September 9, 2008

Portrait: Jeff Elkner, Free Software activist and teacher

Author: Tina Gasperson

Jeff Elkner teaches high school students in Arlington, Va., about Linux and other Free Software. He's serious about helping budding computer scientists understand what FOSS is and what it can do for them, and he's one of those guys who always seems to be sharing his knowledge with others. One of Elkner's latest efforts, the Open Book Project, is a good illustration of his philosophy about sharing ideas and knowledge, which he says is similar to that of one of his heroes, Free Software advocate Richard Stallman.

Elkner, a 17-year veteran teacher in the Arlington Public School System, will spend the next five to 10 years helping to build Virginia's new Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Governor's Career and Technical Academy, in partnership with Northern Virginia Community College. He hopes it will become a model of 21st century interdisciplinary, project-based learning "that meets the broad educational needs of our students." For Elkner, it's all about the students, and it's all about giving. He's worked with the SchoolTool project to create a common global school administration infrastructure, and worked with students to set up Linux Terminal Server Project labs in low-income apartment complexes in the area. He promotes Free Software use with the One Laptop per Child project, and teaches Python to his beginning and advanced computer science students.

Elkner started college in New Jersey in 1979 "with the goal of finding the meaning of life, the universe, and everything," he says. His plans to triple major in mathematics, philosophy, and music fell through when he dropped out, got married, and moved to Puerto Rico. He couldn't find a job down there, so, in search of employment, found himself back at the mainland in the DC metro area. After a varied assortment of occupations, including time as a janitor, sales clerk, security guard, bank teller, hotel night auditor, and taxi driver, Elkner says he began to see life in a new way. "At first I needed to hold down two or three of these jobs at the same time to be able to afford to live. Coming from a relatively privileged Cherry Hill suburban upbringing, the reality of what working people on the lower end of the economic spectrum go through to survive had a deep impact on my world view."

That paradigm shift, coupled with his eventual employment as a substitute teacher, laid the path for Elkner to become a champion of Free Software ideals not only with code, but with everything he'd learned along the way. He wanted to share it all with the Arlington Public School system students who had captured his heart.

Elkner went on to earn a degree in Math from the University of Maryland and in 1991 became a math teacher at Forestville High School. He was introduced to Free Software when he was working on his master's degree from Bowie University. He says that as soon as he understood the philosophy behind the GNU project, "I became an activist for Free Software. I want to live in a world where people are good neighbors, and I want to do everything I can to be a good neighbor myself."

Elkner's new philosophy melded well with his love for his students, and it wasn't long until he was implementing new projects and ideas based on the Free Software philosophy. Eventually Elkner would found an effort called the Open Book Project, a cooperative effort between several teachers and book authors to distribute texts, courses, and other information online, so that anyone who wants to learn about computer science and information technology can have access to the information. The road that led to the Open Book Project as it exists today was bumpy at first.

"I had the good fortune to have Dr. Martha A. Brown as the supervisor of Mathematics when I worked in Prince George's County. Dr. Brown exposed her teachers to constructivist ideas and student center pedagogical practices. She brought us together in summer workshops to learn and create. One concrete product of those workshops was a wealth of learning materials that we developed ourselves in collaborative teams. I've been in the habit of making my own educational materials ever since."

Some of the potential of that work was never realized, Elkner says. "While developing educational materials together was certainly an invaluable experience for teachers, the materials we produced ended up in large three-ring binders collecting dust somewhere in the central office. I've seen the same thing happen since coming to teach in Arlington."

Elkner realized what was missing and started looking for ways to implement the distribution of educational materials. "To effectively produce and share materials in a useful way, we lacked two things: a way to distribute the materials quickly and cheaply, and an easy way for users of the materials to modify and customize them for truly student-centered use. Being a Free Software activist at the very time the World Wide Web was making its way into our classrooms made it easy for me to see how distributing free educational materials through the Web could provide a solution. Educational materials and software both benefit in similar ways from free development paradigms. If Allen Downey hadn't been a pioneer in releasing his introductory computer science textbook under the GNU/GPL, I would not have been able to turn it into the book I needed for using Python in my introductory computer science course. Around the time that SunSITE was becoming ibiblio.org, I wrote them and asked for space to share educational materials on which I was working, and the Open Book Project was born."

Elkner calls himself a "cheerleader" for Free Software. "I'm a bit more flexible than RMS when it comes to tactics, but I fully share his goals. Software is the expression of thought. I'm a teacher. Does proprietary mathematics have a place? What would it do to the development of mathematics if mathematicians could not share their ideas? The idea seems ridiculous. I feel the same way about software. I know from practice how free software breaks down boundaries and contributes to human development. It enables my students to learn the craft of software development by working side by side with professional programmers developing applications that really matter."

As far as his contributions to the community, Elkner tries to be flexible and available. "I try to do whatever needs to be done to promote software freedom, so I end up being a facilitator, project coordinator, advocate, mentor, or whatever else is required."

As Elkner has spent time trying to educate both his students and the system about Free Sofware, his biggest challenge has been finding acceptance in that system, moving from "being tolerated to being embraced," he says. "Arlington Public Schools is a great place to work. I've been a troublemaker since the beginning, but APS seems to always reward me for causing trouble. At first, though, I was definitely an outside dude doing my own backyard project with Free Software. They let me do what I wanted but did not actively support my efforts.

"A decade later, with a pretty good track record to show for my efforts, the situation has totally changed. For the last four years several of my students have been working on a competency tracking component for SchoolTool. We have received tremendous support for this project from both APS and the Virginia State Department of Ed., and we have succeeded to the point where a statewide pilot is planned for the coming school year. The original student developer is now working for a startup company in California using what he learned from working on SchoolTool."

Elkner says Free Software has benefitted him personally as well as professionally. "It has enabled me to be a more effective teacher, making my job more rewarding and my life happier. I also have the deep personal satisfaction that I am trying to be a good neighbor and am in some small way making the world a little better than I found it."

Our Portraits series seeks to profile individuals who are doing interesting things with free and open source software. If you know of someone you'd like to read about, please let us know.

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