Open@RIT: The Birth of an Academic OSPO

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By Stephen Jacobs

Image: RIT

What is an Academic OSPO?

The academic space has begun to see activity around the idea of Open Source Program Offices at colleges and universities.  Like their industry counterparts, these offices lead or advise administrative efforts around policy, licensing compliance, and staff education.  But they can also be charged with efforts around student education, research policies and practices, and the faculty tenure and promotion process tied to research.

Johns Hopkins University (JHU) soft-launched their OSPO 2019, led by Sayeed Choudhury, Associate Dean for Research Data Management and Hodson Director of the Digital Research and Curation Center at the Sheridan Libraries in collaboration with Jacob Green with MOSS Labs. Other universities and academic institutions took notice.

Case Study: Open@RIT

I met Green at RIT’s booth at OSCON in the summer of 2019 and learned about JHU’s soft launch of their OSPO.  Our booth showcased RIT’s work with students in Free and Open Source humanitarian work. We began with a 2009 Honors seminar course in creating educational games for the One Laptop per Child program. That seminar was formalized into a regular course, Humanitarian Free and Open Source Software. (The syllabus for the course’s most recent offering can be found at this link)

By the end of 2010, we had a complete “Course-to-Co-Op lifecycle.” Students could get engaged in FOSS through an ecosystem that included FOSS events like hackathons and guest speaker visits, support for student projects, formal classes, or a co-op experience. In 2012, after I met with Chris Fabian, co-founder of UNICEF’s Office of Innovation, RIT sent FOSS students on Co-Op to Kosovo for UNICEF. We later formally branded the Co-Op program as LibreCorps. LibreCorps has worked with several FOSS projects since, including more work with UNICEF. In 2014 RIT announced what Cory Doctorow called a “Wee Degree in Free,” the first academic minor in Free and Open Source Software and Free Culture. 

All of these efforts provided an excellent base for an RIT Open Programs Office. (more on that missing “s” word in a moment) With the support of Dr. Ryne Raffaelle, RIT’s VP of Research, I wrote a “white paper” on how such an office might benefit RIT. RIT’s Provost, Dr. Ellen Granberg, suggested a university-wide meeting to gauge interest in the concept, and 50 people from 37 units across campus RSVP’d to the meeting. A subset of that group worked together (online, amid the early days of the pandemic) to develop a “wish list” document of what they’d like to see Open@RIT provide in terms of services and support. That effort informed the creation of the charter for Open@RIT approved by the Provost in the summer of 2020.

An Open Programs Office

Open@RIT is dedicated to fostering an “Open Across The University” as a collaborative engine for Faculty, Staff, and Students. Its goals are to discover and grow the footprint, of RIT’s impact on all things Open including, but not limited to, Open Source Software, Open Data, Open Science, Open Hardware, Open Educational Resources, and Creative Commons licensed efforts; what Open@RIT refers to in aggregate as “Open Work.” To highlight the wide constituency being served the choice was made to call it an Open Programs Office to avoid being misread as an effort focusing exclusively on software. The IEEE (which Open@RIT partners with), in their SA Open effort , made the same choice.

In academia, there’s growing momentum around Open Science efforts. Open Science (a term that gets used interchangeably with “Open Research” and “Open Scholarship”) refers to a process that keeps all aspects of scientific research, for the formation of a research plan onward, in the Open. This Scientific American Op-Ed (that mentions Open@RIT) points to the need for academia to become more Open. Open Educational Resources (I.E., making course content, texts, etc., Free and Open) is another academic effort that sees broad support and somewhat lesser adoption (for now).  

While the academic community favors Open Science and Open Educational Resource practices, it’s been slow to adopt them. This recently released guide from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics, a bellwether organization, adds pressure to academia to make those changes.

What’s Open@RIT Done Since the Founding?

Drafting Policies and Best Practices Documents

Policy creation in academia is and should be slow and thoughtful.  Open@RIT’s draft policy on Open Work touches every part of the research done at the university.  It’s especially involved as it needs to cover three different classes of constituents.  Students own their IP at RIT (a rarity in academia) except when the university pays them for the work that they do (research assistance ships, work-study jobs, etc.), Staff (the University owns their IP in most cases), and Faculty. The last are a special case in that researchers and scientists are expected to publish their work but may need to work with the university to determine commercialization potential.  It also needs to address Software, hardware, data, etc. 

Our current draft is making the rounds to the different constituencies and committees, and that process will be completed at some point in academic year 21-22.  In the meantime, parts of it will be published as Open@RIT’s best practices in our playbook, targeted for release before the end of Fall semester. Our recommendations for citing and supporting Open Work in Tenure and Promotion will also be part of the playbook and its creation is supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation grant and by the LFX Mentorship program

Faculty and Staff Professional Development

In October of 2020, The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation funded a proposal by Open@RIT funding some general efforts of the unit and, in particular, a LibreCorps team to support what we’re now calling the Open@RIT Fellows Program. We’re charged with supporting 30 faculty projects over two years and already have twenty-one that have registered, with about one-third of those project support requests completed or in progress. In many ways, the Open@RIT Fellows program could be considered an “Inner Source” effort.

This Zotero curated collection of articles, journal papers, book chapters, and videos on various aspects of Open Work and Open scholarship is the first step in our professional development efforts. It includes links to drafts of our recommendations around releasing Open Work and on building your evaluation, tenure and promotion cases with Open Work. We hope to offer professional development-related workshops in late fall or early spring of the coming AY.

Student Education

Open@RIT is wrapping up our “Open Across the Curriculum” efforts.  While we’ve had several courses and a minor in place, they mostly were for juniors and seniors.  Those classes were modified to begin accepting sophomores, and some new pieces are being brought into play.  

At RIT, students are required to take an “Immersion,” a collection of three courses, primarily from liberal arts, designed to broaden students’ education and experiences outside of their majors. The Free Culture and Free and Open Source Computing Immersion does just that and opens to students this fall. 

Within the month, Open@RIT will distribute a set of lecture materials to all departments for opt-in use in their freshman seminars that discuss what it means for students to own their IP in general and, specifically, what Opening that IP can mean in science, technology, and the arts. 

Once the last pieces fall into place, students will be able to learn about Open as Freshmen, take one or both of our foundational FOSS courses Humanitarian Free and Open Source Software and Free and Open Source Culture as Sophomores and then go on to the Immersion (three courses) or the Minor (five courses) should they so choose.

Advisory Board and Industry Service

Open@RIT meets three times/year with our advisory board, consisting of our alums and several Open Source Office members from Industry and related NGOs. 

Open@RIT is active in FOSS efforts and organizations that include IEEE SA Open, Sustain Open Source’s Academic and Specialized Projects Working Group and CHAOSS Community’s Value working group.

Next Steps

By the end of 2022, Open@RIT will complete all of the points in its charter, hold a campus conference to highlight Open Work being done across the university, and complete a sustainability plan to ensure its future.

About the author: Open@RIT is an associate member of the Linux Foundation. Its Director Stephen Jacobs serves on the Steering Committee of the TODO Group and as a pre-board organizer of the recently announced O3DE Foundation moderating an International Game Developers Association RoundTable for the upcoming Game Developers Conference.