Software Freedom Day 2008 - Sudbury

Posted on Sun 21 September 2008 in Software Freedom

I opted to do something out of the unusual (for me) this year when I learned about Software Freedom Day; I signed up to organize an event in Sudbury. Given everything that was already on my plate, it was pure foolishness to do so - but it was also important to me to try and pull together people in Sudbury with an interest in open source and free software. I'm hoping that this is just the first of many such events.

Did I mention that trying to organize an event in an academic environment during August and early September is madness? I was incredibly fortunate to land three excellent guest speakers on very short notice.

Keynote: Open Source and Open Learning

Dr. Rachel Ellaway, Assistant Dean of Education Informatics at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, kicked off the event and instantly repaid all of the effort of putting together the whole event. In just one hour, she:

  • eloquently introduced the four freedoms of free software,
  • mapped the continuum of free software from public domain to closed source,
  • situated the academy and publicly funded institutions in the same philosophical category as open source,
  • posited that in education the process of learning was more important than the product,
  • introduced MIT's OpenCourseWare effort to make most of their course materials (syllabus, readings, lecture notes, assignments, and projects) freely available online,
  • discussed the problems of learning objects from the 80's and 90's that are now locked away in binary files that simply won't run on today's computers - and an effort named BoneYard that she is involved in to convince the rights holders to donate the source code (be it COBOL or BASIC or anything) behind these learning objects to a repository so that others can reuse the underlying algorithms and breathe new life into the objects,
  • questioned the continuing faith in "contact hours" as the gold standard for academic service when one hour spent developing a scenario for a virtual learning environment could engage students in multiple hours of active learning
  • wondered whether our institutions could move towards open administration and governance models

... all in an entertaining and engaging style. Sudbury and the Northern Ontario School of Medicine are lucky to have Dr. Ellaway in our midst.

Moodle course management software

We were also fortunate to have Dr. Rick Danielson, Full Professor in the School of Human Kinetics, on hand to discuss the history of course management software at Laurentian University and his own experiences with Ilias and Moodle. While on sabbatical in 1998, Dr. Danielson piloted the use of WebCT at Laurentian for course management and lead the creation of a purchasing consortium to license WebCT for more than 40 institutions across Ontario. A few years later, Dr. Danielson switched his personal WebCT server to the open source alternative Ilias coure management system; and, shortly after that, to Moodle. At the time, Ilias did not offer a module that supported online quizzes, and Dr. Danielson was also won over by Moodle's more refined interface. For Dr. Danielson, the choice between using the university's WebCT instance and Moodle running on his own server is all about control, saving money, and being lazy:

  • He craves control over his teaching environment and independence from central IT, and running his own Moodle server gives him that.
  • He watched the license fees for WebCT rise as it was acquired first by ULT and then by Blackboard, and doesn't mind that he has to spend some money on his own server because Moodle itself is freely redistributable
  • He was happy to work hard to learn how to install and administer Red Hat Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP in order to run Moodle - now he can be lazy because it simply works.

Dr. Danielson's talk was full of tangents and insider stories about the history of the university and Northern Ontario - quite entertaining and quite irreverent. He did a good job conveying the spirit of the early adopter of new technology to the audience, and in answer to the question of whether Laurentian's next course management system should be WebCT, he said Tuum est ("It's in your hands!").

Given that UQAM successfully automated the conversion of over 90% of their WebCT courses to Moodle (laziness is a virtue, remember), and given that we are facing a migration from WebCT to something else (the product name does not even appear on Blackboard's Web site), I hope that Laurentian will seriously consider Moodle. I have asked to be part of the evaluation committee for the next course management system here, as I want to ensure that we can provide much better integration between our library systems and our learning systems than we have today. I know that Evergreen will give us the flexibility we require on the library side; we need to ensure that we have a course management product with the flexibility that we need on the other side - and finally, we need the people willing to make the integration between the systems work and to demonstrate to faculty how they can easily take advantage of that integration.

ParaViewGeo - open source visualization from MIRARCO

The third guest speaker was Robert Maynard, lead developer for ParaViewGeo at E2VO, a subsidiary of MIRARCO. ParaViewGeo is a customized version of ParaView by KitWare. The BSD license used by ParaView gives E2VO the right to modify the software and redistribute binary versions of it without redistributing the source code; however, E2VO does plan to make most of their additions and customizations available, and has been pushing patches back to the upstream product.

Robert showed a number of screenshots that demonstrated how ParaViewGeo could transform basic two-dimensional diagrams into much richer three-dimensional visualizations. For example, ParaViewGeo can read AutoCAD files and do a far better job of displaying three-dimensional figures. Also, a CD of data produced for the Discover Abitibi initiative included a proprietary application with a license that timed out after one year, but ParaViewGeo was able to read and display the data in more detail than the original application was capable of.

Perhaps as interesting as the product was the insight that Robert provided on their software development process. Robert described how, due to a lack of students with software development skills in the Sudbury region, he opted to lead a three-week software development boot camp for their student developers starting from extremely basic principles ('let's open a file and write to it'), motivating them to achieve via competitive gaming techniques and tangible rewards ('whichever team successfully completes this problem first gets free lunch today'), group learning techniques (all seven team members worked in one large room; when a programmer hit a road block, Robert would demonstrate the solution on a projector so that all the team members could learn at once), and leading by example (Robert was always the first person in the room and the last person to leave).

Project Conifer: Open Source Academic Library System

I gave a presentation on Conifer, of course. Project Conifer is the effort to bring Evergreen to the Ontario academic libraries for Algoma University, Laurentian University and partners, McMaster University, Northern Ontario Health Integration Network, and the University of Windsor. I'm the project manager for Conifer and one of the core developers for Evergreen, so I can't possibly not talk about it on Software Freedom Day. As regular readers of this blog already know plenty about Conifer, I won't recap much here. The audience was quite impressed with the upgraded user experience that Evergreen offers out of the box over our current system, and sensed the potential for a system like this to offer integration with course management systems, integration with our inter-library loan system, and even the simple pleasures of direct physical borrowing between participating institutions.

I was also given the perfect excuse to purchase an iTouch with library or Conifer funds. One of the audience members asked if the dynamic interface supported the iPhone or iTouch, as they would like the ability to search for books or journals while in the stacks. I had to answer that I did not know, not being in possession of such a device, but was able to assert that Opera Mobile on my Windows Mobile cellphone worked extremely well. The audience member then tried out their own iTouch and determined that the interface was at least able to support search - but clearly I need to do a deeper investigation :-)

Artificially enhanced research : free software and fantastic research

This was my mostly-demo session, which probably would have been better delivered earlier in the day while both audience members and myself were fresher, but somebody had to have the last slot in the session. I presented a few free software tools that I thought would be of interest to researchers:

  • LibX browser toolbar for Laurentian University: I showed that while the LibX toolbar is handy as a quick way of searching our catalogue, it's much more about embedding quick access to our library resources within your browser. I quickly got off on a tangent, however, as I was showing the Google Scholar "magic button" and had to explain what Google Scholar was, how it differed from regular Google, and answer the faculty member's question about whether he should send students to our subject databases page or to Google Scholar (my answer: "Well, both!").
  • Zotero research plug-in for Firefox: while LibX got their attention, Zotero got the audience buzzing. Just a quick demonstration of capturing a set of citations from a Wikipedia page, adding a note, taking a snapshot of the Wikipedia page, organizing research into folders, adding tags, and searching in full-text through your captured materials (optionally filtering by tag) was enough to get most of the people in the room interested. Zotero makes research fun - students will want to do research just so they can play with Zotero!
  • LU|ZONE|UL institutional repository : by this point, I was running out of time, so I tried to quickly link back to Dr. Ellaway's discussion of open access and funding agencies' new requirements to deposit articles and datasets in institutional repositories. However, after pointing out that Laurentian has actually had an institutional repository in production for over a year, one faculty member asked why we should care about depositing articles if we have access to the article through our electronic journal subscriptions? I'm not as good at answering this question as I probably should be; my answer was that it's a means of making that content available to researchers at those institutions that don't have a subscription to that journal; and that it's a means for our institution to have direct access to our own researchers' output without necessarily having to continue to pay annual licensing fees to access that ouput. I also pointed out some of the opportunities that alternate publishing formats like institutional repositories make possible; Guy Gaudreau's book `Les hauts et les bas de la vie des mineurs de Kirkland Lake <>`__ would not have been published with the striking colour charts he was able to include in the fully-digital version he contributed to LU|ZONE|UL - nor would he have had the ability to publish each chapter as it was finished and use the feedback to improve the rest of the book or to reissue corrections to that chapter.
  • Finally, I mentioned our library's quick lookup laptops which now run on Linux LiveCDs for stability, robustness, environmental friendliness, and budget purposes. They're an open source experience that our library members use on a daily basis without any apparent problems; they "just work".

So... to sum up, I believe the event was well worth the effort. We had approximately twenty participants with a mix of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, librarians, and members of the public (including one fellow who drove all the way from North Bay to attend!). Now that I know what I'm doing, and now that we have a better idea of the interested parties on campus, I believe that we will be able to build a bigger event next year. I don't think I would hold it on a Saturday again, even if that's when Software Freedom Day is officially scheduled, because students and faculty really value their weekends. And I hope that we have more events - perhaps smaller, perhaps less formal, and perhaps more frequent - throughout the year.

Finally, I want to thank the team of people at the J.N. Desmarais Library that helped me to make this event possible, in no particular order: Leïla Saadaouai, Dorothy Robb, Christine Guerra, Noella Cliche, Ashley Thomson, and Joscelyne Meilleur. Your efforts were certainly appreciated by our participants today.