50 Ways to be a FOSSer

From TeachingOpenSource

50 Ways to be a FOSSer

This page lists a variety of possible activities or assignments that involve Free & Open Source Software. Most of these were brainstormed at a workshop by a group of faculty involved in FOSS. Since then, the list has been expanded and organized into topic areas.

To Do

  • revise/refine list for conciseness & clarity – add links to supporting info, examples, etc.
  • put people to review, comment, clarify, vote for tasks they'd use if well documented


The following terms are used below to make the list more concise and avoid duplication.

  • Contributor - anyone who contributes to FOSS – code, design, docs, feedback, ideas, etc.
  • FOSS - free & open source software. “a FOSS”: a project; “FOSS”: the broader culture.
  • Forge - web site containing many FOSS – e.g. Sourceforge
  • Lead - anyone who coordinates or directs other contributors
  • Planet - blog aggregator for a FOSS or topic

Possible categories / dimensions for tags / taxonomy

  • ACM curricular areas & outcomes
  • relevant courses
  • prereq tools/skills
  • time/effort required – for instructor prep, student work, elapsed calendar time
  • requires input / effort from FOSS community - how much, what kind
  • produces something useful to FOSS project - what, how useful
  • unreviewed (doc) vs. reviewed (code) contribution

50 Ways by Category


  • A FOSS could be specified by instructor, selected from a set of choices, or chosen by student, depending on student experience, time available, etc.
  • Documentation tasks could apply to:
  • Tasks could be done alone, in pairs, teams, etc.
  • Tasks could result in:
    • blog posts, podcasts, vlogs, wiki pages, etc.
    • articles for magazines, newspapers, web sites, etc.
  • Results could be:
    • Submitted to instructor for evaluation.
    • Posted or shared for peer review (with other students in course).
    • Presented in class.
    • Discussed in class or online, etc.


  • Read recent article(s) and { answer questions | summarize | critique | present material }.
    • e.g. product reviews, culture of writing software, use within some environment, etc.
    • sites: opensource.com,teachingopensource.org
    • print: Linux Journal, Linux Magazine
  • Write an article about a topic related to FOSS and submit to a FOSS news blog/web site.
    • Good blogs/sites for publication?
  • Write a { review | tutorial | comparison } of { a | several } FOSS.
    • Good blogs/sites for publication?
  • Write an article on “what I wish I knew” - about FOSS; before starting a project or course.
  • Add a personal project blog to an appropriate planet (blog aggregator).
  • Interview a FOSS user and find out why they use FOSS, benefits/drawbacks, etc.
  • Study a FOSS contributor’s activities over time { week | month | semester } to understand the level of engagement and the type of interactions/contributions the person has made.
  • Interview a FOSS contributor to find out how they got involved, their role(s), their background, etc.
  • Shadow a FOSS contributor over time to see what they do, & summarize.
  • Create a lecture that provides a tour of the application domain landscape of FOSS.
    • Show market segment leaders (Apache, MySQL), tools (Eclipse, Notepad++), games (game engine), humanitarian, industry specific (e.g., ERP), etc. - this may be a pre/post-scavenger hunt lecture
    • Video it, Keep it short & modular for remixing.
    • Create a list of wanted topics, get community to contribute.
    • See examples from entrepreneurship education
    • http://www.prendismo.com/collection/ (was Cornell eClips)
    • http://ecorner.stanford.edu/
  • FOSS scavenger hunt: Study a FOSS to answer a set of questions (overview about project and product features)
    • Could also look at a forge (# of projects, what application domains, what languages, # added recently)

FOSS History

  • Research the history of a FOSS & summarize.
    • When did it start? How many releases? How many users?
    • Reading history on the site, talk to people involved, etc.
  • Review an archived discussion of a { chat | thread | forum | list } over a { day | week | month } and { summarize | categorize | reflect on } the content.
    • e.g. developer list, support list,
  • Study a completed defect or feature proposal, and create a concise summary, including details, people involved & their roles, steps taken.

Use & Evaluate

  • Search forge(s) or the Internet for FOSS that interests you.
  • Use & evaluate a FOSS that has been installed.
  • Download, install, use, & evaluate FOSS.
  • Read review(s) of FOSS, then download a "good" one, based on different criteria
    • e.g. community, features, ease of maintenance
  • Evaluate how good a FOSS would be to { use | contribute to} based on:
    • Size, maturity, level of activity, size of community, etc.
    • Features described in documentation or demos.
    • How easy it is to set up for use: e.g., download, install, customize, apply updates.
  • Compare and contrast 2+ FOSS to determine which to { use | contribute to }.
    • criteria from instructor, student, or target user
  • Install (help others install) one or more FOSS and/or FOSS plugins.
  • Install PortableApps on a flash drive, along with several portable FOSS for later use.
  • Install FOSS operating system on a flash drive.

Communication & Tools

  • Choose, investigate, and report on a forge. //what is the motivation or LO?//
  • View newest FOSS on a forge, then see how many new FOSS are created in a { day | week }.
  • Choose a (FOSS) RSS client, subscribe to RSS feeds for FOSS, read, and summarize.
    • RSS clients: Google Reader, RSSOwl
    • RSS feeds: any planet (feed aggregator), FOSS
  • Define IRC, determine why IRC is an appropriate means of communication within a community - what are the benefits, drawbacks?
  • Subscribe to an IRC channel, listen to a meeting, write summary of the content of the meeting and any observations about the mode of communication/type of communication.
  • Study IRC meetings: lurk; participate; write minutes or summary; plan agenda; run meeting.
  • Work remotely (using IRC, email, twitter, whatever) with another student to develop profiles for each other. (a web-page about you and your tech skills and interests).
  • Ask, comment on, answer, respond to question (on web forum, mailing list, IRC).
  • Study the social norms of communication within a FOSS community. (i.e. how to ask questions, respond, etc.)
  • Become familiar with public/private keys. //what is the motivation or LO?//
    • Generate public and private keys for use with SSH.
    • Install public key on remote server for passwordless access via SSH.
    • Exchange public keys with another student.
    • Use exchanged keys to send signs and/or encrypted messages.
    • Sign another student's public key
    • Get your public key signed by another student.
  • Sign a Contributors License Agreement (CLA) for a FOSS. //what is the motivation or LO?//
  • [meta] Learn to interact with the community by using various tools such as blogs, wiki changesets, ticketing systems, etc. // expand to specific tasks with specific tools //
  • [meta] Learn a tool, and teach others how to use it.
  • [meta] Learn that a text editor is a text editor, regardless of what it is. //how to do this?//
  • [meta] Learn how to choose a set of tools to use for a FOSS.

Culture, Intellectual Property

  • Research how a FOSS is organized, summarize findings, & reflect.
    • How many people are employed, who is employed, how they get paid.
    • Business model - how is the project funded, who is in charge, etc.
  • Select a FOSS, identify primary contributors (no more than 10), find their educational and work experiences, and summarize.
  • Understand why a major company (like IBM for example) contributes to FOSS.
    • What are the market pressures involved from an economic point of view?
  • Study software licensing (in general) and then discuss FOSS intellectual property issues.
    • Why is it OK to download & install some software but not other?
    • Why would developers give up their rights?
  • Compare & contrast 2+ FOSS licenses (e.g. in a matrix).

Philosophy / Politics

  • Study why people choose to use FOSS as opposed to other software.
  • Read "Little Brother" (by Cory Doctorow) //what is the motivation or LO?//
  • Study the international influence in FOSS projects, both as contributors and consumers.
    • cultural perspectives – freedom from multinationals companies (e.g. China, India)
  • Study cultural/policy implications of CC, GPL, etc.
    • Implications for pre-health, pre-law, etc.
  • Explore implications of philosophy/culture of FOSS for public policy.
    • Uber database of FOSS public policy decisions. Linked from Mel's blog.

Privacy / Security

  • Evaluate security for a FOSS: how many intrusions, severity, etc.
    • Compare with commercial products, industry practices
  • Write privacy policy //need more detail//
  • Develop security guidelines //need more detail//
  • Write about implications of software choice for security. //need more detail//
    • Diaspora (Facebook clone) and problems w.r.t. privacy/security
    • FOSS DBs, etc. (OpenMRS) -- issues, privacy, etc.


  • Organize & conduct a { installation festival | tutorial session } for a { FOSS | feature }.
  • { Observe | participate in | support | organize } a hackathon.
  • Raise money or other resources for an open source project.
  • [meta] Promote a project of interest using multiple tools/channels. //other examples?//


  • Review a page and summarize problems found.
    • for existing pages, or proposed changes/additions by other students
  • Find & improve a page that could benefit from editing / rewriting / improvement.
    • Find references (to other pages or resources) and add them (with appropriate links).
  • Find a "stub" page and expand it with research and related references.
  • Create a new page with appropriate research & related references.
  • “Garden” a site or other documentation – prune, restructure, etc.
    • Instructor could clone or create a sandbox area for this.
    • Major restructuring might require advance planning.
  • Test documentation (e.g. installation instructions) and summarize problems found.
  • Rewrite & simplify installation instructions for typical (non-technical) computer users.
  • Write concise and helpful instructions to install and configure FOSS on a specific system.
    • Specify version or date when install instructions become obsolete.
  • Create or update a glossary or vocabulary list for a FOSS.
  • Translate a page to a different language using { automated tools | expert knowledge }.
  • Convert written docs to video docs.
  • Convert video docs to written docs.
  • Develop UML diagram from an existing project. (argouml)

Visual Design

  • Create a storyboard or paper prototype, evaluate with users, revise, & summarize.
    • Clif has paper prototyping references, workshop slides, etc.
  • Create instructional comics.
  • Create a font or icon set.
  • [meta] Become a design ninja //expand / clarify - how does a student do this?//

Quality & Testing

  • In teams, students generate test sets for given code and an understanding of the codes purpose, and test that code.
  • Choose a fixed defect or feature, research its history (when & how reported, when & how fixed), and summarize in a 5 min format (in tracker, wiki, blog post, podcast, vlog, etc).
  • Choose an open defect or feature request from { mailing list | tracker | wiki }, verify that it exists, and expand & improve formal report (in tracker or wiki).
    • Create a new defect report from mailing list or personal experience.
    • Find a "bad" report and make it a "good" report.
    • Write a Bug Report (Activity)
  • Brainstorm list of possible enhancements for project, choose a few to document (see above).
  • Evaluate usability of a specified { feature | screen } and summarize results & conclusions (in tracker or wiki).
  • Role play / evaluate from other (non-student) perspectives.
  • Test documentation.
    • Evaluate (and improve) installation instructions.
  • Verify (and fix) development environment.
  • Develop an { automated test suite | repeatable test script }, contribute code, summarize results.
  • Test (perhaps a project that does JUnit testing).
    • Trace the execution of some piece of code.

Specification and Design

  • Explore a new feature for an existing project
    • Discuss how it might be implemented
    • Show actual code and implementation
  • Identify data structures used in a project.
  • Study code & docs, diagram system architecture, evaluate, summarize.
    • using guidelines supplied by instructor

Coding & Style

  • Given coding standard & sample code, list the changes needed for code to meet standard.
  • Given sample code, infer and document coding standard.
  • Analyze existing code to understand what it does and how it works.
  • Reformat, document, & refactor existing (others') code to make it more readable & consistent.
  • Analyze the sequence of function calls that produces a specified { feature | page | screen }.
  • Identify examples of a given { coding construct | data structure | pattern } in a FOSS.
    • could provide teachers with examples to use in other courses
  • Given specification & code, provide an itemized list of tasks and describe how each was met.
  • Given a problem and 2+ solutions to a problem, compare, summarize, & present.
    • naming conventions, coding style, efficiency, etc...
  • Given a problem, find 2+ solutions (to same or similar problem) and summarize the differences between the solutions.
  • Determine how well a { FOSS | component } meets its specifications.
  • Develop a code walkthrough
    • In teams of 2-3, students walk through working, uncommented code to determine its purpose.
    • Deliverables: A brief summary (1-2 paragraphs) describing the purpose of the code.
    • Could be senior level assignment, where students are asked to understand a complicated segement of code from a larger project. CS1-2: students are given a partial implementation of a class as to determine what a specific method does.
    • Document_Code_with_Meaningful_Comments_(Activity)
  • Given a comment, defect, or feature request, study & fix it, and submit as patch.
    • FOSS with plugins may be easier for this:
    • Drupal (e.g. shopping cart), Firefox, GreaseMonkey, Moodle
    • wiki formatting plugins
  • Develop UML diagram(s) for a FOSS.
    • FOSS UML tool: http://argouml.tigris.org/
    • PC Clements, & DL Parnas. 1986. “A rational design process: How and why to fake it.” IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering 12 (2): 251-257.
  • Find/study examples of well & poorly written code - style wise (layout, variable names)
    • Look at coding standard for an open source project (Java, Python)
    • Reformat code, rename variables, etc. (possibly commit back depending on project)
  • Add comments to a piece of code that has no or poor comments.

Product Packaging and Distribution

  • Configure FOSS according to given criteria or specification.
    • What are good examples of configurable FOSS - Drupal, wiki,
    • design & create a custom distribution
    • Share custom distribution with the FOSS community.
  • Maintain a build host. //needs more detail//
  • Understand and identify installation and IT support needs. //needs more detail//