Saturday, May 9, 2015

A Brief History of 22 Years as an OER Activist

Charles Severance (aka Dr. Chuck) just sent Allen Downey and me this video he shot of his first ever meeting with Allen at Pycon last month.  I had met Allen face to face for the first time only two years earlier at Pycon 2013, so I understood his thrill at the moment.

Both of us had created "remixed" textbooks based on Allen's original 1999 How to think like a computer scientist.  1999 was at the very beginning of what has become the open educational resource (OER) effort, and Allen was a true pioneer.  In translating his Java textbook into Python, I became his first follower, and helped him, in the manor described so well by Derek Sivers' How to start a movement, broaden his impact as an OER leader.

The book as since been mixed and remixed several times in several different languages, both programming languages and natural languages. There is even an on-line interactive edition.

Seeing Dr. Chuck's video made me reflect on my 22 year journey as an open educational resource activist, and I thought now might be a good opportunity to write a bit of that history down, so that as old age approaches, I won't forget it all. It has been a joyous journey, and I feel fortunate to have been a part in turn of the free software movement, the Python community, and the open educational resources project.



I enrolled in a masters degree program at Bowie State University.  The computing environment there consisted of a VAX machine loaded with GCC.  GCC introduced me to the GNU project and the free software movement, which appealed immediately to my left-wing politics and knee-jerk egalitarianism.

Wanting to run GCC on my home PC, I found GNU/Linux. My first distribution was Yggdrasil followed by Slackware.



I participated in a Summer workshop organized by Prince George's County Public School's visionary supervisor of Mathematics, Dr. Martha Brown, in which she brought together a group of math teachers from the school system to create our own educational resources.  The experience was both liberating and invigorating, but we failed to develop an effective means of distributing the materials we made once we were finished making them. It occurred to me that the World Wide Web, which was just coming into common use then, could provide such a mechanism for the collaborative development and distribution of educational materials. 



Motivated by the College Board's switch from Pascal to C++, I went looking for a suitable programming language for our first year programming course and found Python.  Python was wonderful and the community was warm and welcoming, but at the time there were no textbooks using the language for introductory programming (and I don't think another high school anywhere in the world using Python).  Looking on the web, I found Allen Downy's Java textbook, How to think like a computer scientist.  HTTLCS was released under the GNU GPL, and I was thus free to make changes to it.  While I didn't feel competent to write a textbook from scratch, I did feel able to translate Allen's Java textbook into the Python textbook I needed, so that's what I did.  Soon after starting the translation process I setup the Open Book Project on ibiblio to host the work.



The Knowledge Trust honored me with their Education Award.  I'm not usually one for pomp and circumstance, but I have always treasured this award, since I know it was given in the same spirit in which it was earned.  While I tend to be much more intrinsically than extrinsically motivated, it does feel good to be recognized for my efforts by folks for whom I have the deepest respect.

As I embark this year on new OER projects for Firefox OS, GIS, and MicroPython, it is great to have the opportunity to take a brief look back.

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