Open Source Needs Students To Thrive

This past year, thousands of computer science students in the United States were inspired by open source, yet in many cases their flames of interest were doused by the structure of technical education at most colleges. Concerns about students plagiarizing each other’s work, lack of structural support, resources, and community connections are making it hard for students to jump between curious to capable in the world of open source.

As part of our ongoing efforts to engage college students and develop a program to support open source clubs, Mozilla’s Open Innovation Team recently conducted a study to better understand the current state of open source on US Campuses. We also asked ourselves “what can Mozilla do to support and fuel students who are actively engaged in advancing open source?” Read the full research report here.

We ran a broad screening process to identify students with an interest in technology, an interest in open source, and who also represented a diversity of gender identities, academic focuses, locations and schools. We ultimately selected 25 students with whom to conduct an in-depth interview.

Photo distributed with CC BY-NC-ND

We found that open source is usually learned outside the classroom, there is strong interest, but the overall level for open source literacy is low.

Students are excited about open source, but there’s a knowledge gap

Students are generally excited about the idea of open source, citing the control it gives them over the software they use, the opportunities it provides for them to build skills, and the emphasis on community.

However, for many students a lot is still unknown, and there are core aspects of open source that lots of students weren’t aware of. For example, a challenge that many students faced when trying to contribute to an existing open source project was not knowing how to analytically read code. One student described his challenges trying to read a codebase for the first time…

I looked at a codebase and I had no idea where to begin. It felt like it would take weeks just to come up to speed.” — Eric, Georgia Tech

Students also were worried about how viable open source is a career path, leading one student to ask “how can I pay my student loans with open source”.

Another example was at a hackathon attended by our researcher, for submissions to the “Best Open Source Hack” category. In fact, only 5 of the 16 entries correctly licensed their software. 10 of the disqualified teams expressed surprise that a license was required. They had believed that all that was required to make software open source was to release it on Github.

I had been told that being on Github was enough. I had never heard about licensing before!

Open source isn’t taught, it’s learned informally

A major reason for this lack of literacy is that open source is rarely taught as part of university curriculum (except the Portland State University). In fact, the structure and culture of most computer science programs often unintentionally reinforces behaviors that are counter to developing the skills necessary to make contributions to existing open source projects. A large part of this seems to come from a desire to prevent academic dishonesty.

“An [Open Source Club] member recently told me that one of the reasons he joined was that he wanted to be able to code along side other people and help them solve problems with their code. He didn’t feel like he could normally do that in his classes without being accused of helping people ‘cheating.” — Wes, Rensselaer Polytechnic

As a result most students learn about open source informally through hobbies, like robotics programming, extracurriculars or their peers.

The reality is that on most college campuses, Open Source is learned in students off time and during club times. Its students teaching students, not professors teaching us.— Semirah, UMass Dartmouth

Implications: Starting their careers with a knowledge and skills gap

A generation of developers are at risk of starting their technical careers without understanding or even knowing about open source or the value of open. Mozilla purposefully designs open products and technologies which can grow and change the Web because of passionate OS contributors but we need to enable the next generation to drive the mission forward.

“Open source offers an alternative to corporate control of programs and the web. That’s something that needs to be encouraged.” — Casey, Portland State

Opportunities: Filling the need for bottom-up support

As people who care about open source we can tackle this by supporting organizations like POSSE who are working to get better open source education into the classroom. Ensuring that more students are exposed to open source concepts and the basic skills they’d need to participate, as a part of their education.

Given the challenges and wait times associated with introducing new curriculum in most universities, there is also an immediate and present need for well-supported, networked, informal structures that help teach, instill and provide access to open source projects and technologies for students. From what we learned so far and from the feedback we got from the students, there is a real opportunity for Mozilla to fill this need and make a difference on campuses interested in open source.

Next Steps for Mozilla’s Open Source Student Network

Based on this research, we are currently working with a team of student leaders to design a program that makes it easy for students to learn about and contribute to open source on their campuses.

We are also working closely with organizations already in this space such as POSSE, Red Hat, and the Open Source Initiative to create educational content and connect with professors and students who share our mission.

Furthermore we’re partnering with other teams and projects inside Mozilla such as Add Ons, Rust, Dev Tools, and Mozilla VR/AR, to create activities and challenges that motivate and engage a vast network of students and professors in our products and technology development processes.

Does this reflect your experience? Tell us what it’s like on your campus in the comments here or reach out to us on discourse or via email at!