September 5, 2007

Red Hat High campers are bridging the digital divide

Author: Tina Gasperson

One of the things Red Hat CEO Matthew Szulik loses sleep over is the digital divide, especially when it comes to children. He wanted to do something about the disparity in the availability of computing resources and skills between social classes, so he set aside corporate funds to create Red Hat High, a week-long technology summer camp for eighth- and ninth-grade students.

The goal of Red Hat High is to use free software to introduce disadvantaged kids to technology they might not otherwise be able to afford, encouraging them to pursue further education and career opportunities. Red Hat High bundles free software alternatives to expensive proprietary applications on a Fedora live CD that campers can take with them to use on any computer. The program has been in "beta" for two years, according to Greg DeKoenigsberg, Red Hat's director of community development. "The first two years have been good," he says. "Lots of happy kids and happy parents." He calls it a successful trial, but one that must "scale up" in order to continue to be successful. "We're not in the business of doing small things at Red Hat."

Camp is in session for one week in July, on the campus of North Carolina State University. During the day, the 50 Red Hat High campers learn how to create audio and video files, design Web sites, and build 3-D animations using free software like Audacity and Blender. The evenings are reserved for field trips to bowling alleys and movies and other fun activities. DeKoenigsberg says, "We took them to the Digital Circus, a junior college level school for learning the same stuff they were learning at Red Hat High. One of the students at Digital Circus was showing them what he's learned. 'This is a wireframe,' he said, and they said, 'We learned all of that already.' Then the professor comes in and says, 'Let's show you some stuff that you don't know. Do any of you know what IK is?' And they said, 'Yes, that's inverse kinematics.'" Free software gives the children the ability to learn the same techniques and skills that college-level students are learning, at a much lower cost, DeKoenigsberg says. Maya, the 3-D computer animation application that students at the Digital Circus use, can cost $7,000. Blender is free.

Now that DeKoenigsberg has two years of Red Hat High under his belt, he's ready to take the program to the next level. "There's some cost to holding a residential summer camp, and it doesn't scale as well as we would like," he says. Red Hat can provide all the financial backing necessary to translate the program into something that can serve the needs of more kids. "We would like to develop a strong affiliation with some entity that can house the kids," DeKoenigsberg says. "We don't run a residential summer camp as our core competency at Red Hat. But what we can do is gather a community of developers and users around open content for an important social purpose."

DeKoenigsberg hopes that the education kids received at Red Hat High can be translated into something portable and scalable. "We putting together a deployable curriculum in a box, and making sure we have something that is turnkey." The lessons have to be understandable and usable by the average junior high school teacher, so that more than just a handful of children each year benefit from the program. "If it's only going to be 50 kids, it's not worth doing," DeKoenigsberg says. "It doesn't make enough of an impact. The opportunity for free software to change the way kids learn is too big." Along with the goal of making a teacher-friendly curriculum, DeKoenigsberg says it is important to get some real world feedback from actual teachers. "We are developing the curriculum in a wiki style, so that teachers can change it directly. After that, the next priority is internationalization.

DeKoenigsberg admits there are some real world challenges associated with providing kids with a free software alternative. One of those is the fact that just having a live CD is not enough for a student who doesn't have access to a computer outside of school hours. And even for those who can use a computer at the library or elsewhere, saving files once they have been created can be a problem. At Red Hat High, each student had a scratch space on the network on which to save files. DeKoenigsberg says one of the possible future projects for the Red Hat High community is to bundle the files on a bootable, writable USB key. "The cost of that will become lower over time."

As the senior community development manager, DeKoenigsberg is used to the idea of building a community around a cause. "People are deeply incented to spread the goodness of free software," he says. "And the educational market is strategic to people who care about the advancement of free software. It's strategic to the company for obvious reasons, and to the community for similar reasons." He compares the philosophy behind Red Hat High to his company's involvement with the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative. "We have a very calculated social consciousness. OLPC is about getting that laptop into the hands of as many kids as possible. Red Hat High is about getting the understanding of what free software can do into the brains of as many kids as possible."


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