Response to Mozilla as teacher

Inspiration for this post is: Mozilla as teacher by Mark Surman

When I read the first line of Mark’s post “We need to teach the world to code,” I was immediately wary of the wording. It’s true that a basic understanding of HTML and CSS will go a long way in helping people rearrange the building blocks of the web, but “to code” in my eyes says something very different than “to make and collaborate on the web”.

While I agree with the idea of Mozilla serving as a mentor in the proliferation of people who understand code, I fear there is a step missing in the overarching campaign. Maybe it sounds stupid, but after a lot of experience teaching and working with people who do not CODE, I’ve found that many people are terrified of the idea of coding. People see films that are overwrought with complicated coding examples. They skim articles about hackers and coders that include strings of acronyms and code snippets that look like absolute gibberish. The public perception of a hacker, a developer, a coder is still the “ugly-shirt-developer-guy”.

It’s semantics, but I think that this wording is going to scare people away before helping them understand that in this context “coding” is using the basic building blocks of HTML and CSS. For those people, perhaps it should be clarified that HTML and CSS are two skills that are quickly learned (and can be expanded on infinitely). It should be explicit that HTML has a total of 4 absolutely necessary tags (and that anyone can learn them in ten minutes):


It’s not a hard thing to do, to convince people that a little coding isn’t as complicated as they might think. I had this conversation just recently. I was talking about my favorite theme (the Open Web) to a filmmaker, and I said

“Anyone who understands even the most basic HTML is a huge step ahead of a general web user.”

To which he replied

“Yeah, but coding is too hard for a lot of us. I can’t learn to code.”

I proved to him that it wasn’t as hard as he thought on a street corner in San Francisco using a pen and a piece of paper.

Aaron Soto-Karlin getting a quick lesson on html. Picture from @mbelinsky

The Mozilla initiatives that are putting geeks in the room are initiating this conversation. But the conversation is happening to people who are already involved with the Web. Hackasaurus is intensely working on this theme, but the target audience is tweens.

What about the thirty somethings that don’t have proper web skills?

What about the teachers and artists that don’t get digital because they lack the basic competencies that allow them to create on the Web?

What about the longtime filmmakers that are comfortable in their methods and unwilling to change simply because they don’t realize that the Web can make their process easier? Again, this is an experience I had this year. After hearing that a room full of mid-career filmmakers were using the Internet strictly for email, I ran an impromptu basic skills and collaboration workshop in Australia to convince a few filmmakers that Web tools could help simplify their process. After an hour of showing WordPress, Etherpad and various web services that we think everyone knows about, I was asked to do more. One filmmaker said,

“I’ve always stayed away from that web stuff because I thought it was just overkill, but you’re right. This could really help me. Setting up online meetings to work on a script in Etherpad with my team would save a lot of time because we wouldn’t be emailing back and forth.”

I wonder if more of the general public would get involved, if more people would be interested in what Mozilla is trying to do, if the missing step was put into the public. I wonder if Mozilla should be taking part in helping eliminate the digital divide through much more basic web initiatives in addition to the coding initiatives they’re already doing. I’m thinking about the people I’ve worked with that are teachers, journalists, filmmakers, artists and scientists. I’m thinking about an artist friend of mine who came to my office last week to ask me how to download an image from her online email. I’m thinking about my sister who calls me to ask how to set up a Facebook page.

I must say, I’m a little confused about why basic internet literacy seems to be missing from the campaign that’s been circulating in the recent weeks. I’ve heard Mark and other Mozillians talking about that step explicitly. Before one can learn to code, one must understand much more basic principals of the Web.

Mark wrote about this as well: Better internet literacy: an experiment

I’d be interested to hear what Mozilla plans for better internet literacy. What happened to the Book of the Web that came out of a book sprint back in May? How is Mozilla going to teach collaborative techniques using open tools? How will Mozilla reach out to the generation of people that is already working in a digital world without the skills they need? Which project is spearheading the digital literacy in adults? Is there one? Is it supposed to be a given that people are aware of tools like Etherpad, IRC or group lists? Because in my experience, it is not a given.

Overall I think the idea of Mozilla-as-a-teacher is an absolutely solid direction to be going in (though, in agreement with Ken Saunders comment on Mark’s blog, I think “mentor” is a better phrasing, especially with the alliteration). Perhaps Mozilla should consider adding an outreach program to it’s repertoire that is focused on digital literacy in adults? If such an outreach program were developed, I think it would lead to increased participation in other Mozilla initiatives.

I’d really like to hear feedback, especially if you can answer any of my questions above!

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  3 comments for “Response to Mozilla as teacher

  1. September 15, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    Hey Laura – I think the Book of The Web is here on Booki:

  2. September 22, 2011 at 7:13 pm

    Totally agree with all of this. Teaching the world to code — and, as you say, convincing people that a little coding isn’t as complicated as they might think — is an end goal, not a marketing slogan.

    The first step for almost all people is internet literacy. That’s central the architecture that I want to lay out (probably 2 blog postings from now). We’re starting w/ Hackasaurus, but what we learn there will certainly be something we extend to lots of audiences. So we haven’t backed off on internet literacy.

    The one thing I do want to back off on for now is that social marketing is the way to tackling basic internet literacy. When we dug into that, we went almost no where. For my money, p2p teaching of even this most basic stuff will be the way we scale and have impact. Like helping your artist friend upload a picture.

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