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Reflections on Connected Learning's Mozilla Webmaker Episode: Digital Literacy Through Making and Sharing

Written by Kim Jaxon
July 21, 2012

Connected Learning’s most recent webcast features Mark Surman, Executive Director at Mozilla, and members of the Mozilla Open Bages project, Carla Casilli and Doug Belshaw, along with Jon Worona and Elizabeth Dill who are both librarians. Howard Rheingold serves as the moderator. You can view the entire webcast and find resources and links related to the conversation here.
The focus of the webcast is to share Mozilla’s most recent suite of Webmaker tools and to dialogue about the importance of supporting all of us in our growth as readers, and even more crucial, writers of the web. Mark Surman is a true industry leader when it comes to thinking about the “open web” and an advocate for creating a web that is “an open, vibrant, brilliant” place. Most of us have a connection to Mozilla from their creation of Firefox, an open source web browser. Surman shares with viewers how Mozilla is continuing its mission by creating a series of tools, and more importantly a community around these tools, that help people hack and make the web.
In this blog post, I invite my friend and colleague Patrick Berry, who is a Library Technology Lead at CSU, Chico, to dialogue with me about the ideas in this Connected Learning episode. Pat and I often find ourselves interested in similar ideas, but from very different perspectives: I teach writing and immerse myself in research around digital literacy, game studies, and digital culture, and Pat has a background in web development including a stint as webmaster at EFF. We are also both geeks who use the intertubes. A lot. We are excited and interested in the tools that Mozilla offers, but we’d like to also pose some questions and reflections on the episode for further conversation.
As a brief summary of the webcast, Surman begins by laying out some threats he sees to the “wealth and wonder” of the web: 1) the web is not dominant on mobile or tablet devices (Go here for a great blog on why this is a problem), and 2) the fact that most users of the web lack knowledge about how the web works. He sees a huge gap between users and creators, which he argues can lead to misinformed and somewhat confused people. (As Surman mentions, this confusion and lack of information can lead to scary legislation like SOPA.) Surman’s goal, and the goal of Mozilla, is to give people tools that can lead to “more control over our online lives” and make the web less mysterious. He sees coding literacy, and understanding the mechanics of the web, as a fundamental skill that should be set alongside reading and writing.
As the webcast continues, Surman gives us a “tour” of the very cool tools Mozilla has recently launched: Xray Goggles (which has been around a little longer), Thimble, and Popcorn. These open tools offer a way for people to create and learn about the web quickly. All the tools allow users to remix and create projects, but users do so while peeling away the layers of the web, learning the literacy of coding, and/or learning web basics. Ultimately, Surman hopes people will both read the web and write the web, creating their own apps and hacking their own games, and sharing all of this with members of their communities.
Other ideas weave through the podcast: linking these tools and projects to informal learning spaces with the hope that what is learned can seep into mainstream classrooms, the importance of creating a maker culture, and a discussion about the role of Badges as a way to gain accreditation through informal learning, and self-directed learning, on the web.
For the rest of this post, Pat and I would like to share our conversation as a way to support, but also to problematize and pose questions about, some of the ideas shared in this webcast. During the episode, Pat and I had an open IM window with an ongoing dialogue; we realized that we were learning from our varied perspectives and helping each other better make sense of the rich ideas offered by Surman et al. Below, through a series of questions we pose to each other, we take up the idea of Open Source, questions about the “threats” Surman poses, and the idea of coding as a literacy skill.

Kim: Pat, help me and other educators understand why Surman says the web is not dominant on mobile or tablets, and more importantly, why this a problem/threat? How does this connect to the idea of an “open web?”

Pat: Kim, I certainly can’t speak for the Mozilla organization, but a basic tenet of the “open web” is functionality, and information is provided to users through standards that everybody agrees on, thus allowing access from all devices and software that adhere to these standards.  A threat to the open web is that applications that you install on your mobile device don’t have to adhere to all the standards, only the particular OS or device that they are running on.  Even though a large number of apps utilize HTTP (the underlying protocol of the web), they are still little castles with moats filled with burning oil that contain your data, and you’re on the outside.  Now, this is no different than the apps you have on your desktop or laptop right now, but that has always been a promise of the open web, to free people from that lock-in.  I see the point, but the fact is mobile web traffic, using web browsers that speak these open standards, continues to increase.  Mobile web usage is starting to have a profound effect on web development.  We’re starting to see concepts like “mobile first” and “responsive design” take root just like the original push for web standards championed by Jeffrey Zeldman.  I would argue that the growth of mobile web usage is leading to a second coming of web standards.  The mobile era has the potential to be a bountiful time for the open web.

Kim: Are there other tools that let you do things like the X-Ray Goggles feature? Doesn’t Firefox let you do this and has for awhile but most users just don’t know this?

Pat: There are, but I have to say the accessibility of X-Ray Goggles is quite nice.  Mozilla has a strong history of providing tools to developers, but Goggles is aimed straight at people who aren’t developers yet.  It’s not easy to make powerful tools designed for people without a wealth of experience and I think X-Ray Goggles does that.  Mozilla, in my opinion, did get passed by Safari and Chrome with regard to their developer tools and I’m so happy to see Mozilla back to their A game.  I wholeheartedly agree with the idea that the more people know about how the web is built the more they can do on and with the web.

Kim: I’d like to make sure we talk about some confusion I think people, ones who are truly newbies to the web, will have over Xray Goggles. It is a really cool thing, but you’re not changing the site you just hacked or remixed forever; only you see the changes. It is “empowering and enlightening,” as Surman called it, to understand that there is code under the things we are viewing, but when we change the site, we don’t change it for everybody. If we could, the web would be a big, giant mess everyday. This is the stuff that scares people about the term “hacker.” When instead, we should see hacking more connected to play and tinkering. And Mozilla allows us to tinker with sites and make the web work better for us.

Pat: Kim, what were some of your concerns around the discussion about literacy? You sort of freak out everytime the word “skill” comes up in relation to literacy.

Kim: As a literacy scholar, I do have some questions related to the way literacy is represented in this webcast. Surman did say literacy is a skill: we need skills like reading, writing, and coding. And in all fairness, he did not have enough time to unpack what he meant by every sentence he said. I would just like to highlight the problem with seeing literacy as a basic skill. Literacy theorists do not see literacy as something you put in your pocket or carry around in a tool kit and take out when you need it. Literacy is not statically defined; it only gains definition in the context of a particular community. Literacy is a set of practices; literacy is about use. We are involved in communities who use reading, writing, math or coding in particular ways for particular purposes. Literacy is about values and identities and ways of arguing that go far beyond knowing the “grammar” or the “basics” of language. Further, what is basic or what is valued shifts over time as new members, new structures, and new tools enter the community. (And in fact, the web helps us to make this point: Just look at the way wikipedia redefined expertise, what counts as knowledge and whose knowledge counts.)
I’m not sure “learning to code,” as a skill you put in your pocket, is even possible outside a community of people who use coding in particular ways. And in fact, the goal of learning to code, as I understand it in the webcast, is so you can be a maker and a hacker. But really, you have to hang out with people who are makers and hackers if you will ever understand how coding is put to use in these communities. It’s why I am skeptical of librarians, who are usually not hackers (at least not the kind who hack code for a particular purpose), really being able to do anything but point to these tools and say, “here’s this cool thing you should try out.” As much as Jon Worona argued in the webcast that libraries have always been a place for discovery, they are also a place where copyright and plagiarism are often made sacrosanct. The teen who wants to become a coder/hacker would be better served finding some Mozilla employees to hang out with like Surman and Casilli. This is why creating the communities around these tools, like Mozilla is encouraging, is smart.
We really enjoyed thinking through the thoughtful ideas and tools posed by the panel during this Connected Learning webcast. We hope others will chime in about some of these ideas as well: what do others think about using these tools in more traditional classrooms? Who should teach coding literacy? What can we learn from the maker culture that could shift some of the static ideas of schooling? Thanks to the panel for a provocative webcast.

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