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Why the Web Needs Educators and Vice Versa (Or, Why I'm a Proud Mozillian)

Why the Web Needs Educators and Vice Versa (Or, Why I'm a Proud Mozillian)

On July 17, 2012, something unusual happened.   Mozilla CEO Mitchell Baker and Mozilla Foundation Executive Director Mark Surman introduced me as the sixth member of the  Board of Directors of Mozilla.  I am honored beyond words---and excited about what's ahead.  Like the other Board members, I am doing this because I believe in Mozilla's commitment to innovation and to the openness of the Internet as a public good.  But what's so unexpected about this appointment is that, unlike the other Board members, I'm not a prominent technology inventor, entrepreneur, or business leader.  I'm a professor, originally an English professor, a digital humanist and historian of technology (what used to be called "history of the book").  Universities often bring in business people to help lead them.  It rarely works the other way around.  When it does, it's news.  And we're all hoping it might be a tipping point.  We believe that, in 2012, technology and educational leaders need to be working together as part of an international movement on behalf of the open web.   We need to make sure that the next generation values the web and contributes to it. 

Equally important, we need to make sure formal education is transformed to recognize, appreciate, and reward all the web-based skills that students bring to learning and have to offer to the hierarchical, top-down forms of formal education.  Peer learning and collaboration--key components of webmaking--are crucial life skills and have the potential to transform education, K-graduate school, if only educators can reimagine their role and that of their students in the shared project of learning together.    [NB: This paragraph was added as a response to Jade Davis's comment below.  Jade knows this is what I believe--she was a student in FutureClass, described below, and a HASTAC Scholar.  I didn't see that this fundamental principle was not adequately represented here and I've added this because of her contribution, a great example of "collaboration by difference" in action.]


Cathy Davidson participated in a virtual conversation with Mitchell Baker and the rest of the Mozilla community on June 6, 2012.  
Watch the webcast here:


Personally, I'd like to see web literacy made a basic part of the DNA of every education, from preschool to graduate school.  I believe that will happen but it will take an alliance of educators, parents, business leaders, policy makers, and all of the Mozilla community.  We're at a crucial moment in the history of education and in the history of the internet.  Everyone knows something big has to happen.  People have been dazzled by apps of every kind--and they should be.   It's amazing to see all the possibilities at our fingertips in one smart phone, including in impoverished parts of the world where mobile devices have surpassed conventional wired technologies in terms of popularity.   Educators now are all dazzled by MOOC's (Massive Online Open Courseware) and schools are rushing to have their star lecturers taped and available digitally, for free, online.   That's terrific too; it is good to want to share the benefits of costly education for free.  And some of the MOOC's are also extremely good at challenge-based, engaged teaching and learning methods too.   But apps and MOOCs are not making young people literate in all the ways that the web can work to help us reorganize our lives effectively and powerfully.   The reason is this: apps and MOOCs still have someone else designing the products (whether commercial or free).  True web literacy is also web making.  The key feature of the web is that it was designed with an open architecture that can let anyone with access contribute for free.  You don't need to download what someone else created.  You can Do It Yourself.  

Mozillians know this.   They have, together, created the Mozilla Firefox Browser--the free and open source browser that, against all odds and all predictions, now has almost one-quarter of the world's usage share of web browsers.  According to Wikipedia, as of July 2012, Firefox is "the third most widely used web browser.  The browser has had particular success in Indonesia, Germany and Poland, where it is the most popular browser with 66%, 48% and 47% of the market share respectively."   Most people outside the Mozilla community do not understand that the code to this powerful browser is free and open source.  They do not know about the powerful Mozilla developer community that, together, makes the web better for all of us and invites contribution from anyone who has the skills and desire to contribute to that global mission.  "We are an open community of developers building resources for a better web, regardless of brand, browser or platform.  Anyone can contribute and each person who does makes us stronger.  Together we can continue to drive innovation on the Web to serve the greater good. It starts here, with you" (source:    To repeat:  most people beyond the open source community do not know about this powerful, collaborative movement.  They cannot defend the Web if they don't understand this powerful Mozilla slogan:  "It's the Web.  You drive." 

I have spent the last year on a book tour for a trade book called Now You See It:  How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century.   Besides media and Internet webinars and text interviews, I've made 66 face-to-face visits to schools, universities, businesses, technology firms, and organizations charged with assessments and accreditation.  Sometimes I give a lecture, and often I also do workshops.  What everyone wants to know is what can we do to make our kids--and ourselves--thrive in the digital future.   What I like to say is that the single most important thing we can do is transform our systems of education from the old industrial model into an open web model of learning which teaches responsible, creative, fun, dedicated, skilled, collaborative contribution.  We need a paradigm shift.  "It's a Webby world.  You learn.  You drive." 

Learning by doing at the Digital Media and Learning Conference


Media analyst Clay Shirky likes to say that "institutions tend to preserve the problem they were designed to solve."   We have inherited educational systems designed to retrain farmers to be assembly line factory workers and shopkeepers to be corporate bureaucrats.  Everyone knows we no longer live in that world.  We need to transform our institutions of education for an open source world.  That's deep.  Powerful.  A movement.  It requires Mozillians to provide an example of what works, how, in what fashion.  And it needs educators willing to lead major institutional changes to support this new way of working together. 

I have been arguing that web literacy is the fourth literacy, as important to our era as reading, writing, and arithmetic.  Just as you need to learn good writing skills and critical reading skills even if you do not plan on being a professional journalist or novelist, so should you be learning the basics of webmaking even if you will not eventually be helping to write the next iteration of the Firefox browser.  You can learn enough HTML and CSS to build your own website in a semester-long introductory college course, on the model of the first-year rhetoric or language courses.  You learn HTML and CSS and build your own website.  In order to figure out what kind of website yours will look like, you have to engage with all the profound issues of the web:  privacy, for example.   How much do you reveal?  Who do you want to see your website?  And who will own the data you put up on your website? More to the point, being invested in your website should make you be invested in the importance of a web that you can drive.  We need to inspire the next generation of web advocates and web activists.

Although we now have seen that money may not "trickle down," education definitely does.  If universities required basic HTML and CSS--the building blocks of webmaking--soon there would be high school AP classes in it.   And then smart middle school kids would be learning.  And because of great Mozilla products like Thimble, X-Ray Goggles, and Popcorn even younger kids could learn too.   With Summer of Code and other projects, we can make a movement towards universal web literacy:  all it requires is that technology leaders, educators, business leaders, policy makers, parents, and kids themselves work together to learn the basics to thrive in the 21st century world.  

* * *


Storming the Academy photo by Samuel Huron

I met Mark Surman three years ago when he contacted me as the cofounder of the nonprofit HASTAC ("haystack": Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory), a network of about 9500 people now dedicated to "learning the future together."  I and a team at Duke University are responsible for administering the HASTAC network and maintaining our Drupal-based website.   HASTAC is dedicated to translating the principles of open source community to education, and the Mozilla Manifesto has long been one of our guide posts.  HASTAC (joined by our HASTAC partners based in California) administers the annual Digital Media and Learning Competitions, originally supported by $2 million a year in grant funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and joined, this year, by the Gates Foundation as well.   Mozilla is part of this year's Badges for Lifelong Learning Compettion:   

Mark also invited some HASTAC leaders to participate in Mozilla's Drumbeat Festival in Barcelona called "Learning, Freedom, and the Open Web."   We put on two days of hands-on Storming the Academy workshops (  I also brought five of my students from FutureClass, a student-designed, peer-learning seminar in webmaking, web literacy, and web organizing.   When bandwidth failed out in the plaza in Barcelona, my students came up with a "Low Tech Social Networking Site"--a flip board with post it notes that allowed people to "tag" themselves and then connect with others.  It became a hub for the Festival and a great example that web literacy is a habit of mind, a mode of action, and not just a technology.   Hack Education:  Think.  Make.  Connect.  Act.  Create.  Program.  Build.  Do.  Be.  Believe.  Learn.  Share. Repeat. 


FutureClass in Barcelona, Spain at "Learning, Freedom and the Web," Nov, 4, 2010


As an official Mozillian now, I see my role as learning everything I can from my astonishing Mozilla colleagues, continuing to be inspired by the awesome Mozilla community, and contributing to the Mozilla goals of keeping the web open for innovation and contribution.   I also see my role as doing my best to inspire educational leaders to rethink the basics of how we teach and how we learn, as well as to make web literacy a basic skill.  In the next year, Mark Surman and I will be writing some op-ed pieces championing the fourth literacy.   And I will be helping to plan activities for the upcoming Mozilla Festival 2012 (Nov. 9-11 in London).  

One goal that I hope we can all pursue together, as Mozillians, is to transform learning--and, I hope, to use the Mozilla model of open yet highly skilled and effective collaboration (with a powerful enough browser to claim nearly a quarter of the world's usage) as a model for a transformed system of education worldwide.  Mozilla  works.  There's no standardized A, B, C, D, "None of the Above" test at the end of an innovation challenge that tells you whether you know how to code.  That's the old model.  The learning model we are striving for is about thinking, doing, learning, and making.  Part of that goal is to educate the next generation of developers and programmers.   But there's an equally important and even bigger ambition that goes far beyond programmers: we need to make everyone a supporter of the web.   We need to educate people about the web so we can ensure a new generation of web advocates and partisans, who understand what the web means to the world and who realize what a loss it would be to live in a world without a web that is open to innovation and participation by everyone. 

Mozilla is inspiring.  I hope as a Mozillian to contribute my part to spreading web literacy and to communicating to the general public how the Mozilla mission for an open, innovative web can continue to inspire the ways that we learn the future together.



So happy to hear this.  I can't wait to see what this collaboration will bring.


I do have one big comment.  You said the following:

Personally, I'd like to see web literacy made a basic part of the DNA of every education, from preschool to graduate school.  I believe that will happen but it will take an alliance of educators, parents, business leaders, policy makers, and all of the Mozilla community (emphasis mine).

I do think this is very important, but one of the things that troubles me, and maybe this is because I am in the weird nomansland of being both an instructor and a student, is that the students are not made central, explicitly in this process.  It is wonderful that we are able to see holes in learning and try to remedy them, but if we aren't also bringing students they want, or getting them on board to understand why this is a need, I fear that students will not engage as fully as they should.  All of this makes me think of a question I make sure to ask my students every semester in my introduction to media classes, "Why are you in school?".  To date, having had over 100 students and I have not had a single student provide an actual answer to the question.  The most I've gotten is "to get a job", which inevitably leads to an entire session of students talking about their fears of not being able to find the job they are hoping their degree will help them get. 

We've spent so much time thinking of schooling as a means to an end.  I truly hope that as the open web movement keeps moving forward that it becomes a means to a beginning. I'm hoping that you joining the Mozilla board will mean a voice to get more initiatives going that focus on the wonderful HASTAC principle of Collaboration by difference, as well as more things that try to not just start from those who are already web literate, and understand the importance of this literacy.  Rather, I hope as we all move forward with this, across education and industry, that we make a committment to meet students where they are, and move forward from there, so that this literacy doesn't become simply another means to an end, full of AP classes, intro courses, and students only seeing a value in a final grade or badge they might be able to earn.


I could not agree more.  Thanks so much for asking and I'll answer at length because it is so important and I so much value your input and also the opportunity you've given me to make explicit why this is  student centered and why peer-learning is central to my personal mission and to Mozilla's too.   I'll also go back and add a sentence to my post because, if this student-driven and student-inspired component isn't obvious to every reader, then I've missed the mark as it is central. Thanks so much, Jade, for your contribution.  [NB: I just went in and edited.  Thus, the motto of the internet:  Publish First, Edit Later.]


That is why kids' programs like Scratch (and my entire involvement in the Digital Media and Learning Competition with MacArthur and Gates) and all the Mozilla Summer of Code projects and all the great programs like Thimble, X-Ray Goggles, and Popcorn, are all about peer-learning and student-centered.  Similarly, the new PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge I'm co-directing at Duke is very much about students directing and iterating together:  Learn.  Make. Do.  Present.  Feedback.  Make Better.  An entirely different peer-platformed model of learning.  A lot like the FutureClass you were part of.  


I find it is easy for students to be engaged.   The hard part, that I defined as part of my particular mission given my own experience and background and place in the academy, is with institutional change.   There is so much of a rush into MOOCs that merely replicate MOTEs (my new acronym for Massively Outdated Traditional Education) but on line.      When I give workshops with students present, I insist the first hour of any workshop has to be just students talking.  It changes everything---they already know all the things I'm going to say, and their professors or teachers (when I focus on K-12) are astonished at how much the know.   What students tend not to know (because school is constructed to keep it from them!) is how much the things they know count in the world, even as those things are discounted in school.   They tend to love my message because it validates them.  


To my mind, there is a big problem with asking "Why are you in school?"  School, as far as I'm concerned, is so drastically outmoded right now that the only honest answer is "To get the credential that will certify I've mastered the things this school requires."  Note that that is not in any way saying that there are not thousands of things, intellectual and social, that students learn in school.  I am not at all cynical about the content of higher education.  But our modes of assessment, our requirements for what constitutes "general education" and what constitutes a "major" or a "dissertation," are so antiquated that they do not jive either with what students know or what the world wants.   It would be hard for a student to answer "I am in school because I know it is the best possible place to help prepare me for a satisfying, productive, creative, fulfilling, successful [however you define it] adult life."   To my mind, that is the right answer but our schools are not designed to address that question.   That is why I'm pledging to change it.  


What I love about webmaking as the fourth literacy is that we live in such an un-diverse world of technology design, as if technology should be bought by everyone but made only by a certain class, stratum, gender, race, etc.   The numbers on diversity are really terrible, and that's a tragedy since the founding document, the manifesto, of Web developers is the famous Eric Raymond piece "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" which compares the university to the cathedral, the world of interactive peer learning to the ever-changing and constantly evolving and maker-nature of the bazaar.   That essay also has the famous battle cry of webmaker diversity:  "With enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow."   Meaning if you limit participation only to those with credentials, you'll never catch the bugs.  You'll all see the same thing and you'll always miss the gorilla (to go back to the founding cognitive principle of attention blindness in Now You See It).   Web making isn't technology.  It's life.  It's control, participation, and contribution to the world we live in now.   It is a paradigm shift, just like the other literacies.  That's why I embrace it.


The reason I spent a year giving 66 talks to corporations, nonprofits, K-12, accreditation organization, science and technology organizations, and educators is I wanted to see what each of these groups think about higher education and, more precisley, about the kind of people who come out the other end of a college degree.   Everyone is disappointed.   We're not doing what we should be doing to train students for a world in which they will change careers (statistically) four to six times, where they have to learn how to work with a diversity of individuals in complex situations, where they have to unlearn their skills to learn new ones, where they have to be smart about what they don't know and know how to work with others who do (including "end users"):  all the lessons of the open web that you have to figure out in an innovation challenge, working together.  


Coincidentally, nominations are now open for next year's HASTAC Scholars:  an entirely peer-run, peer-led student network, of the most connected students in academe:

My series for Fast Company focuses more on these issues, Jade.   This blog includes the url's and a summary of each of those posts.   Thanks again for writing. 


I might disagree a bit. I think the student is a subject that haarus given a facility to enable them to develop themselves and develop the skills they have.

I think if each of the relevant school policy that all students should be able to study the nature of the educational website that has been declared will get results that are not appropriate. Dlam this, if you want to make all students have the ability to master a website, then you should have held a special school that teaches about the website. Perhaps the unofficial forum, such as website forums raturaya , or forum kaskus and etc..