September 6, 2007

European Union sponsors new FOSS education portal

Author: Bruce Byfield

Heavily funded by the European Union, the Science, Education, and Learning in Freedom (SELF) consortium launched the beta version of its site this week with the motto, "Be SELFish, share your knowledge!" By the end of the year, SELF hopes to develop into the Wikipedia of free learning materials, with a heavy emphasis on material about open standards and free and open source software (FOSS). All contributions, says David Megías, a Lecturer at the University of Catalonia and one of the SELF's organizers, will be "encouraged and accepted, unless they have to be removed for legal reasons." The twist here is that all contributions will be evaluated by the community, so that users can assess the quality of the materials that they are using.

The original consortium consisted of the Internet Society Netherlands; the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (University of Catalonia) in Spain; Free Software Foundation Europe; the University of Gothenburg in Sweden; the Internet Society Bulgaria; the Fundación Vía Libre of Argentina, and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in India. All these seven partners have contributed additional funds to the project, and SELF is currently organizing a program to accept donations from other sources.

According to Megías, the purpose of SELF is "to disseminate information about free software and open standards in order to contribute to the advance of the usage of free technologies. On the one hand, it provides information, educational, and training materials that can be presented in different languages and forms, from course texts, presentations, e-learning programs, and platforms to tutor software, e-books, instructional and educational videos, and manuals. On the other hand, it offers a platform for the evaluation of, adaptation, creation, and translation of these materials."

Megías explains that the main intent is to offer information on FOSS concepts and applications as well as university-oriented training. Initially, the emphasis is on introductions to FOSS, but Megías envisions more advanced material being added to the site as well. Currently, postings on the site are relatively sparse, varying from the User Guide to an online version of Sam William's Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software and one or two outdated or incomplete guides on such subjects as GNOMES and Emacs. A placeholder for materials on Physics is also present. However, Megías says that plans are underway to have project members update existing materials and add new information as needed.

All material on SELF will be released under a free license. Licenses currently identified as acceptable include the GNU Free Documentation License, Creative Commons Attribution and Attribution-Sharealike, the FreeBSD Documentation License, and Apple's Common Documentation Licenses. Other licenses will be evaluated based on whether they allow for unlimited reuse, modification, and distribution. Material produced by SELF members will be released under the GNU Free Documentation License, as specifically required by the project's legal policy.

As with Wikipedia, anyone is welcome to contribute. However, in an effort to address the concerns about quality that have continually surrounded Wikipedia, SELF plans to implement what Megías refers to as a mechanism for "natural selection" -- a rating system for both writers and content. The initial rating will be given by project members, and will be based on several factors, starting with the writer's previous contributions on the same subject and the ratio of the writer's accepted contributions to those they have submitted. Other factors considered in the initial rating will be how often and how recently the writer has submitted material, and how much the contribution improves the quality of the coverage of a topic on the site.

In addition, contributors can improve their ratings by adding material about topics that are not already covered on the site -- a move that Megías says is intended to encourage people to help fill the gaps in the site. He adds that other criteria will likely be added as the site develops. Through this rating system, users will be able to assess the quality and reliability of the material they are using, and contributors will be able to identify topics that require more or better coverage.

Megías expects that about 100 contributions from members of the original consortium should be posted by the end of this year, and about one-sixth of these contributions are posted already. However, SELF hopes that volunteers will contribute far more. "The amount of contributions by volunteers is so far unpredictable," he says, "But, if the site is a success, we can expect an exponential growth in the number of available contents during the first month of activity. The key to becoming a successful platform is to build a community around it, and that is what we expect to fulfill in the following few months."


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