by Greg DeKoenigsberg
It’s been almost two weeks since Graduation Day. The kids produced great work. The parents and instructors were all terribly proud. Everybody went home and got plenty of sleep. Now that the buzz has just about worn off, it’s time to reflect on what we accomplished, and what exactly we should do next.
What is possible
The primary goal of Red Hat High, in this stage of its development, has been to prove that kids can do amazing things with free software. So how did we do? What did we prove?
We can’t showcase the work of every single camper from this year’s Red Hat High, but I’d like to highlight the work of two students in particular.
Sid V.: Heart Rush (download the ogg audio)
Heart Rush was created by Sid V. using Audacity, Hydrogen, and content from freesound and ccMixter. First came the beat: Sid played with a number of beat patterns in Hydrogen, then mixed them down to .wav format. Then came the remix content; Sid searched for cool stuff that matched the beats per minute of his Hydrogen beats. Then he put it all together in Audacity. Have a listen, and remember: Sid is 13 years old.
Cody L.: Dog Meets Hydrant (download the ogg video)
Dog Meets Hydrant (my name, not his) was created by Cody L. using Blender and some of the pre-formed models provided by the Blender instructors. Cody focused on the dog’s fur (textures), the dog’s ambling gait (movement), and the dog’s… relief (fluids). It’s a classic story, told only the way a 14-year-old can tell it. See for yourself.
And remember: these are works created by kids who, a week before, had never touched any of this software. Let there be no doubt–kids are clearly capable of learning how to use free software to great effect.
What’s next for Red Hat High?
As exciting as this week was, for counselors and teachers and kids and parents, it was still only a program for fifty kids. How do we build a program that will help fifty thousand kids?
The very first goal of Red Hat High was to prove that the concept was valuable–to prove that, if you give free software to kids and say “go create something insanely great,” they will do exactly that. I hope that we’ve accomplished that goal.
We’ve still got a lot to learn, though, and a lot more to do. Here are some ideas on how we can go further.
Focus on consumable curricula.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking with teachers over the last few years, and whenever I talk about the great things that free software can do for them and for their kids, the response is often something like this: “that sounds great, but I don’t even know where to start, and I don’t have much time.”
It’s not only possible, but critically important, to produce progressive, project-based curricula around free software tools, in simplified and easily consumable forms. There are a lot of free software tutorials out there; Nicu Buculei’s Inkscape tutorials are among the best, for example, and we drew heavily from these for Red Hat High. But wading through them can be a daunting task for the typically time-starved teacher, especially when many of these lessons are written by well-meaning power users who don’t realize how much they already know.
A strong community of teachers and free software enthusiasts should be able to develop, validate, and license simple lesson plans, with the explicit goal of teaching kids to do stuff that is both cool and immediately useful. It’s my hope that Red Hat High can serve as a model for that development.
Bring teachers into the process.
If I have one regret about this year’s Red Hat High, it’s that teachers didn’t have the opportunity to participate more directly. Of the fifty kids who participated in Red Hat High this year, roughly a half-dozen had teachers for parents. Those parents were among the most excited and engaged parents in the whole group.
It was great to have such enthusiastic supporters of free software at Red Hat High, and the kids learned a lot from them. Ultimately, though, the best, most experiences, most motivated teachers will be actual teachers–assuming, of course, that we can provide them with the subject matter knowledge. Which is why curricula come first.
When these curricula are more well-developed, it will then be time to reach out to the teachers. Their time is constrained, though, and it’s important to understand which levers to pull to liberate that time. Here’s a key lever: professional development. Teachers can directly increase their earning potential through professional development, and in many school districts, those development opportunities are actively funded. Providing these opportunities to teachers, in continuing education programs that reward them more directly for participation, could be just the thing to spur those teachers who have the interest, but not the time, to learn more about free software.
Find targets of opportunity.
Here’s the exciting thing about working with free software: anywhere there are underutilized computers, there are opportunities to teach.
Go into your local library. It’s very likely that there are computers there, of a recent enough vintage so that could comfortably run a lot of great free software. It’s also quite possible that those computers sit, unused, for long stretches of time. That’s an opportunity.
Or check out programs like Computer Clubhouse Network. Sponsored by Intel, the Boston Museum of Science, and the MIT Media Lab, its mission is to provide a creative and safe after-school learning environment for underserved kids to learn technology–a perfect fit for the Red Hat High mission. There are over a hundred branches of Computer Clubhouse worldwide. That’s another opportunity.
There’s no shortage of opportunities to use free software to do good. There may be a shortage of knowledge, but that’s a problem that can and should be fixed.
Find people who care enough to do something.
None of this happens without the right people. If you are a passionate user of free software, and if you care about teaching kids, then you can make a difference. Visit the Red Hat High advisors list. Read the archives, and if the thought of helping appeals to you, join the list and introduce yourself. We can use all the hands we can get.
It was a great Red Hat High 2007. But Red Hat High 2008 is only 11 1/2 months away, and it’s time to get back to work.