Mark Surman: IT Education Isn’t Just About Schools

Max 'Beast from the East' Smolaks covers open source, public sector, startups and technology of the future at TechWeekEurope. If you find him looking lost on the streets of London, feed him coffee and sugar.

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Mark Surman, CEO of the Mozilla Foundation explains how to teach the public to tinker with the Web

Mark Surman is the current CEO of Mozilla Foundation, a non-profit organisation that exists to support and lead the open source Mozilla project. For more than 20 years, he has been campaigning for a more open, more inclusive Internet.

Surman has raised more than $30 million for community projects, authored two books, presented at over 100 conferences, written dozens of papers, and travelled to more than 40 countries. A large part of his work revolves around digital literacy and IT education.

At the launch of the Make Things Do Stuff campaign last week, Surman told TechWeekEurope that the UK is making good progress with its digital literacy efforts, but the schools alone won’t help inspire enough kids to learn digital skills.

Education is not simple

Surman says that the education system shouldn’t just focus on making software engineers. For him, the debate about education is much broader, and includes the participation of smaller, enthusiast-driven organisations that can teach the public at large how to shape the digital universe.

Mozilla Webmaker badgeTo foster a new generation of digital makers, you need to educate both at school or university, and outside of traditional institutions: “You really need to take two approaches.  One is a very grassroots approach – get communities of people together, teach each other how the web works, teach code, make new tools. That’s what the Webmaker is all about – grassroots empowerment. That’s the main thrust of what we’re doing.

“But you also need to move the institutional context, in this case the education system, along. It’s a slower game, the grassroots have much more impact faster. With Firefox, we go as fast as we can, but we also work with the government to shape standards.”

Surman says that in comparison with the US, the UK government is much more aware that IT education is an issue that needs to be addressed. “I would say without any hyperbole that the UK is the furthest and has the best consciousness among policymakers on the topic of ICT education. It doesn’t mean that the plans that they put into place around the curriculum are good, it doesn’t mean that the problem is solved, but at least there’s a currency to the conversation here that you don’t have in other countries.”

Like onions

One of the challenges faced by Mozilla is how to make its projects and initiatives accessible, but not too simplified. Not everyone can contribute to the Firefox browser or the Firefox OS, and this is why the organisation has adopted a sort of layered approach to its products. On the first layer, users can simply view a webpage. On the next, the ‘remix’ layer, the webpage becomes editable in a simple way, with full support from the GUI. This is where users learn about the basics like URLs and APIs. On a further layer, users can access the full code.

Child code programmer youth © ollyy Shutterstock“The trick to getting millions of people to learn how the Web works is really integrating the principles of ‘View Source’ and being able to drill deeper,” explains Surman. “If you look at where the next release of Popcorn is, or where the whole Webmaker suite is going to be, it will be much more social media and content-oriented – because it’s funny, and because it’s educational.

“But you will be easily able to go inside of it and say ‘this is how it works’ and then hit the ‘remix’ button. The way to maintain the ability to learn, hack and remix, is to build the remix button into every object on the web. So I watch a video, and maybe it’s just funny. Or I may hit the remix button and see how the source works, see who made it, see the derivatives.”

In the future, Mozilla plans to add more layers to its educational products. “It’s still early days, but we are looking at web components for Popcorn and Webmaker. Basically, these are wrapped up collections of JavaScript that you can just throw into the page to perform typical functions, like fetching a photo from the camera. So you don’t have to learn JavaScript, just a little HTML, and you can play around with these web components.”

As a die-hard proponent of open source, Surman doesn’t care about taking on large software corporations that have moulded the school curriculum for decades. “What we want is for open source thinking, or what I call ‘web thinking’, to be mainstream and massive. In the end, I don’t care whether people understand open source and can tell me about different licenses. But they have to be familiar with the ethic, where you show up and say ‘I can figure out how this works, I can take it apart, recombine it, build something else out of it’.

“What are we fighting? We are fighting the idea that the Internet is about very centralised consumption of books, movies and other stuff. We are trying to look at the world as a place where the Web continues to be about creativity, making and self-expression, and distributed control. The most disruptive element of the Web is that anyone can make anything without asking permission from anyone.”

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