Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Open source networked learning helps writing students excel at Purdue University

The Professional Writing Program at Purdue University has implemented an evolution in service learning called the Open Source Development and Documentation Project (OSDDP). As members of a community formed to integrate learning with the open source development model, students, teachers, and clients are working together to develop documentation of and related to open source. Through their involvement in the project, students are gaining valuable experience in collaboration much needed for professional development while building business and technical communication skills

OSDDP is currently designated as a pilot program and is being used in almost a dozen business and technical writing courses offered through the English Department at the university. “[OSDDP] is initiating a new major course project involving service learning and community engagement, which Purdue is very interested in and that we see as critical to learning to write in the 21st century workplace,” explains Dr. David Blakesley, Director of Professional Writing at Purdue University.

The idea for OSDDP was derived from the concept of an open source development community, a widely practiced method of development and sharing that was previously relegated almost wholly to the software industry. Open source was made popular by such large scale projects as the Linux operating system. The success of such projects has been well documented and used as a stepping stone in developing new trends in open source.

The work of OSDDP generally takes on several different forms and acts as a way for individuals with no business or commercial interest in the work to provide insight, criticism and even contributions. “We think students will benefit greatly from this experience,” said Blakesley, “We don’t see this as traditional service learning, but as networked learning, because students are insinuating themselves into the ongoing conversations and processes that shape our culture…both service learning and networked learning are terrific ways to teach business, technical, and multimedia writing because students learn transferable rhetorical principles in interesting and complex situations. And they have fun doing it!”

Students enrolled in a professional writing course at Purdue that integrates OSDDP will have a chance to

* Study open source software
* Develop OSDDP policies and resources
* Talk to software designers and users both electronically and in-person
* Use the open source software themselves.
* Write and test user documentation
* Help organizations promote their software in the wider community
* Develop action plans for deploying such software in nonprofit organizations locally and nationally, new business enterprise, and academic contexts.

If this program proves to be successful it could usher in a new era of collaborative education in American universities. With the recent success stories produced by open source efforts such as Linux, the idea is being widely accepted as a new standard for creative and rapid project development. The ability to get input on such a large scale, and to do so in a manner that allows individuals the ability to lend their own creative talents to the work, could make for a revolution in how we view writing development. One drawback to such a system tends to be the unorganized and somewhat chaotic manner in which responses are gathered and applied. This has been solved within Linux by implementing step-by-step development.

In the case of OSDDP, the community uses Drupal, an open source content management system, to manage documentation construction and workflow. Both student and teacher document teams develop their projects on the site via a public review process using Drupal's project management module. Completed documentation, whether published to the site or supplied to clients, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. Thanks to this open source license, subsequent semesters of students and teachers can continue to build on previous projects, creating an opportunity for continual growth of OSDDP not possible in traditional professional writing projects for the classroom.

The OSDDP program at Purdue is the first of its kind and it could lead to a major breakthrough in the collaborative writing world if it is able to achieve the lofty goal that it has set for itself. The students and faculty remain optimistic that the program will be a roaring success at Purdue and will spread throughout the technical writing community, and quickly become the standard for writing collaboration.