Intro to FOSS (Activity)

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Intro to FOSS (Free & Open Source Software)


Learner will gain an introduction to FOSS, its philosophy, and how it might benefit students.



After successfully completing this activity, the learner should be able to:
  1. Describe two or three major events in the history of FOSS.
  2. Describe several characteristics of FOSS philosophy.
  3. Explain why student involvement in FOSS could help learning.
Process Skills


Welcome to the exploration of Free & Open Source Software (FOSS)! The goal of this activity is for you to become familiar with the roots and culture of FOSS. This activity is only intended to give you a first taste of FOSS culture and development, enough to use as a foundation for future learning.

Additional reading:


1. Expectations

Your experiences as an instructor or student participating in FOSS projects may be quite different from a more traditional classroom experiences where the instructor knows the material at a detailed level and can answer all student questions. In contrast, learning within a FOSS project can be less predictable and the instructor is often a guide or coach, not the source of all expertise. The instructor may enable students to learn on their own and from the community.

The world of FOSS is large and complex. Producing a large software project is a complex and challenging process. Such development is often messy and more variable than a typical classroom. This messiness creates challenges for students and instructors, but also creates wonderful opportunities for learning. A large part of successfully navigating such an experience is understanding how the expectations for an instructor must change:

Expectation 1: The instructor will not have all of the answers due to the size and complexity of projects. However, there are maps and guideposts along the way to help instructors and students find the answers. This ability to navigate a project while only having a partial understanding is known as being "productively lost". You may not know exactly where you are, but you will have the tools to find out.

Expectation 2: The instructor and students may feel uncomfortable in being "productively lost". The concept of not knowing answers to many student questions can be a foreign one and many instructors find this initially unsettling. This feeling has been likened to being in a foreign land not knowing the language and customs.

Expectation 3: You are not alone in this learning process. You have a community of instructors, students, and FOSS community members to answer questions along the way.

The goal of this activity is to enable you to be "productively lost" within a project, where you may not have a full grasp of a project, but you have sufficient signposts for you to be able to navigate the project and ask appropriate questions.

2. Overview of FOSS

The readings below provide an introduction to FOSS, including a bit of history and information about FOSS culture. Read each of the following:

  1. The Free Software Definition: This article defines free software and provides some insight into the roots of FOSS.
  2. History of the Open Source Initiative: This article is a brief overview of the start of the term "open source" and the OSI.
  3. Open Source Software (Wikipedia): This article talks about the history and development philosophy of FOSS. Read:
    1. Sections 1-3: History, Definition, and Open Source Development Model
    2. Section 5: Current Applications and Adoption
  4. "The Cathedral and the Bazaar": This is a classic reading in FOSS and you may want to read the full article when you have time.
    1. Introduction: This section briefly describes the beginnings of FOSS by someone who was there, especially for the establishment of "open source" and the OSI.
    2. Social context of FOSS: This section provides some motivation for why people start and contribute to FOSS projects.

3. Humanitarian FOSS

Humanitarian FOSS (HFOSS) is FOSS that does some social good. HFOSS projects can range from disaster management, micro-finance, health care, education and more. We have chosen to focus on HFOSS as the altruistic nature of HFOSS has the potential to attract more computing majors, particularly women, and because these projects are particularly amenable to student participation.

  1. Review the list of HFOSS projects and identify one that captures your interest. You may be working with this project for several months (or longer) so choose carefully.

In the list, you can see some of the people already working on the project as well as some of the activities. Note that most of the activity happens on the actual HFOSS site so don't be put off by a project with no activity on the foss2serve site. You can also change your selection in the future.

4. Student Involvement in FOSS

Developing a large software project is an excellent way to help students and instructors appreciate the need for software engineering skills, teamwork, and other aspects of professional software work. Using HFOSS projects as a setting for such experiences has potential and advantages that are difficult to match in a typical classroom setting.

There is a growing body of publications that describes and evaluates student participation in open source. One discussion of student participation in HFOSS including data on aspects of student learning and references to prior publications in this area is available in the ACM digital library here . A draft manuscript of the article is available here.

There is also some overview material on student involvement available in the Practical Open Source Exploration text that was developed by the TeachingOpenSource community.


POSSE: None, but have a project in mind as directed above.

Possible deliverables for use with students could be:

  • Paper summarizing what students learned about FOSS.
  • Paper describing the difference in the philosophies of the Free Software Foundation and the Open Source Initiative.
  • Brief description of a FOSS project to which they would like to contribute including why they chose the project and possible contributions.

Notes for Instructors

The remaining sections of this document are intended for the instructor. They are not part of the learning activity that would be given to students.


Below are the questions that need to be answered to provide assessment for this activity along with a sample assessment table.

  • How will the activity be graded?
  • How will learning will be measured?
  • Include sample assessment questions/rubrics.
Criteria Level 1 (fail) Level 2 (pass) Level 3 (good) Level 4 (exceptional)
Criteria 1
Criteria 2


Comments to instructor using this activity with students:

  • Omit Section 4: Student Involvement in FOSS
  • You may want to have students look at a broader list of HFOSS projects (e.g. HFOSS Projects)
Area & Unit(s)

SP Intellectual Property


Goals of Open Source



Estimated Time
to Complete

60-90 minutes

Environment /

Access to Internet/Web and web browser.


Heidi Ellis




This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

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Suggestions for Open Source Community

Below are suggestions for an open source community member who is working in conjunction with the instructor.

Personal tools
Learning Resources
HFOSS Projects