The Durgapur Linux Users Group or dgplug started around 5 years back when Kushal and few of his friends got together with the usual aim of creating a group of users of Free and Open Source Software. It wasn’t an unusual LUG. At that point in time there were a number of such groups forming all over the country. Kushal and his friends took the well beaten path of approaching schools and colleges, helping set up install fests, guiding a few students in their projects. Sometime around the beginning of 2006, they registered #dgplug on Freenode. Even this was a known way of going forward. A lot of LUGs in India have their own (and perhaps registered) IRC channels. However, things did change from here onwards.
As per the current system of education, students of engineering (especially Computer Science and Information Technology) have to undertake a mandatory period of summer training. While the regulation was with all good intent, the side effect has been the exploding growth of ‘infotech’ houses which offer such training to the students at a cost. The current rate in West Bengal is around 3000 – 6000 INR per student. The students don’t really ‘learn’ anything at such places. They pay up the fees, meet with fellow students and at the end of the duration of the training obtain a ‘certificate’.
So, the #dgplug folks, largely led by Kushal figured out that a far better approach towards training could be undertaken if the training went ‘virtual’. Thus, IRC was chosen as the medium of communication and a ‘Summer Training’ curriculum was drawn up. Blogs and word-of-mouth was used to let students know about this. Not surprisingly, a large number of students signed-up to be part of this somewhat experimental training program. Experimental because, although a few FOSS projects do have regular classrooms, they are mostly focussed on specifics of the project and don’t blend with the curricula that the students would be familiar with. #dgplug also signed up a fairly impressive cast of mentors who could guide the proteges into the world of FOSS and especially coach them about how to become involved with various communities and sub-cultures that exist.
Since the mentors are from across various timezones, keeping the classroom virtual has worked out really well for both the protege students and #dgplug. The medium of IRC also allows transcripts or logs of the meetings to be archived for easy reading offline. The method is elegant and simple. The mentors pick up the topic and hold a classroom. They also provide homework to the students. The content of the homework is not something that can be copied from existing documentation, but requires some amount of original thinking. After the students learned about version control, the answers for the homework went into the training repository of #dgplug at http://dgplug.org/training/
At the end of the training, the students are expected to undertake a project for an existing FOSS community and submit it to the respective upstream. Pretty neat.
So, all this ends up achieving something significant. While this is a small beginning with a group of students and mentors, it does prove that IRC can be used to coach and mentor new contributors. And, it also provides some empirical evidence that coaching in FOSS need not be outside of the existing academic curricula. It can start from within and slowly gather momentum to bring about substantial changes. Even earlier, small study-group like environments to teach GNU/Linux have met with a reasonable amount of success viz. GLT-Madhyamgram, having a lot more training on #dgplug from mentors willing to contribute a small portion of their time would lead to impressive results.
Durgapur may be a small speck on the map of the country, the IRC channel #dgplug and the screencast channel surely isn’t. Not with a number of GSoC candidates from the region. And certainly not with the amount of activities that it conducts.
Update: If you are interested in becoming a mentor to a new batch of students and guide them towards contributing to FOSS, please join #dgplug on Freenode.