Teaching Open Source at Harvard University

open source education

Everyone seems to agree that teaching students to code is important.

However, most of our education system seems to be stuck in the 20th century, teaching Dreamweaver and other outdated systems.

Fortunately, we get to talk with an increasing number of teachers who include open source in their classes. Over the next few weeks, we’re running a series called “Open Source in Education”, and we’re talking with several of those teachers.

Last week, we spoke with Tessa Mero who is teaching PHP in the Seattle area.

This week, we’re talking with Jen Kramer who is based in Boston and teaching with Harvard University.

Welcome, Jen. So you’re teaching open source software at Harvard?

Yes, I’ll be teaching “Understanding and Developing Multimedia” and “Introduction to Content Management Systems” in the 2013-2014 academic year at Harvard Extension School.

Can you explain a bit more about the Extension School and how its related to Harvard?

harvardHarvard Extension School (website built in Drupal) is part of Harvard University, kind of like the law school or the medical school. However, HES is responsible for continuing education courses. They offer more than 600 on-campus and online courses. They also offer undergraduate or graduate credit for their courses, and you can enroll in a degree program as well.

So the students will be a little older? Perhaps people who have already started their career?

I believe that to be true… but since I teach these courses wholly online, I don’t ever see the students face to face. It’s hard to judge ages from that!

So these courses are delivered via webinar? Is that a very different experience as a teacher?

These are asynchronous online courses. That means that once a week (usually on a Tuesday), I post a lecture and assignment for the week. The lecture is usually a recorded video I make. I use Camtasia to film my screen and use voiceover to narrate what I’m doing. I provide the students with all files used in the lecture, with links to information for more reading. I also give an assignment based on the lecture material. I encourage students to go beyond what I give them, though, and to read other materials online and share those resources with the class via an online discussion, which is where students can ask questions.

What do you teach in “Understanding and Developing Multimedia”?

Historically, this has been a Flash web development class. However, given where the web is headed, it’s time for an overhaul. I’ll be looking at HTML5, CSS3, JavaScript and jQuery, and responsive design frameworks in this class. I’ll focus some on the cutting, bleeding edge of HTML5, so people can learn about what’s coming next but isn’t necessarily well-supported just yet. Think the HTML5 audio and video tags, and we might take a look at canvas as well. I will also cover some more mainstream techniques in use right now, like responsive design. We’ll also think a lot about mobile and what “interactivity” and “multimedia” really mean.

And in “Introduction to Content Management Systems”?

Again, historically, this course has had two parts. In the first half, the course has focused on a bunch of different types of CMS: WordPress, Moodle, Wall.FM, a wiki, etc. In the second half of the course, it’s gone deep into one CMS, usually Joomla. This time, I’m updating the course to focus just on the big three: WordPress, Drupal (probably via Drupal Gardens), and Joomla. I’m hoping students will take the same site and build it in all 3 CMSs, comparing and contrasting their experience with each. However, if they want to build 3 sites, that will be OK too. I think it’s time to focus on those 3 systems since they do have dominance in the market, and I’m hoping that these big names will bring in lots of students as well.

Wonderful, thanks Jen. So do you have any advice for teachers trying to run innovative courses like this at colleges?

jen kramerEvery college is different in terms of what faculty are allowed to teach. Some schools I’ve taught at have a syllabus already prepared, and you construct your lectures around that. I’ve even taught at a school where the entire online shell is provided, and you’re basically there to answer questions, moderate student discussions, and grade the work. In Harvard Extension’s case, I was able to propose these courses for their review, and then they would approve these (or choose not to run them), according to their vision and what’s happening at the school. I do get a lot of freedom to take these courses where I want to go, which I find unusual at most schools.

If you are teaching at a college or university where you feel the curriculum is out of date, I think it’s worth trying to talk with someone about it. Unfortunately, many colleges and universities are still teaching Dreamweaver, fixed-width websites, XHTML, and there isn’t a CMS in sight. I think there’s many reasons for this problem, not the least of which is that it’s just hard to change the curriculum at a college in a year or less. Most schools certainly don’t turn on a dime! But if you have the opportunity to raise the issue of outdated curriculum, with some solid ideas of what should be taught, I would encourage you to do so.

If you’re a business owner, particularly a website development agency owner, you can get involved as well. Talk to your local community college about the skills you need in recent graduates vs. what’s being taught at the school now. Outside pressure from the business community, particularly at community colleges, can help change the curriculum also. Community colleges are usually public institutions, and they usually have a mandate to respond to the business community. You may find 4-year colleges and universities to be less receptive to this pressure, but it’s still worth voicing your opinion to a department chair.

I would love to meet other educators who are working on this issue of out-of-date web curricula at colleges and universities. I wrote a blog post last year, summarizing the issue as I see it.  However, I’d like to find other people who are interested in this problem and possible solutions, so that we can support each other and share ideas. Please email me if you’re interested. Thanks!

Are you teaching open source? Be part of this interview series

If you’re teaching open source and would like to be part of this series, send me an email to  steve@ostraining.com.


  • Steve Burge

    Steve is the founder of OSTraining. Originally from the UK, he now lives in Sarasota in the USA. He was a teacher for many years before starting OSTraining. Steve wrote the best-selling Drupal, Joomla, and WordPress books.

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11 years ago

If these courses are online, who can register for them? This is exactly what I’ve been looking for. I live in the boonies in Tennessee, and it is almost two hours to get to Memphis or Nashville. So if there were an extension of UT or any other school out here, I would take the courses. It’s the driving that gets me!

I’m so glad to see educators are looking forward to what the demand will be in business and not just what they’ve done all along. If it’s not inappropriate, can you make a contact list of where these courses are being offered and contacts?

Thanks for this article! It gives me hope.

Pat Vanden Bosche

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