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Communal Work and Professional Involvement: the Balance of Open Source Projects image
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Why do people with stable professions participate in open source projects? The case of teachers in these types of communities shows the evolution of participant motivation. During their early years, teachers are animated by a social motivation to use digital tools that broadcast teaching contents widely. In subsequent years, teachers tend to be even more animated by their wish to contribute to collective activities as related to their professional focus at school. However, to maintain and develop the community’s capabilities, a part of the contributor’s time tends to remain involved in activities distant from the school’s core issues. This finding contributes to the field of open source studies, and it concerns the individual’s motivation.

open source, open communities, open education, work, involvement

by Clement Bert-Erboul

Introduction and theoretical framework: Online school contents and open

How do people go about combining their commitment to open source projects and professional occupations? Different kinds of open source projects exist (Currie et al., 2013). Some of them are performed by one maker and others are more collective (Madey et al., 2002). Some of them are supported by companies and employees, or are fully non-profit and developed by volunteers only (Fitzgerald, 2006). Others are built with free and open contents, yet accept proprietary contents in addition to the open source content. In short, there is a full continuum of economic and social organisation involved in open source projects. All these kinds of organisations found a solution to the co-operation dilemma, finally harmonising with the opportunism permitted by the free access to open source material.

However, there is no single explanation about the link between professional contributors’ activities and their contribution to the open-source community (Ke and Zhang, 2010). The reasons pointed at by individuals most often are: having fun, a break with professional routine, or personal career strategy. In other words, contributors found a way to use their skills for current or future benefit. However, these reasons do not fully illustrate why these people look for this type of fun, seek a break in their routine, or related satisfaction.

In the case of a teaching community named Sésamath [1], which produces an open textbook widely used in France, we can observe that to what extent a professional context influences individual involvement. This example also highlights the two-sided track choice that people face when they are merging professional work and their activities in the open source community. Any balance takes different forms, depending on the project’s maturity. Over time, however, a community may specialise work roles in its organisation, changing the oft-blurred distinction between work and casual involvement. Furthermore, open source communities are not isolated. They establish partnerships with other institutions or companies to access resources such as financial input, materials or specific social networks. These alliances may change collective activity and individual involvements in many ways.

First, we present the dominant mainstream economic approach surrounding the open source movement. This is focused on the link between open source involvement and professional occupation. However, short-term analysis should surely be subject to discussion, due to the lack of historicity involved in this approach. It also sometimes suffers from a lack of accounting of institutions, technical progress and ideologies (Aggeri, 2015). In the second part, we propose uniting different frameworks in order to complete an economic model. In the next part, we present the fieldwork context and analyse the initial period of the teaching community, including the evolution of their organisation. In the last part, we study the balance between paid and unpaid contributors. As a conclusion, this discussion will examine an open source community’s process of institutionalisation, thereby explaining the different roles played by different projects.

Theoretical frameworks

The literature about open online teaching, like the Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC) or Open Textbook concept, is mostly focused on the users’ economic motivations. In other words, the use of open tools is due to their low reproduction cost and ease of free distribution (Hilton III and Wiley, 2011). The implicit argument is in support of individual financial savings, inspired by the mainstream economic literature. In this perspective, people act based on their interests and personal choices. Applied to the school market, this discussion focuses mostly on student or institutional management, rather than teacher involvement. Nonetheless, instructors are key elements in the school publishing market in some places, such as in France where teachers participate not only in the use, but also the production and purchasing of textbooks.

The reasons why teachers currently produce online open teaching contents are not completely clear. The educational content market is framed by states in most countries. Thus, the involvement of teachers and editors in open content is not only be guided by individual motivations, but also by institutional frames. Often, the involvement of professionals in open source projects is refers to the case of engineers committing to free software projects (Lerner and Tirole, 2002). This addresses the motivation issue based on individual career strategies in Information Technology (IT) companies. We can summarise this approach by stating: the better their contributions are, the better a contributor’s professional future will be. In the case of civil servants such as teachers with fixed career paths, is this perspective appropriate?.

The individual strategy perspective does not take into account social context and collective ideology as related to an individual’s motivations (Ghosh, 2005). Labour and involvement in open source projects are sometimes dependent on social frameworks. The initial work about hackers’ motivations (Himanen, 2001) and online social network analysis (Wellman et al., 2001) underlines the role of cultural elements and the links between online and offline contributory activities. More broadly, sociological analyses of gender attitudes and social habits constructed through socialisation provide key factors regarding labour and the use of free time in social activities with computers (Boneva and Kraut, 2002; Lam et al., 2011).

Most relevant mainstream economic studies are based on the assumption of interchangeability between professional involvement and free community work. The embedding of computers in professional and domestic life, however, reinforces the overlap of these two domains. Nevertheless, Manuel Castells insists on “organisational arrangements of humans in relations of production, consumption, reproduction, experience” (Castells, 1996: 3) in the use of communication technologies. In other words, the use of technological means are embedded in specific context and are not neutral support in both professional or domestic life. Neil Fligstein provides another point of view and highlights the importance of institutions along with relations between economic and politic actors for the IT industry—particularly in the location of such activities (Fligstein, 2008). Otherwise stated, even if digital contents seem neutral as a means to transfer information, their social/economic and political norms and rules constrain the use, movement and sharing of the digital contents.

The technical point of view about digital assets reinforces the importance of social context in the use of technological means. Engineers have analysed and measured their labour, comprising developing relationships between human beings and machines. The approach considering physics and economics concerns the automation of activities (Von Neumann, 1951), the reduction of toil at work, and the increase of performance (Brooks, Jr., 1956), as well as the institutional embedding of informatics (Conway, 1968). Technological means appear as a tool of work and organisation, and their uses evolve with the context. In other words, hobbyists and company employees do not feel the same about their interaction with technology in organisations.

Finally, ideologies, social context, institutions and technical progress provide a framework to study the labour and involvement of professionals in an open source teaching project. This approach enriches the individual calculus strategy model. The application of this framework should highlight the dynamic balance between labour and involvement in the observed community.

Materials from the Sésamath community

Institutional context and materials: Sésamath, a teachers’ initiative

This case study concerns the French collective of teachers in the Sésamath group . Since 1998, the non-profit organisation Sésamath has produced both markets and non-market resources. These teachers produce, in parallel to their professional activities, software and mathematics textbooks under free licences. Sésamath has 79 active members, including six employees and 100 contributors with a commitment that does not exceed one year for the most part. The Sésamath materials are used in 98 countries and Sésamath associations exist in three other countries (Morocco, Senegal, Switzerland). In France, more than 50% of mathematics teachers are registered on the platform to receive Sésamath professional material [2]. Thanks to its contributors’ work , the association edits paper textbooks, workbooks and software under free licences, freely available online. Every year since 2006, publishers associated with Sésamath have sold 70,000 books, which represent 15% of the French market for textbooks in mathematics at college [3].

We have recorded the process of articulation between teaching and non-profit activities through 20 interviews during which we collected information on individual trajectories, the type of resources mobilised by the collective in different periods of its existence, and reporting structures regulating the co-operation. To supplement this information, we conducted observations of 20 meetings of contributors in which members gather for several days to form, or to resolve governance issues, such as those achieved by the Board of the Association Sésamath elections. This ethnographic work was carried out between 2009 and 2013. With these materials, we analysed the renewal of members, their motivations and the collective organisation. In addition to these exchanges offline, we conducted a daily monitoring of e-mails from the association’s mailing list between 2009 and 2013. We also studied the professional electronic archives of a founder between the summer of 1998 and the beginning of 2002. Such data provides social interactions between anonymised contributors through more than 15,000 personal emails and 22,000 collective messages on the archives of a mailing list of dedicated communications spanning between 2005 and 2011.

The use of such data in this article is not used for social network analysis, but for the study of organisational changes. We establish categories of contributors to examine the project hierarchy and types of tasks. We focus on the type of organisation (horizontal or vertical), the rise of specialisation and specific participant status in project hierarchy.

Context: The institutions in the French textbook market

In this part, we discuss the institutional contexts and the status of teachers in schools in order to explain the development of open teaching tools in France.

The French academic content market has some particularities vis-à-vis other nations. In most countries, only the state is authorised to produce and distribute academic content. In France, the offer to provide materials is open to the private sector as well. In this market, teachers are free to choose the textbooks in their educational institutions. School establishments buy the textbooks from book-sellers and provide them to students. This market is very structured and has specific criteria. The same process has already been observed in another context. A mimesis of the economic actors in the field of textbooks and the rise of experts using formalised practices, including the institutionalised formats and regulations, have been observed in the United States (Coser et al., 1982). The long history of school publishing in France since the French Revolution (Deceuninck, 2004) creates a situation where structured markets exist, with some companies having accumulated serious economic and social power.

As in the case of the canteen market (in schools and companies) studied by Sophie Dubuisson-Quellier (Dubuisson-Quellier, 1999), the members of Sésamath first had to convince the end consumers—in this case, the teachers. In this market, the consumers (students and teachers) were different from the buyers (school managers). Sésamath occupies a strategic position compared to its competitors, given its proximity to schools and teachers. The access to a large and free set of content is an opportunity for new teachers to find support online in addition to the textbook. For the more experienced educators, Sésamath activities break the routine of their previous personal courses, while maintaining a pre-existing framework in respect to the official curriculum.

The teachers have an obligation to follow the official curriculum set up by the government at the beginning of the school year. Each year, the Ministry of Education changes the curriculum of one high-school year. At the start of 2006, the 6th grade was renewed and then, in 2007, changes were applied to the 5th grade, and so on until 2010 when the 6th grade programme was renewed again [4].

A 6th grade textbook was the first sold under the Sésamath trademark, in the fall of 2006. Every year, the collective produces a textbook and workbook for the reformed level. The year 2009 was a turning point in which Sésamath moved from publishing to reprint activities. The 6th grade content, made in September 2006, had to be adapted to the new curriculum. After? this period, a study of the mailing list archives showed a transformation of online activity. Our data tracks both before and after the first online cooperative experiments, which emphasised a new frame for the communal activities (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Number of messages in the mailing list of the textbook project

Rupture in the dynamic of activities surrounding an open source project is quite common. Usually, the slowdown of progress is explicated by a process of rationalisation. Often, certain people have better skills or more specialisation in unique project matters than others, and therefore they can fix specific problems easier. We prefer the word specialisation because it indicates a new method of organisation, rather than a better one. The increased division of labour is not necessarily a solution that makes everyone happy. Separated tasks can create boring occupations for some, a dynamic opposing the “fun” often mentioned in the literature. Such rationalisation of tasks betrays an undercurrent hypothesis of homogeneity between contributors and their activities. However, different social statuses exist, and are not necessarily influenced by the efficiency of productive activities. Tradition, authority, routine or lack of competition can explain why people continue to contribute.

During the first period, the teachers’ contributions were seen as an expression of a professional application. The second period, however, was marked by a clear division of labour. In Sésamath, the work becomes a means for production, grouped under the trademark of Sésamath. This brand is used strategically to attract revenue to the organisation. To manage these resources, a part of the organisation is dedicated to that task, overseeing the ebb and flow of activities related to teaching and content production. In other words, such deep involvement in administration implies a distance from the pure starting motivation of contributing content for other reasons. Even if individuals made a strategic calculation at the beginning of their involvement, the original strategy would be challenged by the growth of the collective and the new needs of dynamic organisation.

First years: Claims and specialisation

The Sésamath non-profit organisation provides an example of the distinction between professional work and professional commitment . The dominant economic point of view about open source commitments implies proximity between voluntary activity and the contributor’s professional labour. However, the community can shift its goals over time. Teachers were first involved in the collective, mainly because they wanted to support service to public education. Finally, their involvement in the publishing market compelled them to work as editors. The interdependence between these activities creates different and dynamic profiles of contributors (teacher and editor). In this part, we observe the institutional redesign of the organisation (Mateos-Garcia and Steinmueller, 2008, Cornford et al., 2010).

Research and professional claims: How teachers start to be networked

In 1998, some French mathematics teachers in high school participated in a research programme at an academic laboratory regarding the uses of new technologies in the classroom. This research was not inspired by peer production theories, but by pragmatic psychology and the contemporary American mathematicians, such as by Norman G. Lederman (Lederman, 1992) and the use of the video format popularised by Tom Apostol (Apostol, 1976; Borwein, 2002).

However, this partnership failed. In the programme settings, high-school math teachers did not have access to the symbolic or economic rewards obtained by academic researchers, such as operating budgets or scientific publications. The Ministry of Education refused to permit online contributions during the teachers’ working time. The professional online activity has solely been seen as “another database” in the mass of digital contents. The extract (below) of an email written by a mailing list administrator, a founder of Sésamath, illustrates the demand by teachers for recognition from the teaching hierarchy.

It seems urgent to me, like many others, to federate the actions and support mathematics teachers who are committed in their discipline. Individual actions realised on the Internet by math teachers must be recognised and supported (by significant means) by our institutions. The online teachers bring a lot to those who are looking for information, dialogue, etc., and contribute to the training of teachers. (Olivier, January 2002)

After a few online experiences with free software to propel their websites, these mathematics teachers created the official Sésamath non-profit organisation in 2001. Members of Sésamath considered their online practices an extension of their Public Service activity, but they faced economic and political challenges. Free access to the online exercises helped maintain the teachers’ prestige, and respect of the French Public Service framework of free access, equality in education, and proximity (Thévenot, 2001). These values are opposed to the “proletarianisation of teaching” initiated by the textbook publishers transcribing the educational practices without them having been tested as part of a school activity (Chevallard, 1985). The Sésamath contents are in competition with other producers of educational material. The extract of the email below from a member of the organisation explains the consciousness of the economic effects of the collective action.

I see (and I’m not the only one) that we are engaged in an economic process which, although very different because of its origin and project puts us in competition with market standards. (Sylvain, November 2001)

In this way, the members of Sésamath started a new economic activity. With such a competitive market, the use of free licences by members of Sésamath becomes a distinguishing feature. The contents are freely available online, following the logic of Public Service and the mathematics ethic of knowledge sharing. Richard Stallman has underlined the proximity between software source code and mathematics textbooks (Williams, 2002: 123).

Then, in 2006, the first Sésamath printed edition was organised with a publisher. During this period, the contributors used their personal rules about the time spent on the association activities and about the production process. Between 2001 and 2006, each contributor had developed their own skills regarding the matter of online school curriculum content. That specialisation limited the interchangeability of contributors, creating more of a patchwork untied by personal projects, rather than a one collective. These commitments are not motivated by short-term career calculations that consider costs and benefits. Most teachers genuinely like to consume the exercises with their classes, and use those from others in the day to day school activity.

As in the contemporary music market (Born, 1995) or in the publishing market (Bourdieu, 1999), the contributors of the Sésamath experiment have disrupted the economic competition process. They started a self-exploitation process, to be competitive and skirt some rules in the market. A contributor tells us in an interview, about the forms of self-denial in Sésamath:

She was still pregnant and she was making corrections on her hospital bed. She had the final responsibility for the publisher. (Frederique, March 2010)

The first contributors have chosen tasks by themselves, taking into account their tastes and abilities. Such management boosted production and modified the rules in the school curriculum materials content market. However, that initial means of organisation for Sésamath showed some limitations as well, due to the true horizontal hierarchy of such an organisation. Even if the community aspect of trust and informal routines had dominated, the control of members among each other is limited, due to the distance and mediated nature of communication among everyone. A contributor explains how the effects of the routines and the influence of leaders can fade:

We trusted a contributor. It was fine before, and then he completely stalled the process of production. After his first contribution, the only message he sent was: “Can you do this for this date.” And he did nothing by himself. When you say you will do something and you do nothing … the people did not want to contribute anymore. (Frederique, March 2010)

In this organisation, the rules of reciprocity and authority depend on the domestic settings, rather than on common conventions. A contributor recalled in an interview below, that the organisation of the first manual benefited from a couple’s involvement:

I think she worked a lot with her husband. He has never been part of Sésamath. Overall, he gave a lot of advice. He was not responsible for a chapter, he had no official role, but he was very much involved. But that, it was only in the 5th grade because then she had problems. After, we had to find another system. (Frederique, March 2010)

Between 2007 and 2009, the contributors formalised a new way to produce textbooks. They pointed to some success and failure factors in their practices. An employee of the organisation described in an email in April 2010 the typical pattern of the organisation in carrying out the reprint: a hierarchical and specialised organisation with regular turnover, plus some online and offline meetings.

In 2009, some errors were committed (mostly due to the project managers, but not only) in addition to the process of production issues (last manual of the set implies fatigue, no real change in the official curriculum, intrinsic difficulty of 6th level):

– No renewal of the authors (no call made earlier this year on the list)
– No project meeting (except the meeting of Chapter leaders in July 2008)
– Non-mastered edition calendar
– Lack of unity of the whole editorial.(Marc, April 2010)

Despite the lack of a highly formalised organisation, the collective provides publishers a new textbook every four years, distributed in schools and online. After the early years, members must choose between abandoning the textbook, or reworking the edition. However, volunteer activity alone does not seem a viable solution for the most committed contributors to a project. A contributor explained during an interview about the incompatibility between teaching actively and the time constraints of textbook production:

Three years ago, it had become unbearable, it had become impossible. I had to make a choice. Either, it was more work on Sésamath, and I don’t know … maybe no longer do my teaching job properly. Or, it was stop working for Sésamath. There was no possibility of doing both. (Marc, February 2009)

The work from home, with a succession of re-writes, required a lot of time from contributors to first editions. The division of labour in a big community does not necessarily reduce individual participation costs for coordinators. In the Sésamath textbook project evolution, new economic and organisational arrangements permitted a team six times smaller than the previous team to perform the same goal: produce the textbook. From an economic point of view, the second team obtained better results than the first. In 2008, the publisher paid 92,481 Euros to Sésamath (92,481 copies sold with a 1 Euro royalty for each copy) for the first edition. In 2011, the benefits were around 103,500 Euros (34,501 copies sold for 3 Euros of royalties for each copy) for the reprint. The economic gains can be explained by the shifting of the collective work organisation: An editorial project is more powerful with a limited number of electronic exchanges between a limited number of contributors. This observation goes against the hypothesis of positive externalities produced by sharing digital contents freely among a large number of contributors. The evaluation of online productivity is not a consequence of intensification of the labour division. Rather, a mature project is structured around a college of experts with professional skills in the matters of legal and economic management.

Institutionalisation of the networked teachers: The specialisation in the

The first period of Sésamath was marked by experimentation, and a professional perspective . This initial community produced textbooks and was organised by a horizontal hierarchy. We can observe how the community evolved when the organisation chose to make the second edition of the textbook. During the second period, the hierarchy became more vertical. The core community of the second period was characterised by the strong involvement of the management team of Sésamath. That reflects the importance of the project for association. The second phase of organisation had different categories of contributors with paid and unpaid work. The organisation began to work with both free volunteers and paid employees, but also with new professional editors and publishing companies through trademark agreements.

Qualitative and quantitative changes can be observed in the participants of the textbook mailing list for the project (“Mathenpoche_papier_contrib”) between the first and second paper edition. Looking at the mailing list, we can analyse the creation or modification of categories by contributors; changes reflect the different forms of organisation that were adopted over time. Three types of contributors have been involved in the organisation’s activities; these categories are similar to the well-known organisation of open source projects described as concentric circles (Crowston and Howison, 2005). The community typically has a core of managers and a large group of contributors and users. However, the reality is more complex than this tipical model. A member can play several roles each year, and combine specific roles that are in a similar trajectory.

The most important category, regardless of the year, is the group of external contributors (see Table 1). These teachers design lessons and disseminate exercises and software as part of their “Public Service” mission. They contribute for free because the ideology of Sésamath resembles their own. This profile is different to the career-concerned profile. The teachers contribute because they feel compelled to. Also, they take into account their self-training and teaching mission. However, Figure 1 shows that external contributors participate less in reprint projects. The skills required for some tasks require long-term training in publishing. Such specialised work limits the communal effects and the renewal of contributors.

To continue some projects, other means of commitment exist. Some contributors respond by offering to work on specific tasks, such as joining a collective effort to participate in editorial or managerial tasks (e.g., participation on the Board). The Board members have an executive role in the project, following their election by members. This council is composed of six to eight members, depending on the year. Board members are long-time contributors. They adapt and develop the ideology of the organisation along with its practical measures by taking into account the growth of the community with possible new partnerships to fund projects. The involvement in these tasks is motivated by a will to defend and uphold the concept of Sésamath as an independent agent in the “Public Service”. They follow an internal volunteer career ladder, from contributor to manager. The economic and political achievements are far from the first motivation for getting involved, which are more related to self-consumption of exercises in the classroom. The time required to learn the specific skills necessary to lead legal and economic affairs, implies a need for collective meetings and readings; far from the low-cost involvement found in an individual strategy (Lakhani and von Hippel, 2003).

The third type of profile concerns the organisation’s employees who execute the orders of the Board to execute production tasks, IT development and communication activities. The people hired are long-time contributors, specialised in key activities for the organisation such as software development. Employees see their hiring as an opportunity to turn activities as contributors into a new occupation. Their wages are teacher wages and not that of an engineer or a communications specialist. The Board takes into account the seniority of a teacher and their lost wages at the time of hiring into Sésamath, so their earnings reflect the level of wage they will earn when they go back to being full-time teachers. In most cases, these positions are terminated by a turning point during which the employee stops their teaching activities, or quit the Sésamath community to continue “solely” teaching. These breaks in personal focus show the difficulties involved with combining specialised community work with professional activity.

Table 1. The “Mathenpoche_papier_contrib” mailing list contributors[5]





















Board members




















Other members of Sésamath










External contributors




















Changes that can be seen in this chart are the results of organisational renewal due to the commercial success of printed materials. The reprint project emerged as important in the organisation, but it did not attract new participants. The employees and the Board members’ activities increased in reaction to the low involvement of new members. Before 2009, if contributing to the textbooks, it was unavoidable to be co-opted in the organisation. Later, new projects arose to attract newcomers, motivated by developing teaching skills, rather than specialised involvement in the community.

Second period: Paid and unpaid work?

Different profiles are organised by a labour division with distinctions between the profession of teacher and the work of editors in the community. This organisation created a shift in the various contributor trajectories, distinguishing between long and short term. The recruitment of long-term employees required to produce and broadcast contents altered the expected time scale of their involvement, highlighting the absence of overlap between teacher involvement and paid editing work. The publishing activity is mainly framed by financially-bound trademark agreements; whereby the brand of Sésamath .

The management of a social and technical network: Volunteers and

With the development of the commercial activity related to the organisation, the contributors began facing assessments from broader audiences, such as teachers, school organisations, customers, students and parents. New relationships were not only involving competition or commercial relationships, but also political and symbolic alliances. Identification with both the business model and political activity is expressed in an interview conducted in 2009 by a contributor. He describes both commercial and non-profit activities in the public and private service context as follows:

In 2007, on an internal mailing list of Sésamath, I said that we are a start-up of the Public Service to describe our business model. (Marc, February 2009)

Successive leaders of the association set up internal regulations prohibiting individual remuneration. This rule ensured economic solidarity between the new and mature projects in the collective. It also ensured that volunteer participation was supported technically and politically by employees. The organisation allowed contributors to carry out projects that they could not implement without the support of a vast political and technical support networks. The new feasibility and growth of the social network beyond mathematics teachers changed the scale and the sense of commitment from members. A former employee of the organisation expressed in an email to the contributors (below) how the new dynamic of labour changed professional commitments. In the first step of Sésamath, the teaching perspective dominated, while in the second step, the teaching and the collective commitment became discordant due to the amount of time needed.

Being a part-time employee for Sésamath creates a distorted idea of Sésamath. It makes us forget the rest are volunteers who cannot (re) act in the same timeframe. The gap is even larger with a full-time position, which is why I proposed to delete it. Living Sésamath, eating Sésamath, sleeping Sésamath does not necessarily help Sésamath because we forget the sacrifices made by those who spent as much time as us, but have no free time to do so. Also, I am keen to decrease the number of employees. If we have to spend money, I prefer to organise meetings and to buy the member hardware. (Simon, April 2009)

Even if the salary is established according to the teacher’s wage grid, the time required and the nature of the tasks are not interchangeable between paid and unpaid contributors. An email message from an employee underlines the feeling that teachers do not contribute during their free time, but as part of their professional activity (“We forget the sacrifices made by those who spend as much time as us, but have no free time to do so” – name, date?). The needs? of users along with technical standards require specialised work. Some teachers have been taken away from the classroom to realise these tasks. Individual monetary payments for employees no longer reflect the culmination of a career as a professor of mathematics on the Internet. These rewards reveal a turning point in the professional activity, apparently incompatible with a typical teacher’s timetable characterised by the classroom activities.

Temporal individual strategies cannot explain the entire duration of the collective experience. Successive priorities during the history of Sésamath (education, research, domestic activities, public policy and publishing) appear incompatible. The contributors who were only motivated by economic or symbolic rewards left the collective. They did not contribute to the ongoing stability of the community. This open source project has needed different forms of commitments and people always tend to contribute because of their attitude towards work. They adapt their actions to specific needs and achieve specific objectives? in doing so. The incentives are different. For some of them, it is an extension of their everyday work. For others, a fresh perspective from a new activity in accordance with the public service ideology. For others, they are motivated by the temporary possibility to be paid for previously unpaid work. All of them react to their professional context.

Trademark and editing contracts: When the offline supports the online

The specialisation of some activities is due to new partnerships with external organisations (Jensen and Scacchi, 2005) and publishing contracts are the most important of them. The creation of the Sésamath brand helps to sell textbooks in the bookstore; however, the use of free licences to broadcast online content remains based on the economic and political model of the organisation. Sésamath has remained a non-profit organisation, even if the Board manages more than 300,000 Euros every year. With the income from sales, the organisation is no longer just a non-profit organisation; the collective has become associated with the category of international foundations that specialise in the management of large open source projects, similar to the Wikimedia Foundation, or the Mozilla Foundation. However, Sésamath cannot produce, nor distribute the printed version by itself. The organisation has never invested in the requisite hardware to do so, and therefore depends on partnerships to distribute such content in high schools.

The first publisher chosen by Sésamath in 2006 had never done any previous activity in the field of printed textbooks for high school, and had never even used free licences. Without the cost of content development, the publisher saw an opportunity to occupy a new market. This partner has to revise preprint versions, print and distribute textbooks in bookstore chains. Furthermore, the publisher had to support the market entry cost, by sending a copy of the textbook to each French high school for promotion. For this work, the publisher keeps 95% of the revenue and gives 5% to Sésamath. The sharing of income was influenced by taking into account that organisation will sell textbooks at half the price compared to their competitors. The publisher could also choose to use the brand of Sésamath on their website, promoting it alongside their other products.

In 2009, during the implementation of a new curriculum cycle, the Board of Sésamath decided to gradually change their publisher. For the new editions, the organisation started a new publishing agreement with a dominant company in the printed school publishing market. The demand for textbooks and exercise books remained strong for the second edition, and the Board negotiated a tripling of royalties. The fee for using the Sésamath brand and its content changed from 1 to 3 Euros for each copy sold. To compensate, the publisher raised the retail price. This agreement showed the new face of the organisation: Sésamath kept its professional identity but added the logic of economic gains to optimise the specialised activity.

The case of Sésamath shows that value sharing is linked with a balance of power between the community and industry or capital owners. Some authors, such as Tiziana Terranova (2000), see voluntary free contributions as the means to facilitate a form of capitalist exploitation. The rescue of this work from capitalist control resides in the provision of significant economic and material resources for free distribution. The work of contributors is collected and enlisted under a trademark banner, which often actually creates a debt, because each additional piece of content requires more resources for its organisation and dissemination than are required to produce it (Gensollen, 2004). However, the concentration of free resources related to an expert network also creates symbolic value. In this way, the value is not due to the reuse of content, but comes from assimilation between the daily activities of the professional contributors and different commodities or services.

The use of free licensees by some new economic actors to benefit relationships is a kind of investment (Thévenot, 1986). These contracts allow both the formalisation of new alliances and the protection the investments made by management, in order to adapt classic organisation to new media (digital hardware, relevant staff training). Such trademark agreements link the owners of economic and hardware resources required to broadcast digital content, and the producers of broadcast contents. This systematic use of regulations creates a symbiotic relationship that overcomes ideological differences. The free licences offer a means for accumulation and consumption and guarantees a certain legal protection to producers and users. Furthermore, these licences protect profits of the producer and collaborators, meaning the owners in a capitalist system of production.In other words, the capitalist publisher should not share reinvestment with the community nor production means such as printers and other logistic infrastructure.


The requisite emphasis on balance between involvement and career results from the professional context of a growing community. Individual strategies, institutional structures, social habits, technical constraints and community practices frame contributors’ commitments. Our ethnographic research challenges the veracity of some economic hypothesis about free work: the homogeneous understanding of contribution shows specific limitations in real situations. Professional activity and communal specialised work are different and not commutable. The use of cyberspace hides some different factors reinforcing the specialisation of activities: timeframes, institutional norms and political issues.

The existence of growth, evolution and change encompasses a dynamic of transformation, which forces open source organisations to confront the rise of task specialisation. Specialisation is needed to manage economic resources in the way that other bureaucratic organisations, such as a company or public administration, who are already involved in teaching materials issues.

Before and after this specialisation contributors exercise individual rationality. First, they want to support their idea of teaching as a public service by helping the collective, but the continuity of the group action becomes incompatible with these initial individual motivations. The individual career strategy framework requires a substitutability between free time and professional time. This assumes closeness between online commitment and professional activity. In our case, it appears that interchangeability disappears with the growth of community. To conciliate the decrease of institutional support, teachers invested in new skills far from the mainstream pedagogical experimentation of universities and academic institutions. Our fieldwork proved that additional publishing work is achieved mostly at the expense of traditional teaching activities. In other words, what appears first to be a renewal of professional practices, results in a change of professional focus that can be irreversible.

A professional turning point does not concern all individual trajectories. A strategic point in managing a collective open source project entails the balance between very specialised work in collective project management and an individual’s professional commitment. Work on open source projects has many roles linked to the community, to institutionalisation and the need for resources from the community. We can observe those three levels, which can be seen as important points on a continuum between professional commitment and communal work. Each form of activity can occupy different levels, but one dominates the others according to a particular timeframe.

A first step is marked by self-exploitation motivated by personal and professional experimentation. This kind of activity challenges the standard rules of competition, creating a specific new activity influencing economic insiders. During this stage, people start to work collectively and they defend a new understanding of their profession. The choice to support free licences creates an opportunity for other actors to see and join similar projects and break mainstream rules of resources circulation.

The second step implies a specialisation of labour to build up economic and social partnerships, following market rules. This stage is marked by the rise of a vertical hierarchy, to limit the casual expenditure of time implied by professional self-experimentation. This vertical organisation necessitates the professional commitment to organise work with specific tasks. Also at this point, a trademark is used that embodies the project’s collective identity and maintains a link between different types and generations of contributors. In this configuration, the identity? unifies the contributor’s network connections and unites the results of group activity.

The third step is marked by the rewarding of work and the setting up different types of commitments. This can include a direct wage, the opportunity to follow up on day-to-day tasks, or obtain social and professional recognition. An economic model is managed to share the value between the community and other traditional market actors. These partners own some hardware, skills and professional networks required by the community, specialised in the production of goods. Trademark agreements create a common unit of value to share benefits between the community and external partners.

The community of teachers discussed here provides an alternative point of view to the typical free software communities. Other types of communities can be investigated to complete our approach, such as open source journalists or the open source advocates movement such as foundations. These groups can also provide insights into different steps of growth. Their needs will differ according to the communal activity they are specialised in. An interesting approach would concern successions of timeframes between professional activities and specialised work in the community. Moving forward, a next step could be to investigate: Is it possible for an already-specialised community to create an organisation dominated by open professional practices, rather than by the communally framed tasks?


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2: In France there are 50,081 teachers of mathematics and 21,700 teachers registered in 2013 on the Sesamath platform.

3: Ministère de l’Éducation nationale. (2013). La structuration de la filière du numérique éducatif : un enjeu pédagogique et industriel. Paris: Ministère de l’Éducation nationale. p:113

4: French high schools comprise the 6th grade (11 year olds), 5th grade (12 year olds), 4th grade (13 year-old) and 3rd grade (14 years-old) grades

5: These people send at least one message.


Clément Bert-Erboul, Université Lille 1