Brazil Program/Education program/Learning/Case study USP2012

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Note: this was written as a reflection piece by students of the course.

We present here observations made during the classes of Open Source Software Development course, part of the PhD program in Computer Science at IME-USP (São Paulo / SP - Brazil). This course took place between December 2011 and January 2012 in Campo Mourao based on DINTER partnership agreement established between the Institute of Mathematics and Statistics from the University of São Paulo (IME-USP) and Federal Technological University of Paraná - Câmpus Campo Mourao (UTFPR-CM). The professor of this course was Dr. Fabio Kon and the students are lecturers of UTFPR-CM, which are also PhD students of the program. Every student actually is teaching topics related to programming languages and development methodologies for at least five years, which gave the group a considerable background in software development using several tools and technologies.

Learning about open source software in different spheres of knowledge is not an easy task to be performed. To understand the concepts of open source we have to explore at least the definitions, licenses, examples of open source software development and applications. During the course, it is common to ask students to join the open source community by developing existing open source projects, fixing bugs or implementing new features, for example. However, the formation of skills regarding open source software development arose several challenges in its implementation. We consider the information presented here valid as an experience. This way, other professors and students may try to minimize some of the problems we had during the course. Before get to the Wikipedia writing, let’s talk a bit about the course. The first part of the course was a bit theoretical. The professor presented several lectures including topics like background and history of open source community, open source projects, and how to get papers published in the scientific community. This was very important for our next steps: engage the open source community. The second part of the course was much more practical. Students (grouped by three) should select an open source project which they should contribute; they would also give individual and group seminars about open source and related topics; finally, the whole group (all 15 students) should contribute in one or more articles in Wikipedia. The chosen topic was Open Source Software. As we decided to contribute in the Portuguese version of Wikipedia, the main article chosen was “Software Livre”. Pages and subpages of this article were edited, including: “Software livre” (main article), “Licença de software livre”, “Open Source Initiative”, “Software livre na indústria”, “FSF”, “Linux (núcleo)”, “Software livre nos governos”, “História do software livre”, “United Linux”, and “Eventos de software livre” among others.

Both project development and seminars went fine. Groups selected open source projects, and contributed by several ways: bug fixing, implementing new features, translating and developing tutorials. Although there were problems related to open source project management which we will not present here, the results were fine.

Our contribution to the Wikipedia started with the students choosing topics related to open source software. Each student created their user account on Wikipedia and chose a topic from the discussion page. This late creation of user accounts brought some problems, as e.g. user accounts with less than 30 days may have problems to upload images or have some of the contributions mistakenly reverted by Salebot (Salebot is a mechanism originally designed to eliminate vandalism on the Wikipedia, but sometimes ends up eliminating good content produced by contributors. Users contributing to Wikipedia may review these changes by visiting the history page, and, if necessary, revert the action of Salebot, just like we did sometimes). Another problem identified and properly corrected by Salebot occurred when the edits were made ​​by users not logged. This is, by far, the main contribution of Salebot to the Wikipedia.

The contents created by students were based on the classes given during the course and also on many other secondary sources, such as the Open Source Community sites and scientific articles. Even having this concern with what was being written in mind, many contributions were undone by other WIkipedia users not involved in the course or in our effort to rebuild the article.

Somehow we realized that this content elimination (reverting an user contribution) could give points to the user profile doing this. To do so, a Wikipedia user must mark one revision of a page as spam and just revert the contribution by selecting a previous version of the page in the history page. We could notice a group of users at Wikipedia that wanted, at any cost, get a improvement on their profile, winning points by removing “spam” content. Acting like “vigilantes”, users kept on reverting our contributions without even read the changes made. For this group of users, their criteria and the Salebot criteria does not seems to be the same. Even more, these users are far more aggressive than the bot originally developed to confront spammers. After long discussions involving students and these users, the number of reverts reduced drastically. Reviews started coming the way they were expected: lack of references on contents, lack of citations and text format were correctly marked. When things settled down we could finally review the contributions to solve the “real” problems pointed by other users.

During this contribution time on Wikipedia we had quite an experience. Contributing to Wikipedia may or not be an easy experience. Users with a bit more experience on Wikipedia will already know how to deal with the problems we had. However, we must say that a newcomer contributing and having what he considers “precious work” reverted a number of times will, for sure, discourage him to ever edit articles on WIkipedia again. Some studies say that if a user spend quite a time reading the history page and understanding the structure of an article, contributions made to this article have less chances to be reverted. Nevertheless, when contributing to Wikipedia we still may find users that insists, at any cost, to build a good reputation, even though this represent to destroy good contributions on Wikipedia.