I would write my thoughts down on a recent presentation I made to college freshman at Purdue University.

I was made aware of a program at my alma mater, Purdue University called Learning Beyond the Classroom which encourages students to learn beyond what is taught in a classroom. My father is still a professor at Purdue, so I come back fairly often. I offered to talk about Open Source / Free Software. This is an account of that experience for others who might be interested in presenting at Universities.

Delivering this talk represented a challenge for me. My audience are freshman, that have been in college for all of three to four weeks. Your regular presentation is not going to work. My audience have left home, making new friends, and enjoying new freedoms, making adult decisions. For most freshman, their journey is just beginning and if I were to use my own experience, constantly evolving. Where you started out might be completely different and that could be said to continue even in your adult life. We are after all works in progress. The other challenge is that perception of Free Software / Open Source is applicable only to computer science. That is of course patently untrue, considering how this concept has now spread to so many other sectors. Creating something requires a wide range of skillsets and its just not about coding.

For two days, I worked on this and finally gave it up. There is no way that I’m going to be able to use slides to make a remotely interesting or compelling talk. I did something I never did before. I didn’t prepare.

Walking into the classroom the next day, I watched the students file in. I could feel that there was trepidation. The description of this talk didn’t really portend anything interesting. I couldn’t really hold back a smirk. Once they filed in and sat down, and introductions made. It was time to go down the rabbit hole. Up to this point, I had no idea what the hell I was going to talk about.

I presented my slides. My three slides. Then.. what?

I made a bet.

I asked a question to each student, 1) Name 2) major 3) why are you here in college and what drives you? The 25 students went around and I nodded, joked, laughed with them as they went around. After they all went around, I said well, I identified three themes that was common amongst all of them – 1) I want to help people 2) I want to figure how things work 3) I want to explore and discover things.

None of this surprised me. Young people are driven by altruistic ideas. It’s only when the daily grind of responsibilities and life’s complexity that builds the cynicism of the modern adult. They were the perfect audience.

Can I build a conversation around that? Damn right I can.

For the next 40 minutes, I talked about Free Software and Open Source, through my personal journey, and how it affected who I am as an adult today. The range of topics went through women in technology, creating something for sake of creation, and the journey of personal discovery. Along the way, I talked about the friendships I made, being part bigger than myself, and how it affected my career.

We can always reach people through our own humanity, sometimes through love, friendship, community and sometimes through hate, intolerence, and bigotry.

During my talk, I saw many of these bright students, nod at the things I was saying. I could see that I had reached them at that core emotional level by sharing my life experiences with them. Ultimately this wasn’t a talk about just about Free Software. It was talk about people and what they can achieve working together. It’s about helping people, figuring how things work, and discovering new things.

I would like to thank, Purdue University, the College of Science, and Learning Beyond the Classroom program for providing me the opportunity to talk the students, the faculty and other organizations at Purdue about Free Software and Open Source. As a Purdue alumni, I’m always thrilled to give back to the university that gave me the skills that I have acquired to be successful today.

4 thoughts on “Making the case for Free Software at Universities”

  1. Nice. I’ve also moved away from just presenting slides to giving blackboard talks. IMHO, it let’s you connect and respond rather than everyone just following a script mindlessly for an hour.

    Congrats. Sounds like a great talk.

    -Joseph

  2. Thanks! My slides generally only have single words or maybe some picture or something. If you have too much information on the slides they end up just focusing on the slides and not what I am saying. I think in general that has been successful.

  3. What a brave man you are! Seriously, this is a great topic and many FOSS projects would really benefit from these students’ energy and dedication.

  4. Thanks Valerie! :) So nice to hear from a fellow graduate and friend! In fact, there was some amazing diversity there in race and gender. I had such a fun time interacting with them all. The best was when people come up to tell you that they got something out of it when they didn’t think they would. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

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