The continuing digitization of work has resulted in renewed calls for those in the education profession to re-examine how people learn in digitized settings. Especially in computing and engineering fields, there is increasing interest to better understand how people learn through participation in different forms of online communities such as open source communities.

In my research on open source participation, I’ve found that participation in open source communities provides learners an experience that has long been associated with apprenticeship-based learning (OpenSym 2018). Before education was formalized through curricula that delivered at schools, colleges, and universities, through classes, a large part of how people learnt was by becoming an apprentice to an expert in the field.

Apprenticeship is a social learning practice that allows those who have more experience to help those with less experience by providing them structure and examples. The scaffolding provided by experts in the community guides newcomers towards achievable goals thereby motivating them as well as improving their self-regulation; in other words, making them better self-learners (C&T 2017). This ability to understand one’s own learning practices and habits or metacognition goes a long way in supporting learners as they work through increasingly difficult conceptual problems.

Research in learning has shown that learning encompasses not just learning facts or techniques or gaining skills but a critical byproduct of the learning process, a central goal maybe, is a transformation in the identity of a learner. Learning can be said to have taken place when the learner sees her identity as that of the domain she wants to be an expert in; from writing one transforms into a writer. Once again FLOSS is an exemplary as it impacts learners’ identity by introducing them to a community and ensuring that they can become important players over time.

Overall, participation in FLOSS closely resembles traditional apprenticeship-based learning but in some respect, it goes beyond that. Due to its online nature, it provides access that transcends physical boundaries making it more accessible. Furthermore, traditional apprenticeship is predicated on the novices being young and entering the apprenticeship structure earlier in their lifespan. FLOSS does allow that but allows those who come to the domain later in life to be able to learn as well.

Participation in FLOSS closely resembles traditional apprenticeship-based learning Click To Tweet

Even though online communities and discussion forums are highly efficient and effective, this type of a learning practice is not suitable for everyone and participation is hindered the less a newcomer knows about a topic (CSCW 2014). FLOSS communities can do better by being more supportive and by recognizing that attracting and supporting newcomers is essential to their growth and also to better overall quality of their product. They have to think of their community as a working-learning duality whereby learning as one works and work as a way to learn are both seen as equally productive. Community norms that support learning are critical, as are norms for discussions that allow newcomers to learn and not just experts to engage in debates (CSCL 2013).

Make sure your OSS project puts in place community norms allowing newcomers to learn and engage in ongoing project debates Click To Tweet

Featured Image by Vance Osterhout on Unsplash

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