Free Technology Academy working to offer more Free Software online teaching

The Free Technology Academy (FTA) is an international institution based in Europe, whose goal is to provide online education, at master level, about Free Software. I recently spoke with Wouter Tebbens, president of the Free Knowledge Institute and FTA director, to know how the FTA works and what are its plans for the next year.

Stop: Wouter, what is the FTA’s mission and philosophy?

Wouter: The FTA aims to contribute to a society that permits all users to study, participate and build upon existing knowledge without restrictions. The starting point of our project is shared development and shared exploitation. Anyone willing to contribute to what we have already built and benefiting from that is welcome. All software and educational materials used and produced by the FTA come with the freedom to use, modify, copy and distribute. We view those as minimum rights to foster a strong community around the education of Free Software. Within the courses at the FTA we practice these freedoms and values.

Stop: What is your methodology?

Wouter: The FTA’s educational methodology is based on distance learning for which we have set up the FTA online campus. Learners participate in a virtual classroom, one per course, where they discuss in groups and work on assignments. These assignments can be little projects, essays, setting up and testing certain software, etc. Each group works with a tutor who guides the learners when necessary and provides feedback on their assignments.

Stop: Do FTA lessons happen in real time?

Wouter: No. Besides being based completely on online participation and distance learning, our courses are also asynchronous. There are no fixed moments that participants need to be online: people come in every day or two as fits best with their working hours or other personal commitments. As each course takes place over 13 weeks, there are of course certain deadlines for activities and assignments.

Stop: Who are the teachers?

Wouter: Normally it is our university partners who provide teaching and tutoring staff. Within the partnership we make sure we have teachers strongly specialised in the topics of the course and in several cases the original authors of the course books are involved in the course also.

Stop: What kind of degree can the learners obtain?

Wouter: Each course can be followed independently from the other courses. When you pass a course successfully, depending on the assessment of the assignments and participation in the group, you are entitled to an FTA Certificate for that course.

Stop: Are these certificates recognised?

Wouter: Yes, the beautiful thing here is that they are recognised by the partner universities. This enables people to continue their studies at one the universities and get a full masters degree, for example in Computer Science in the Open University of the Netherlands, or a Master in Free Software at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya in Spain. At the same time we are we are working with a taskforce to prepare a full international Masters Programme.

Stop: What else can we expect from FTA for the 2010/2011 year?

Wouter: We are preparing many things. First of all, even without the initial subsidy from the EC, we continue the FTA and we are expanding the programme. We have some ambitious targets in terms of the number of courses and participants. Of course, we’ll reach them only if we’ll get a sufficient number of (paying) learners for the courses. In 2010 we had many more participants than expected, so we hope this provides an indication for the future. In any case we need all efforts to continue and become self sustainable!

Stop: What do you need to get there?

Wouter: Mainly two things. The first one is to interact as closely as possible with learners and participants alike, by opening up the FTA Campus and on the launch of the FTA Community Portal, which is part of it. The other is to work with a network of associate partners in different countries and sectors.

Stop: Who are these international partners?

Wouter: Normally they are institutions belonging to one of four categories. The first one includes universities who would like to use materials or infrastructure, teach internally or jointly in the FTA or work together on the production of new materials and courses.

Stop: And the others?

Wouter: Partners could also be companies or government institutions who would like to bring in experience and case studies with Free Software, maybe providing Guest Lectures, or other useful contributions; or civil society organisations who work actively in the field of Free Software, Free Culture and Free Knowledge in general.

Stop: What about Italy? Do you already have partners here?

Wouter: Not yet, but of course it would be interesting for us to find interesting and interested Italian partners to join the network. Our Swiss partner in Lugano, Seed, is already translating some of the course books into Italian, so that’s a quick win for any new Italian partner to join!