Practice and learning in Linux User Groups

Last weekend I was at the Flossie conference in London! It was a conference about free software for those who identify as women. It was great! There were lots of interesting talks and workshops. I prepared a short talk for it, too, and here it is:

A critical perspective on practice and learning in Linux User Groups (LUGs)

Linux User Groups are local groups that work for the increasing use of free software. They are very different in size and degree of organization, but many of them organize talks about free software or give direct technical support. Their abstract objective is to empower people to take control of their machines. A LUG is a place where people learn together, where so called „newbies“ and technical experts meet. In a LUG everyone can become a coach by explaining things to others.

I did research about technical support in LUGs focussing on practices: How open is free software when you look at the practices of helping each other?

We know about the gender gap, we know that free software is mostly developed in first world countries by rather educated people many of which have some spare time. These issues have been analized as power relations respectively as social inequalities. When I ask how open practices are this is about how societal structures as a whole influence smaller socio-technical contexts. How do global structures and dynamics show in the face to face support practices of FLOSS groups? Which criteria play a role in concrete situations?

Let me shortly summarize some of my findings:

First of all, most situations are structured by quite an exclusive technical language and humour. Apart from this, I found three bigger issues that become important or meaningful in social dynamics in technical support: Gender, distinction via style and aesthetics, and knowledge, respectively learning processes and technical expertise.

I picked one of them for today and that is knowledge and the transfer of knowledge.

The competence for learning at all in LUGs is given by a social precondition: People have to be able to learn in informal contexts. Why is learning in a LUG informal? It is a self-organized, not an institutionalized context. People come in with technical issues to be resolved, they have to explain the issues in an adequate language to be heard, there is no quarantee that someone cares about their problems as all technical support is done voluntarily. Self-education is highly valuated so that it is expected that people have done some research work on their own before asking. FLOSS research in general praises informal learning contexts because people learn what they really need or what they are interested in instead of going through a general curriculum.

I also see informal learning contexts from a critical perspective: Informality is socially exclusive. Not everyone can cope with it. The more educated people already are the more easily they deal with informal learning and the more they can benefit from it.

What exactly do I mean by practices? How do people help?

In the informal setting of a LUG the helpers (that is, the helpers in a given situation, as everyone can become a helper) often do not know the people who have questions or problems. In most cases, they use their own implicit assumptions about what someone *could* possibly know. These assumptions often seem to be gendered (though this observation is based on a non-representative sample): When the person who asks is perceived as a woman there is a tendency that helpers expect her to know little or nothing about Linux, that she gives her computer to helper who solves the problem for her instead of teaching her the necessary steps to solve it herself. There is also a tendency that people help with technical issues they find simple, whereas, when a „man“ would ask the same question he would rather be told to search the web on his own. People who are advanced in their personal learning processes have lots of experience with learning by trial and error, with localizing problems, with estimating the possible duration of such a process. They have learnt to experiment successfully. They know how to achieve credibility as a helper (if they know the exact issue or not). This individual work they’ve put into understanding Linux is not necessarily visible to beginners. For them, everyone seems to be an expert and they have to accept it if the more advanced learners don’t feel like dealing with their issues. Which can be frustrating.

Now, having observed these practices, I’m not suggesting that formal or more institutionalized learning environments are an ideal solution to this. Teaching Linux in schools etc. would be good for many reasons but, as we know, the educational system tends to reproduce social inequalities (especially in Germany). I would rather like to encourage Linux User Groups and similar learning environments to discuss the following issues:

  • Do they consider themselves as socio-technical *and* as educational contexts when they offer technical support? Have they ever thought about different teaching methods and their effects on the learners?
  • Are they aware of practices that make people feel uncomfortable or that are explicitely discriminating against people? Are they aware of power relations and their own positions in them, e.g. privileged positions, as many of the regular guests or members have been in touch with technology for a very long time?
  • Do they have common reactions to such practices? Not everyone uses situations of technical support for self-staging or makes sexist jokes. But those who do have a strong impact if no one stands up to them. Groups could discuss what behaviour they do not accept and how they could deal with such situations.
  • Do helpers distinguish between enjoying their own lifestyle in an ingroup and teaching something to others who might not (yet) share this lifestyle?

I know that these recommendations are hard to realize, especially for people who never wonder about awareness or the atmosphere of groups. It means to ask a lot of groups of volunteers like LUGs and maybe too much. But I think that is a way to change things, as the ideals of openness can be undermined by non-reflected practices.