Straight from the Source

Students and Yeates

open-source [oh-puh n-sawrs, -sohrs], adj. 1. Computers. pertaining to or denoting software whose source code is available free of charge to the public to use, copy, modify, sublicense or distribute. 2. pertaining to or denoting a product or system whose origins, formula, design, etc., are freely accessible to the public. Unabridged

More and more companies and organizations are starting to see the advantages of open source technology and how it can revolutionize business as we know it.

Given that, it’s exciting that a group of WMU students recently had the opportunity to explore the theory of open source and the practice of building a streamlined and functional website for instructors who are teaching the subject to their students.

In the business web architecture course, Dr. Alan Rea, professor of business information systems, has traditionally paired students with non-profit organizations that need a website overhaul. This year, the entire class was working on one website, teaching The site is devoted to providing teaching resources for instructors who want to incorporate open source into their classes. However, as time has worn on and management of the site has turned over, the repository of teaching resources has become harder to navigate, thereby affecting the potential impact of the site in the teaching community.

So, how did Rea learn of the need for this redesign and begin a conversation that resulted in a commitment from WMU in helping to rebuild this site for optimal user experience?

Enter Nick Yeates, open source strategist at Red Hat. As the only billion dollar open source company, Red Hat’s mission is “to be the catalyst in communities of customers, contributors and partners creating better technology the open source way.”

And having more teachers introduce students to the concept of open source is definitely a way to bring the open source concept to the next generation of IT professionals, managers and decision makers. Red Hat is part of the TeachingOpenSource community and was looking into options for improving the website.

Rea and Yeates met at the Professors Open Source Software Experience, a workshop for computer science and computer information systems professors, which Red Hat co-sponsors along with a National Science Foundation grant. As Yeates spoke about the challenge of making teaching a more intuitive and navigable site, Rea saw an opportunity to engage his students in the redesign of the website and offered to take on the project in his fall web architecture course.

Yeates then traveled to WMU in October for three days, speaking to classes and student groups, as well as meeting with many students, including intensive sessions with those who would be working on the site.

The goal was to give the class the opportunity to gain first-hand experience in what it means to work on an open source project as well as to propose ideas for improving the user experience that the website provides.

The students divided into five teams, each responsible for a different area of the site as well as collaborating with fellow teams and Yeates.

"Programmers want to contribute to open source when given the choice. They feel as if they are helping the greater good. Students at WMU got a flavor of this culture and development paradigm."
-Nick Yeates

StudentsProject Management: This team was the glue that held all aspects of the project together, managing schedules, deliverable dates and communication. Team members served as liaisons to each team as well as the client.

Design and User Interface: This team was responsible for the art, design, layout and color themes throughout the site as well as ensuring the site met Red Hat design standards for usability and branding.

Information Architecture: After pruning material from the old site, this team focused on organization and usability, creating an entirely new site structure where users can find what they need

System Analysis: After researching and recommending a content management system, this team had the critical role of documenting and explaining the system to both administrators and users.

System Administration: This team was responsible for the technical implementation of the servers, programming scripts and making sure the site was secure, robust and reliable. If they have done their job well, no user will wait for web pages to load or have issues with the site availability.

The students met virtually with Yeates weekly to assess progress, pose questions and think together about the best solutions for different aspects of the site.

For the students, this was a dream opportunity. Since Red Hat allotted time in Yeates’s schedule for this project, he was available to engage with the student teams. “I think I speak for everyone in our CIS 3900 class when I say this has been a tremendous experience that will benefit all of our careers,” says Kathleen Cotter, a senior electronic business marketing major. “Nick Yeates from Red Hat and Dr. Rea have provided a learning experience that goes beyond the classroom into
the professional world. As a project manager, I learned the importance of time management, collaboration and cohesion. I am so grateful for this experience and value the opportunity to learn from not only Nick and Dr. Rea but also from my classmates whose unique skills have contributed to the success of this project.”

For Yeates, the experience allowed him to connect with students, introduce them to a broader understanding of open source and generate useful proposals for the site redesign. “I truly treated this as the students and I being on the same team—all of us working together. Red Hat benefited by getting 20 smart minds to work on our project for three months,” says Yeates. “Programmers want to contribute to open source when given the choice. They feel as if they are helping a greater good. Students at WMU got a flavor of this culture and development paradigm.”

And for Rea, the class allowed him to engage his students in a rich and complex project that had a meaningful impact on their learning.

“At the college, we often work with our business partners to enrich the student experience,” says Rea. “This project has taken this interaction to an entirely new level. Not only were we working with a multi-national technology business on a highly visible project but also collaborating with the company on an almost daily basis. Nick’s virtual project sprints and classroom work sessions became mainstays of the class this semester. Students took away an intimate understanding of how software development is an intense collaborative effort among skilled knowledge workers. This experience mirrors the atmosphere they will encounter beyond WMU.”