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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Mozilla @ SJCE -- Contributing to Mozilla informally - Final semester student projects

Along with the attempt to introduce Mozilla as a formal elective at SJCE I have been working on getting some development work started informally too. The current final year students are enrolled under the central university - VTU and hence cannot be offered any new subject. However they are expected to do a project as part of the course completion. I thought of using this to get students to do their final semester project with Mozilla. Also Mozilla labs organizes this program named Design Challenge where enthusiasts -- students, teachers, academicians, software developers, etc, are invited to submit innovative ideas to make the Firefox web browser a better software and the Internet in general a better place. This has received tremendous participation from the student community across the globe. The best part about this program is that this is not just a competition. The selected students are trained on various Mozilla related technologies by the very Mozilla developers who are developing those technologies. After such mentoring the students can start contributing code to Mozilla and products based on it. And not to mention the wealth of knowledge they stand to gain and how much of positive influence it will have with prospective employers or while applying for higher studies. This suited very well for the final year and also the pre-final year students.

So when I visited my college last Saturday (14-Nov-2009) to meet my HoD and the coordinating lecturer, related to the Mozilla elective to be offered, I decided to talk to final and pre-final year students and motivate a few of them to participate in the upcoming design challenge (Nov - 09 to Mar - 10) and also take up Mozilla work for final year projects. I talked to the coordinating lecturer (Shri P M Shivamurthy) and asked to him make an announcement regarding this and have the students assembled in one of the classrooms or the seminar hall. After going to the college I got to know that the pre-final year (5th sem) students would not be available as they have their internal assessment tests starting from Monday. HoD suggested that I should stay back till Monday evening and address the 5th sem students on Monday after that day's tests. That was not possible for me and I decided to visit the college again on the next Saturday for that and I would talk to the final year (7th sem) students for now. As a result I decided to stick to the final year project only. Things were set up in the Network Lab and there were about 30 students.

Standing in front of them I blabbered a bunch of things about Mozilla, Open Source software, how engineers graduating are not really industry ready and the fact that they do not have any experience on working with real world applications with huge code base and contributions from a large number of developers and finally how participating in Mozilla would help them fill that gap. I also told them the vast amount of options that Mozilla provides in terms of technologies and that they could find some work or the other which lies in their area of interest. At the end I asked if anyone had any questions and as expected nobody did. Then on asking how many would be willing to try something like this I saw something like 3 to 4 half-hands rising up in the air. This was certainly not a good sign. So I started with the "motivational" speech. "This will really help you guys to be ahead of students from other colleges. You will be industry ready where as other will require a lot more training and mentoring. This is all HoD pre-approved... and on and on and on" for a few more minutes. That really did the trick. After this I had about 10 - 12 hands, full ones. Quite satisfied I told them to get my contact details from PMS sir and contact me for any queries. Till now I have received emails from 6 students (one of them representing a project group of 4 students. so 9 students actually). I have sent them a couple of links to start reading. None of them have responded after that. But I am still hopeful.

A little later I was talking to some of the students offline and I got to know some facts which would have been very useful to me in positioning this Mozilla project idea in a much stronger way.

1) Campus recruitment is pretty bad this time. Only 6 students in Computer Science have got job offers, compared to a daily average of 20 - 25 students a couple of years back. --- I could have talked about how open source development experience will help them with jobs. It did help me.
2) Project teams (generally of 3 to 4 students) have already been formed and a guide (a member of the faculty) has been assigned. This has two effects:
    a) Some teams have already been given the project work, which is a small part of the guide's doctorate thesis/research. The guide will now not happily approve of students under him/her pursuing a difference project.  -- We could talk to HoD and reason out with the guide. I could have told the students that such a thing is very much possible.

    b) In a project team of 4, generally one or two students are the smart ones and others will be banking on them for the project to be completed. I had told them that in Mozilla it is generally individual contribution or a team of 2 at the max. The teams, like those mentioned earlier, cannot be divided as the dependent folks will get into a problematic position. -- I could have told them that Mozilla does not bother if the work done by one student is present by 4 as a team work. So let the team enroll for a Mozilla project. Either all or a few in the team will work. If its all of them each one will have a bug assigned or the bug will be assigned to one guy with all of them working on it. If it is just one or two of them then there are no issues.

    c) On a related not to the above two points, some students told me that they would like to do a Mozilla project in addition to an already assigned final semester project. This really delighted me. But it also was, sort of, a matter of concern, as it appeared to me that people were desperate to do something like this with the hope that it will add a line to their resume and help them get a job. I might be wrong and I wish and hope I am. Students doing open source development just out of pure interest and not part of any course requirements is the best thing. But let me see what it turns out to be.

3) I did not make an announcement about the design challenge because the mentoring classes for that goes on from Dec-09 to Feb - 10 and these guys have their exams in the second  half of December. But I later got to know that no mentoring classes will be held from approximately 21st Dec to 4th Jan because of the holiday season in the US. So I talked to a smaller number guys, those who stayed back to talk to me, about the design challenge and am hoping to have 1 to 3 ideas being submitted.

I am going to use these points during my next visit, this coming Saturday.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Mozilla @ SJCE -- Modern teaching methods are still a stigma and considered unreliable.

In my effort to get open source development into main stream academics at my engineering college SJCE, I have been working with the Mozilla Education team for some time now. With our college getting the autonomous status and also with great help from the MozEdu folks like Prof David Humphrey and Frank Hecker and after considerable persuasion (more about that in a different post) I could get an elective named "Learning Open Source Software with Mozilla" added to the curriculum of the 6th semester students. We (me and the members of the college faculty) decided to roll out this elective in the year of 2010. The next step for me, I thought, was to get at least one lecturer trained with the curriculum and in general get that lecturer involved with Mozilla development and practices. Also with Prof David making the videos of his lecture sessions available on the internet, freely for everyone's use, my plan was to give the lecturer a head start (w.r.t students) so that with the beginning of the next semester he could start teaching the students those parts which he has already learnt. In the mean time he himself can continue his learning by going through David's lecture sessions and other resources that would be available on the internet. I would be visiting the college on alternate weekends. I thought, may be I could take a couple of hours of classes on Saturday for both students and also the lecturer(s). I could have used my presence to answer the queries that the students and the lecturers had, or at least I could point them in the right direction. Apart from these fortnightly visits I planned to be in touch with the college folks continuously on the internet -- email, irc, skype, etc. I would be actively involved the first time this subject is taught. After that the lecturer would be considerably capable and also the subsequent batch of students would have their seniors to help them out. At that point the program will not greatly depend on me and will be sort of self-sufficient with people directly talking to the Mozilla developers and the community in general. As a bonus the students who studied this subject would get to carry out their final year project work with Mozilla, either in terms of some feature implementation or certain bug fixes or any such task. It appeared like a sound plan and I had even decided that we would try to get about 15 students for the first time and gradually increase the number.

Last Saturday (14-Nov-2009) I went to meet the HoD and the lecturer who was coordinating this from the college side to get things started. The meeting was a big disappointment. Our HoD made it absolutely clear that the this elective will be offered only if 50% of the students (which translates to about 70 - 80 students) take up the elective. So the idea of first starting with a small number so that coordinating things on the internet will be easier and all that was just blown away. The reason for this is apparently because there are not enough class rooms to teach more than 2 groups of students from the same semester.!! It has to be a 50-50 division between two electives. So though there are 5 or 6 electives available to the students, they actually have to choose from just 2 of them, based on the majority and not interest.

Well my plan was not killed completely, yet, as the ideas in it were sort of the perfect solution for "the lack of classrooms" problem. I put forth the rest of my idea saying the remote teaching and a lot of learning on an individual basis (by reading up the resources on the internet and interacting with the Mozilla devs) would virtually the necessity of a full blown class room teaching always. But the HoD flatly rejected this idea and said that he understood what I was suggesting but there are rules saying classes must be conducted for a fixed number of hours for any subject offered and it has to be the traditional way. Also the idea of training the lecturers in a, sort of, asynchronous manner was also not acceptable. He would want a training session to be conducted - typically a week to a month long session, may be with a certification at the end of the session. Moreover currently I have one lecturer ready to take this up but department mandates at least 2 or 3. Now I have an additional task of motivating at leat two more faculty members. For this I have to prepare a write up explaining what the lectures stand to learn/gain by taking up this new thing. After that if any of them express their interest in taking this up, I will have to train them and probably it has to be in the traditional way - not sure yet.

Another problem is the pace. The next semester will be starting some time in Feb or Mar 2010 and my HoD keeps saying "Lets go slowly at first and see. If not in 2010 we will offer this in 2011" !!.. :-( . I hope we can get this thing started in 2010 itself. Another year of idle waiting might just terminate the interest that I currently have.

All in all, the wall between open source and my college is appearing to be more and more thick. I intend to meet the HoD the coming Saturday again and try to convince him to give his approval for the "internet based learning" approach. Lets see how it works out.

Apart from this I talked to a bunch of final year students about carrying out their final year project with Mozilla and also about participation the upcoming design challenge. More about that in another post.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Mozilla Developer Network (MDN) survey -- My inputs

I just finished the MDN survey and here is what I said in that last box which was put there for the people like us to pen down our rants. ;-)

  • Project documentation needs improvement. It has improved and is improving, but a lot still needs to be done specifically about the oldest lines of code.
  • I hear from some of the core developers that there are lots of hacks which make the code not entirely predictable. These need to be removed and replaced by proper, reliable code. Again the cleaning is going on, am just saying that it is really important so that there is some sort of SLA based on which people can develop applications.
  • Consolidation of the content on MDC and MozEdu so that we can have a "The Mozilla Book", which any beginner can go through and dive into Mozilla related development -- either the platform or the browser or the add-ons or anything.
  • Finally, making various Mozilla components available in the form of easily pluggable library modules and step by step guides telling us how to use them.

I do not know if any of this is useful to anyone else in the community, but for me, these appeared to be very important based on my association with Moziila for about 2.5 years now.