Tinkering together

February 13, 2013 § 4 Comments

‘Making is learning’ is a big theme for Mozilla this year. It’s at the heart of Mozilla Webmaker. More importantly, it’s the north star idea guiding the grassroots mentor community we’re building around the world. We want millions more people to get their hands dirty with the web. And we expect they’ll learn something as they do.


I realized today that we need to add two concepts into this theme: tinkering and social. This thought came from a good discussion on the Webmaker mailing list that starts with the question ‘is making learning?’ Rafi Santo both asked and began to answer this question:

The short answer: yes, but it’s complicated. The longer answer is that the best maker-driven learning is never just about the making. It’s about all the things that happen around the making. That initial spark of curiosity, the investigation and early tinkering, the planning and research that follow, the inspirations and appropriations from other projects, the prototypes, the failures, the feedback, and, perhaps most importantly, the iterations upon iterations towards a better make.

He then went on to say:

I’m willing to say that someone is always learning something when they’re making, but they learn best when it entails the sort of process, community and well configured structures of participation.

In part, the discussion around Rafi’s post is a debate about tag lines. Should we rally people under a ‘making is learning’ banner? Or should we be more subtle like ‘making as learning’ or ‘make to learn’? We’ll probably do the later.

However, there are also two important substantive points worth pulling out from the conversation: a) it’s the process of making that drives learning and b) the best learning happens when the making is social. Both of these points are critical to the success of Webmaker.

The process point may be obvious. It’s not just what I made, it’s the journey of the making. But it’s worth calling it out explicitly. Mozilla Rep Emma Irwin writes in response to Rafi’s post:

This spoke to my own learning in programming. I think I learned (and got confidence) more from debugging and being stuck than simply making. The sense of accomplishment of overcoming things that seemed really hard at first have motivated me more than anything. I think those experiences are why I am crazy enough to think I can ‘teach’ now.

Designing tinkering and iteration into Webmaker is critical. A first step is creating content built from the ground up for remix. And, then to support that with tools that let you tinker and play with that content, and share it again with your friends. The idea is to use remix as an onramp to tinkering with the web.

You see an early example in Jacob’s awesome Valentine’s video project on Webmaker.org. The thing about this video: it is designed to be forked. It wants you to add your own photos and change the text. It’s an invitation to tinker. It’s an early invitation, to be sure: we clearly have a lot to learn about how to do this well. But it’s clear to me that this kind of design for tinkering is ‘thing #1’ of key things Webmaker needs to pull in from this conversation.

Rafi’s other big point is about social: we learn best when we make together. Making together can mean a lot of things. At events. In school. With friends at home. In IRC. On Facebook. Etc. What all of these things have in common is that I can see what you are making and you can see me. We can critique each other. We can help each other. We can fail together. We can iterate together. And we can laugh together. Which makes learning funner, faster and deeper.

Making it easy to ‘make things together’ is ‘thing #2’ that Webmaker should pull from this conversation. Making it easy to riff on content on Webmaker.org and in places like Facebook will be a part of this. But, as Rafi hints in his post, the most important factor here won’t be tools and web sites: it will be people. This is why the building a global mentor community is such a huge priority. Everyone needs a place where they can just show up to make and learn. A place filled with people. And a place you can find in 100s of cities around the world. Building on Hive and ReMo, I think Mozilla can create this place. It’s what we want our mentor community to be.

Anyways: thanks Rafi, Emma and others for getting this conversation started. It’s the kind of leadership this nascent Webmaker community needs. And it’s a great way to dig into what do we really want to build together with Webmaker.


January 29, 2012 § 2 Comments

Like many people, I’ve admired MIT’s Scratch for a long time. It’s a tool that makes it easy for kids to create simple games and animations. And, by design, it teaches some of the basics of programming and computational thinking along the way.

This approach is very much like Mozilla’s own Hackasaurus: invite kids to make something that excites them, and learning into the technology they are using to do the making. In fact, the Scratch approach really informed the ‘making is learning’ design philosophy that’s at the core of the webmaker work we’re doing at Mozilla this year.

Which is all to say, I see Scratch and Hackasaurus as cousins. And, as cousins, I think there is a great opportunity play together — for both to feed into the bigger picture goal of teaching and inspiring millions of new webmakers.

We did a first experiment in putting Scratch and Hackasaurus together at the Hive Tokyo Pop Up a week ago. The Tokyo Scratch community plus a handful of Mozilla people ran a combined workshop where kids used both tools to create a Scratch web page mash up. Concretely, we combined three things:

  • Step 1. A short Scratch workshop where kids created simple animations and uploaded them to the Scratch gallery site.
  • Step 2. A basic Hackasaurus Xray Goggles lesson where kids learned how to remix text and images on a web site.
  • Step 3. A ‘be a famous game designer’ exercise where kids embedded their Scratch movie into their favourite gaming web site.

The whole thing took only an hour, so it was necessarily very simple and limited. But it still built two important web making concepts — ‘the web is lego that you can take apart and remix’ and ‘the basics of telling a computer to do something’ — into a single hour. And the kids seemed to have fun. A number of them kept hacking for an hour after we’d finished the initial session.

Of course, the experiment was not without hickups. In fact, we had to iterate the process three times to get to what I described above. In the first two sessions, the Hackasaurus and Scratch teams taught separately and tripped over each occasionally. It was only in the third round where we had one Scratch and one Mozilla person teaching side by side in each session, which worked well.

I’m not sure where this goes. We might want to do the exact same thing again, especially if we can build local Hackasaurus communities in places where Scratch is also strong. Or, we might use as fuel to brainstorm a more ambitious vision of how Scratch and Hackasaurus can play together. Where ever it goes, it was a fun and good first step.

PS. Huge thanks to the Scratch Japan community for having the trust to try this experiment. I was both grateful and impressed. You and your team really rocked!

PPS. Kudos also to famous ‘Mexican’ wrestler Chris Lawrence for awesomely MC’ing the event.

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