Can Mozilla make tools that teach the web to the world?

Each week, mind-blowing guest speakers join our Mozilla Webmaker Community calls for your questions, rabble-rousing and debate.

Audrey Watters is a prolific education technology writer, researcher and “recovering academic.” She recently kicked off a fascinating research project for Mozilla, aimed at answering:

What’s the best way to teach web-building to anyone? For example, should Mozilla develop a tool to help the world learn HTML5?

Audrey has been asking educators and ed tech developers what they think Mozilla’s role should be, at an educational, philosophical and technological level.

Without exception, everyone I talked to identified a dire need to improve web literacy. Whether it was elementary school teachers, college professors, hobbyists or entrepreneurs, everyone talked about a huge gap in our collective knowledge base around how the web works…. There’s still this sense of the internet as a series of tubes, and the web as a series of documents you can deliver through those tubes. –Audrey Watters

Some key questions and takeaways from the discussion:

  • Learners want to solve real problems and make real stuff. Not feel like beginners/outsiders.
  • There’s a lot of resistance to building a tool that’s de-contextualized or separate from the “real” web.
  • Learners need to make something quickly. With a takeaway that’s personally meaningful to them.

So…

  • What do we really need to build? A community or a curriculum? A product or a process?
  • How can we learn from the successful past examples? Hypercard was arguably one of the most popular, user-oriented entry-level programming tools ever — even though real programmers hated it. Hobbyists and amateurs liked it. The professionals didn’t.

Mozilla’s David Ascher dug into the Hypercard analogy:

What made Hypercard powerful is that normal people were able to use it build really useful things…. The holy grail is something that doesn’t require people to learn the entire stack that “real developers” use, but at the same time, has real utility on a day to day basis. –David Ascher

MIT's "Scratch"

Mark Surman tried to tease out the balance of giving learners access to “real” code — not toys — while still lowering the barriers to entry, providing scaffolding, or useful constraints that help you to make something meaningful quickly:

The difference between then and today is: we now have a nearly universal platform people can use to consume, create and build: the web. We want to make tools that help people make stuff on the web. They may be scaffolded or supported, but what comes out is still the web.

This is the difference between what we’re trying to build versus Hypercard, Scratch, etc. There may be constraints that make it easier, but what comes out is still “real” code, the real web. –Mark Surman

Stay tuned for some further upcoming fireside chats with Audrey. In the mean time:

9 thoughts on “Can Mozilla make tools that teach the web to the world?

  1. “Real” programmers have the same opinion about Excel as they do about Hypercard, again ignoring (or disparaging) the fact that it lets “everyone else” do some pretty amazing things without (realizing that they’re) programming. The stuff EUSES has been doing on end-user programming (http://eusesconsortium.org/) has some fascinating lessons.

  2. Great post! I really like Audrey’s work. What stood out for me from her “talk” during the community call would be; “there is a huge desire for people to learn REAL web skills and that this would best be done through well organized communities of practice.”  I really think Mozilla and the whole hack thing is the right approach… I believe Mozilla needs to get really really good at building and facilitating the growth of communities of practice (online and otherwise).

      1. I don’t think it is a “we decide” (meaning mozilla?). The decision has already been made. In the open, contribution already is the guiding metric. IMO, Mozilla needs to focus its hackasaurus and related efforts on helping people learn the skills to contribute for REAL. People know really quickly if they are learning in a walled environment. Growing communities is an amazing thing to be a part of… kinda hoping Mozilla isn’t looking for a technical solution to encouraging contribution. Maybe some tools to support it… but this does seem to already be Mozillas approach, supporting real learning by providing and using tools. This is why I believe Mozilla is doing the right things…

  3. HyperCard never went away. It just continued to improve. In it’s current form it’s called LiveCode (http://www.runrev.com)… Most folks that started with HyperCard probably already know this. In addition, K12 students seem to take to this tool like fish to water. And furthermore, there are no more programmers. Those folks are now called artists, designers, teachers, students, authors, scientists, etc. etc. ;-)

    1. Very cool! Might be interesting to explore ways we might be able to collaborate in our upcoming “Summer Code Party?”

      We’re looking for ways to partner with other web literacy orgs and communities to teach people the basics of coding and webmaking at local events and teach-ins this summer. Using tools and curriculum that make it easy and fun.

      Maybe LiveCode would be interested in taking part? More info here: https://wiki.mozilla.org/Summer_Campaign_2012

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