Explaining Webmaker crisply

September 25, 2012 § 8 Comments

We’ve been honing our description of Webmaker recently. Partly, this is so we can explain Webmaker to the world. But it’s mostly aimed to clarifying what we’re building and who we’re building it for as we move into the next phase of development.

Mozilla Webmaker helps to make, remix or tweak a webpage or video and also teaches you how the web works.

At a recent meeting in Toronto, Erin Knight led a set of discussions on this topic. I came out of these discussions with four big takeaways:

1. Webmaker is a peer to Firefox and FirefoxOS.

Mozilla has big priorities right now: the web on the desktop; the web in the mobile environment; and web literacy. We need to start positioning Webmaker in this context, showing how Mozilla’s three big bets / priorities all tie back the same mission.

Also, we need to make the link between the value of a phone you can re-program because it’s made from the web (FirefoxOS) and the value of knowing how the web works (Webmaker). Getting web phones into the hands of millions of skilled and creative people is the key to a next wave of innovation on the web.

2. We should describe Webmaker by simply explaining what you can make.

We need to describe Webmaker more simply and concretely. We’ve been able to say ‘Mozilla wants to create a generation of people who know how the web works and can reprogram it.’ But describing what we’re building to make this happen has been difficult. We took a shot at fixing this in Toronto:

Mozilla Webmaker: a quick way to make, remix or tweak a webpage or 
video while learning how the web works.

While this isn’t quite right yet, it opens up an important new direction: we should be explaining what you can make with Mozilla Webmaker. This creates a more tangible picture in people’s minds and helps them understand how they can engage. I’m hoping others can come up with better wording than what we have above, but based on the general approach of saying what you can make.

3. Our audience is people with something to share.

Up to now, we’ve been a bit fuzzy about who we’re targeting with Mozilla Webmaker. In Toronto, we narrowed in on ‘people how have a maker attitude and something to share’ as a core audience.

There are two pieces to this. The first is is about an approach to life: one that involves tinkering, remixing and iteration. The second is about having made something that you are proud and excited about, something that you want to share or show to other people: a picture you took; a video you made; a game you’ve modified; a big idea you’ve dreamed up. We build the needs and desires of this audience into our design process as we work on the next phase of Mozilla Webmaker.

 4. Educators are also a key audience.

During the last thee months, almost 700 people organized Mozilla Webmaker Summer Code Party events. Whether they gathered 100 people or simply brought a few friends around a kitchen table, these people have played a critical role in getting Mozilla Webmaker off the ground. And they have done so because they care about inspiring and educating others about the creative potential of the web.

Personally, I hadn’t really thought about this group as one of our key audiences before. But clearly they are. These are the first people to ‘get’ what we’re trying to do with Webmaker and to feed back in to help improve it. Like the early adopters who first installed Firefox on other people’s computers, these grassroots educators and evangelists could be the core of our global community. Over the next couple of months, we need to figure out ways to more actively help them and bring them into what we’re building.

These four insights aren’t particularly radical. They fit with where we’ve been going with Mozilla Webmaker for the past year. However, I do think they make it easier to explain what we’re doing. They also offer increased clarity on what we need to be building and who we need to be building it for over the next six months. Erin is going to do her own post on this aspect of the Toronto discussions, looking at how we practically pull all the pieces of Webmaker into a more cohesive offering.

Making tools for webmakers

July 2, 2012 § 7 Comments

We want everyone to tap into the full creative power of the web. That’s the point of Mozilla Webmaker. Part of  this is about people: building a global community of webmakers. But another essential element is building tools that both invite people to make cool things on the web and that help them learn how the web works. Last week, we released early versions of two of these tools: Thimble and Popcorn. This post offers background on these tools plus musings on next steps.

A month or two back, Free Software Foundation Chief Counsel Eben Moglen said: “We made the web easy to read, but we didn’t make the web easy to write. Facebook took advantage of this gap.” This is a useful way to look at the challenges the web now faces.

Over a billion people are now on social networks. They use these networks to create and share (awesome!). But they do so only on the terms social networks offer them. Most people have neither the tools nor the skills to tap into the unbounded creative potential of the web (e.g. I want to change how this app works, let me hack it). This seems like something worth fixing.

The goal of Mozilla Webmaker is exactly this: to move people from being users of the web to being makers of the web. While part of this move is about new skills and attitudes, another part has to be about tools and content. Specifically: tools and content that make it easier to create using the full power of the web. Easier to customize a blog template. Easier to add a data layer to a video. Easier to hack a game. And so on. As Mozilla begins to build tools like this, I see three big buckets of things we need to get done:

  1. Build a foundation: Thimble + Popcorn as way to test our making + learning thesis (2012)
  2. Build with the community: add in badges, get community adding content and code (2012+)
  3. Make the app world hackable: add in JavaScript, game hacking, app hacking (2013+)

Of course, this isn’t just about Mozilla: we’re already working with Tumblr, Codecademy and many others who are also building tools that encourage making and learning. But Mozilla does have a clear role to play here, especially around tools that build in the design principle of ‘making as learning’ from the beginning. This is our focus.

Step 1 – Build a foundation

Quickly ship tools that test our webmaker thinking: this was our plan with Thimble and Popcorn. Earlier this year, we agreed we needed to try out our ‘people learn by making’ thesis soon and in the real world.

With this in mind, we designed very simple tools with a collection of ‘hackable’ projects at the centre. Each project is a web page or interactive video template that gives people a) a starting point for making something and b) instructions that help you learn while making.

In Thimble, for example, each project is a single, simple HTML page. All pages include code comments that suggest what part of the page you might hack and what techniques to use. Eg. <!– This is a comment. These comments tell you what to do. The next section is a <H1> header. Edit the text within the header tags to change what words are on the web page. –> Thimble currently includes about a dozen making + learning templates that teach basic HTML and CSS while letting you make a meme, kill zombies or remix an animal from the London Zoo.

In Popcorn, the focus is much more on learning the mechanics of the web while also learning how to tell stories in new ways. The core element of a Popcorn project is a video wrapped in an HTML page template. You are invited to tell your own story by manipulating the video and the template. For example, with the Robots template, you design your own Robot invasion movie by adding in Google maps (learn how APIs work + target the robots at your home town), by changing the words the robots say (learn about variables and speech synthesis), or by adding in pictures of people and places the robots will target (learn about links and embedding). Similar templates exist where you can make your own web newscast or create a VH1-style pop up layer on top of your video.

Popcorn and Thimble share a common design philosophy. They start from the premise that remix and making are central to how people have always learned the web. The web is an open, view source world where it’s easy to see a technique in action and then copy it. We’re trying to make that even easier and more explicit by offering tools and pre-made projects that help people learn by making. We think this approach is especially promising for the 1 billion+ people on social media who clearly like to express themselves on online but have no plans of becoming a capital P ‘programmer’. For these people, the starter content we’re offering will be much more important than the tools themselves.

Our goal for this 1st step in the Mozilla Webmaker tool roll out: test this making + learning thesis. See if people like what we’ve made so far. Evaluate whether they are learning anything and what they are learning (see ‘badges’, below). We’ll do this testing and evaluating over the next six months while also shipping improvements plus new content for Thimble and Popcorn.

Step 2 – Build with community

Our next big priority needs to be building Mozilla Webmaker with a community. There are two parts to this: a) building basic tools that offer value to people who want to make, learn or teach and b) creating an architecture of participation that makes it easy for people to contribute content and code. We’ve already started on a) (see above), now we need to get moving on b).

We’ve got a few early wins. Some of the best Thimble projects came from the hack jam we held with NESTA in London about a month ago. Popcorn already has a base of open source code contributors. And, of course, we’ve got well over 500 people who have stepped up to organize a #mozparty this summer. These are big contributions already.

What we don’t yet have is a systematic way for more people to get involved, especially on content, code and localization. As an example: we want to get to a place where large numbers of people contribute Thimble and Popcorn projects for other people to make / learn on top of. I believe that this sort of community-made content will be key to the growth of Mozilla Webmaker. Unfortunately, we don’t have a good way for people to do this yet.

As a first step towards fixing this, we’re going to create an easy way for people to propose Webmaker.org and Thimble content simply by posting it to a Mozilla wiki. We’re working on the specifics right now, but the ideas is that people can review / refine / discuss stuff there, and then we can port the best stuff to our main sites when it’s ready. Obviously, we need something easier and more robust over the longer term: a gallery or repository where anyone can post content ideas into the Mozilla Webmaker universe. We also need easier ways into the code side of our projects. These are both things we’re thinking through with the aim of making progress this year. We’re very open to your ideas.

We also need a way to see who’s who in the community: to know what people are working on; to find people with particular skills; to find people with similar interests. This starts with simple communications tools like the new webmaker mailing list and the #mozparty Twitter hashtag. But we need something more robust and something that works across alot of platforms if we want Mozilla Webmaker to scale.

This is where Mozilla Webmaker badges come in. By the end of 2012, we plan to offer badges to recognize the skills that people have learned and that recognize contributions to the community. The skill badges will include things like “I understand HTML basics” and “I’ve helped 5 friends learn CSS”. We’re still working out the specifics. The contribution badges will recognize those who have helped others and those who have contributed learning content and code. This will give people within the Webmaker community an easy way to signal each other — to know who knows what and who is into what. More importantly, it will also give people a way to show what they learned and for us to monitor what and whether people are learning.

We’re starting work on this 2nd step right now, building a more systematic architecture of participation in parallel with our efforts to test and improve our first set of tools.

Step 3 – Make the app world hackable

Our third big step for Mozilla Webmaker tools has to be ‘teaching real programming‘ – getting people to the point where they can create or remix a game, app, etc. We chose to start Mozilla Webmaker with a focus on HTML and video so we could test our making and learning thesis using basic content that almost anyone on the web can make. But, our ultimate goal is to let people control, configure and create all corners of their digital lives. Games. Apps. Social networks. Civic participation sites. Science projects. And so on. At some point, that means teaching programming, or making programming easier to do.

It’s in this last phrase where one of our big questions sits: do we teach ‘real code’ like JavaScript, or do we adopt / develop a simple tool for producing JavaScript etc. like Meemoo or Blockly?

Our plan for 2012 is to explore both paths. We’re working with Codecademy to get their content on Webmaker.org and to encourage people to use their courses as part of #mozparty. This gives people a ‘learn real code in the abstract’ option. We’ll likely do the same with Meemoo, Blockly and other promising tools: write them up on Webmaker.org; encourage people to use them; and then ask people to feedback on what they observed. This is a good way to promote the work of allies who also want to teach the world to code while at the same time investigating whether there are gaps a tool like Thimble++ could play.

There are already a couple of places where I think Mozilla-made tools — and Mozilla’s learning philosophy — could add value in the ‘learn programming space’. One opportunity is in the realm of hackable games: HTML5 games which are designed from the ground up to be modified. People could be invited to change the game mechanics and or to bring in content from across the web. E.g. imagine grabbing your friend’s picture from Facebook and mapping it onto a rock in Angry Birds. Another opportunity is in mobile apps, especially those designed for rich on-the-fly HTML5 content creation. Eg. imagine a Popcorn-enabled Boot-to-Gecko phone that pulled in all kinds of contextual content and data on the fly, feeding a ready to edit package of content back to your laptop via the web. We’ll explore ideas like these this year at a blue sky and maybe even prototyping level to see what’s possible.

My guess is that this 3rd step in the Mozilla Webmaker tool effort won’t really move into high gear until early 2013. There are a number of experiments planned for later in 2012, but these are mainly about seeing what’s possible and giving us enough insight that we can develop a solid roadmap for our work in this space.

Admittedly, this is a pretty big dream. Mozilla Webmaker is ambitious on purpose. We need this kind of ambition if we want a world where we all understand and can shape our digital lives.

But we also need a plan to turn ambition into reality. We made the beginnings of a plan when we launched Mozilla Webmaker earlier this year (you can read it here). I’ll post a review of where we’re at with this plan sometime in later July, including how what we’ve learned from tools like Thimble and Popcorn is helping us evolve the plan.

In the meantime, there is one thing we know for sure: Mozilla is way too small to take on the Webmaker vision on its own. As I said above, we need to a) figure out how we can provide something valuable to others who want to teach the world to code and b) get at least some of these people working with us directly to create the tools, content and community for webmakers. Finding ways to work with people who share our vision (is this you?) is the number one priority of the Mozilla Webmaker team right now.

Which leads me to two closing asks: let us know if any of the work we’re doing on Mozilla Webmaker tools can help you + let us know if you want to help. It’s not always easy to find your way in. We know that and can help. The best place to start is on the Webmaker mailing list or our weekly community conference call. You can also just post a comment here or send me email. Just show up, put up your hand and say ‘I want help / how can I help?’ Someone on the Mozilla Webmaker team will be there to help you figure it out from there.

Planting seeds for webmaking

June 21, 2012 § 12 Comments

Mozilla Webmaker takes its first big step this weekend: asking people to help out. And, just as important, asking how we can help others working for the same cause.

Mozilla’s Summer Code Party kicks off on Saturday, June 23. Our ask is simple: teach someone how to make something on the web. This could be teaching your kids basic HTML with Thimble or Tumblr. Or it could be learning JavaScript with friends on Codecademy or at a CoderDojo. The only thing that matters is that you are making and learning with friends.

Why? Because getting together with people to make and learn is essential if we want to build a generation of webmakers. It will fuel the community we need to reach our big goals. And, more immediately, getting people together will help Mozilla figure out how to work well with partners and to identify potential community leaders (is this you?).

The good news: many of you have already stepped up to help. There are already 394 Summer Code Party meetups and events in 320 cities and 67 countries scheduled for this summer. And, if all goes well, people will continue to do more and more events over the course of the summer.

Also, we’ve had a great response from partners who share Mozilla’s philosophy and goals: helping people learn how to create cool and powerful things on the web. Tumblr. CoderDojo. The London Zoo. Codecademy. Young Rewired State. Creative Commons. The San Francisco Public Library. NESTA. DoSomething.org. Code for America. Campus Party. And dozens more.

We’re stoked to have these partners are involved, and we also hope we can help them by connecting them to new communities and promoting their work. Helping partners succeed is critical to the success of Mozilla Webmaker overall.

Of course, we’re still just planting our first seeds this weekend. Mozilla’s Webmaker tools are still very basic (I’ll say more about our long term plans soon). And, we’re still in the early days of figuring out how to organize the community around our making and learning goals. But you have to start somewhere. You have to plant seeds.

Which leads me to a second ask: help us grow these seeds. Mozilla Webmaker is premised on the belief that we can build a global community of people who share our goals. We chose Summer Code Party as our first big step because we know we need to start building this community early: to figure out how to organize things; what tools people need; and how we can help others working on similar projects. So, jump in. Push us. Help out. Ask for help. Also, be patient. Growing things takes hard work from alot of people. And it takes time.

Mozilla Thimble preview

June 6, 2012 § 12 Comments

Later this month, we’ll be releasing Mozilla Thimble. Thimble is a simple web page editor combined with a series of ‘projects’ that help you learn the basics of HTML and CSS. The idea is to get people to learn basic web coding by just diving in and making something. Thimble projects make that easier by giving people guidance and a head start.

Thimble will go live just in time for our Summer Code Party campaign that kicks off on June 23. We want people using Thimble at their ‘kitchen table’ events, so I thought I should give people a preview of what’s coming.

The first thing you’ll see is a gallery of Thimble projects. The initial projects are designed to grab the interest of 8 – 14 year olds and to invite them to start making. We’ll be rolling out projects for older teens and adults later in the year.

As a part of this ‘interest grabbing’ approach, a number of the projects have been developed by organizations that already work with young people. This one is from the London Zoo. It teaches basic HTML and a bit about endangered species at the same time.

The Thimble interface itself is a simple side-by-side web page editor based on Code Mirror. The left pane is the code, and the right pane is the page preview rendered in real time.

The project pages are a mix of instructional comments and actual page elements. In the London Zoo Awesome Animal Builder project, the aim is to create your own species by combining image files from real endangered species that the Zoo wants you to learn about.

Here I was able to change the background of my species picture by changing the CSS class. As the code comments explain, I can choose between ‘ocean, rainforest or desert.’

If you’re new to HTML and CSS (that’s who this is aimed at), we’ve put in a bunch of features designed to help you if you get stuck with tasks like this. For example, you can click on any tag to get info on what it does.

Also, we’ve included pop-up hints that help you figure out what the right syntax is for a particular element.

After changing my CSS class (above), I then started moving different PNG files from different species into the frame with the question marks at the top of the page. These files are all given to me lower in the page along side info about the real endangered species. All I have to do is cut and paste the image URLs in order to build my animal.

And, voila! After moving a few more image URLS I now have a completed animal. I’ve also learned a) how headline tags work in HTML, b) the idea that CSS can be used to change the look of a major element of a page and c) that images in a web page are just references to a file somewhere on a server.

These may sound like small things to learn — but it’s exactly these small things we want people to start with. There are other projects in the gallery that deal with more advanced HTML and CSS topics. And, in a later release, anyone will be able to submit a project page to teach whatever aspect of web development tickles their fancy. Our hope is that Thimble can become a ‘Wikipedia of webmaking lessons’, which would be an awesome resource for the world to have.

Of course, our Mozilla Webmaker ambitions are much bigger than just teaching HTML and CSS. PopcornMaker will be a major resource for helping people make and learn about interactive video on the web. And, later this year, we’ll start experimenting with ways to teach people Javascript, most likely through game modding and making.

Early next week, we’ll release a preview version of Mozilla Thimble to people who are organizing Summer Code Party events. Most of these events are small and short — just you at your kitchen table or in your living room teaching two or three people a bit about how to code for the web. If you want to organize an event like this (and see the Thimble preview), sign up here on the Mozilla Webmaker events site.

10 mins of teaching webmaking

April 30, 2012 § 3 Comments

Small webmaking events that you can run in 10 minutes are a central part of the Summer Code Party concept. We’re calling these ‘kitchen table hackjams‘. But, really, they are just you sitting with two friends (or two kids, or two parents) doing a very tiny starter web project. The idea is to have fun and learning something.

We started beta testing this kitchen hackjam concept a few weeks back. I did one with my two sons (Tristan is 12, Ethan is 10) and a friend (Rowan, 10). We sat down to play with the LoveBomb prototype, a tool that introduces basic HTML by inviting people to edit a greeting card.

A learned some good things and bad things about the process. Three highlights:

  1. It’s possible to do a quick webmaking session with almost zero preparation or notice. I proposed the event and we were doing it five minutes later.
  2. You can do alot in 10 or 15 minutes. We’d basically finished the ‘lesson’ in that amount of time. Then two of the kids got bored (my kids) and one of the kids (Rowan) kept tinkering.
  3. For older kids especially, relevant content is key. Tristan gave the ‘toy’ content in the LoveBomb at ‘WTF is this?’ reaction. He’s a regular YouTube game commentator. If he was going to learn HTML, he wanted to be making something ‘real’.

At least half a dozen people ran and blogged about their own kitchen table beta tests. Here is a list of postings that I know about:

If you’re interested, we’re still looking for more testers. There is page on how to run a test. And, also, there is a chance to discuss these on our weekly webmaker calls.

Update. Matt Thompson posted this awesome ‘Webmaker Recipes 101: How to host your own kitchen table hack jam‘ just after this went up. Worth the read.

#mozparty: learning code this summer

April 26, 2012 § 9 Comments

This summer, Mozilla will take it’s first stab at teaching about code. ‘Code’ in both the webbiest sense of the word: we want to expose 10,000s of people to HTML, CSS and JavaScript to help them make things on the web. Or, at least, to give them a glimpse of how the web works.

Kicking off on June 23, we’re calling this experiment the Summer Code Party. It’s an invite for anyone who wants to teach — or learn — webmaking to spend a few minutes building something with friends. Like the Product (Red) campaign, it’s a big tent for anyone who shares our goal of a more web literate planet. Tumblr. Girls Learning Code. Soundcloud. CoderDojo. Creative Commons. etc. Over a dozen partners are already signed up.

The most basic version of participation: do a small Hackasaurus project with two friends around your kitchen table or in your living room. Taking a cue from Jess and Atul’s LoveBomb prototype, we’re developing half a dozen small starter projects that will make this easy. Of course, the hope is that people will do this more than once after they’ve tried it — but even a single kitchen table event is a great way to show people how the web works.

In addition to Hackasaurus projects, we will also offer up a collection of DIY web projects from partners. For example, we’re working with Tumblr to develop some well-commented templates that both help people make their Tumblr look cooler and help them improve their HTML and CSS a little. Other partners will be posting their own small projects on our wiki.

Some partners are taking on more ambitious projects under the Summer Code Party banner. For example, Girls Learning Code is hoping to offer a week long summer camp at the Mozilla Toronto office. This will cover HTML, CSS, Python and Scratch. Other partners will simply plug their existing summer code efforts into the Party, sharing out what people are learning and making with people around the world doing similar things.

Which brings me to how this all fits together: everyone will be invited to share out what they’ve made, both online and at a series of local events in September. The best projects will get badges. And the best local organizers and instructors will get an invite to the Mozilla Festival in London to help us figure out how to improve our webmaking tools and grow out our community.

For now, there are three ways to get involved: 1) Put your name of the list of people who want run a small code party at home or in a cafe; 2) Sign up as a partner or collaborator; and 3) Put yourself on the volunteer list for our June 23 and 24 kick off event. Or, if you want to get even more involved, join one of our weekly Webmaker conference calls. They happen every Tuesday.

Would love to hear ideas, reactions and partner leads. This should be fun.

A scouting movement for the web

April 3, 2012 § 5 Comments

I’ve been thinking about ‘a scouting movement for the web’ for a while: a practical movement focused on skills, creativity and the internet. I finally got around to doing a talk on this idea at last week’s TEDx Seneca. Here is a video of the talk:

The talk starts with a question: what was the most important social innovation that scouting gave to the world? Answer: civilian camping. Before Baden Powell, only the army camped. Camping was strictly for professionals.

A century later, camping is a mainstream amateur activity. Powell met his ultimate goal: he skilled up millions of urban young people as a way to connect them back nature. But he also turned whole generations of people into joyful campers and stewards of the environment.

Imagine if we could do the same with coding and the web? A 100 years from now, we could have a world where making and coding online are a mainstream amateur activity. There would still be professional coders, of course. There always will be. But a huge number of the people making apps, tinkering with robots and writing code would be doing it for the joy of it. Or as a part some other vocation. Or, because they simply wanted to help take care of the web.

There are many practical and immediate reasons to want to teach web making. Skills and jobs and so on. But encouraging creativity and stewardship of the web are equally important. Scouting shows us that building a movement around ideas like this — and teaching a particular skill and technology to whole generations — is very much within the realm of the possible.

PS. Phillip Toronne wrote a piece in Make Magazine on Scouting 2.0. Some good and related thoughts in there.

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