Mozillians as inventors

September 22, 2011 § 1 Comment

Making is learning. Learning happens when we make. At least, this is the pattern we see when we look around Drumbeat. Projects explicitly about learning have put making things at their core. And, projects that started with making have added a big piece on learning.

Mozillians as inventors diagram

One thing I’ve noticed: particularly impressive learning happens when people get to make — or help make — something new and innovative. Something other people will use. Something that will have impact.

The Popcorn.js video library is a good example. From the beginning, Popcorn was a partnership between a filmmaker (Brett) and a professor (Dave). Brett and Dave had an idea for a Javascript library that could spark a whole new kind of open source cinema. Dave’s students at Seneca College had the energy and enthusiasm to build out this idea, learning how to architect and evolve a Javascript library along the way.

By putting Dave’s (physical) classroom inside Brett’s (virtual) lab, the Seneca students had a learning opportunity like no other. Certainly, they had to learn fast and on their feet. At first, this is harder than learning from a textbook or making toy software. But, in exchange for hard work, students get help from the Mozilla community plus a chance to blaze a very real trail on the web. Based on the conversations I’ve had with Dave’s students, I’d argue this leads to deeper learning and, certainly, deep pride.

Surprisingly (at least to me), MoJo has become another example of how we can connect learning and innovation. From the start, the project was about innovation, with aim of putting fellows into newsrooms to build a new kind of webapps. But learning has become an increasingly important goal for MoJo: we’ve realized we could help thousands of people learn how to use the web to reshape newsrooms, not just the 15 fellows we select.

Admittedly, we don’t know how to do this at scale yet. The recent MoJo learning lab reached only 60 people, and was too closely tied to whether one became a fellow or not. But we did catch a glimpse of what might be possible through MoJo events and discussions that happened trough the challenge cycle. The idea of inventing new web things for the newsroom galvanized people, got them sharing ideas. It had people teaching and mentoring each other even if they didn’t know it.

I say inventing here quite on purpose. There is pride and motivation in ‘making a thing’. Even more so a thing that seems new, novel or innovative. This sort of informal, fast, iterative invention is quite common and natural across Mozilla. It’s a good way to create valuable new tools for the web. Based on the little we’ve observed, this sort of ‘inventing’ is also a magnetic motivator for learning.

This observation has influenced how I think. Mozilla-style, tinkerish invention should be a central part of the learning programs we develop next. We also need to focus strongly on basic web literacy. And to encourage people to use code to make things that are simply fun and fanciful. But the idea of ‘Mozillians as inventors’ should certainly be in the mix.

Which leads me to this: if we want to create the biggest, most interesting technology learning organization on the planet (I think we should!), Mozilla needs not only to be a school but also a lab. Not a school and a lab in any traditional sense: whatever we do must be open, distributed, global and peer-to-peer, just like an open source project. But certainly, we will need to build out spaces that are both about learning and inventing.

I have a practical picture in my mind of how this might work: how we might build Mozilla programs that mix school and lab, teacher and inventor. I will post on this next week. I’ll also post soon on the question on the ‘Mozilla as teacher vs. mentor’ topic. I agree with much of what people have said about ‘mentor’, but want to explore.

In the meantime, I wonder: what do you think about this idea of Mozillians as inventors? Is it important to how we construct learning programs, or a distraction?

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