Mozilla: we've taught reading, not writing

Webmaker and Mozilla Festival promotes creation over consumption

Mozilla Festival will this year be held in London from 9 to 11 November. A press release states that the "yearly celebration of learning and innovation" is gathering people together to "explore the web, learn together, and make things that can change the world". Those invited include coders, designers, journalists, educators, filmmakers, gamers, makers and youths from more than 40 countries, who'll be involved with brainstorming, design challenges and sprints that will shape the future of media and the web.

Themes this year include hackable games, making the web physical and web-native cinema, but Mozilla's also using the festival to place a firm emphasis on the future of web technology from an educational standpoint. .net spoke to Mozilla Foundation Executive Director Mark Surman to find out why.

.net: Why is it important for tech companies to encourage digital and technological literacy and get young people involved?
Surman: The web has become the world's second language. In the same way reading, writing and mathematical literacy were crucial to the 20th century, digital literacy has become crucial to the 21st.

But we're finding with many youths and 'digital natives' that they have the tools and skills they need to consume the web, but not to actively create with it. It's like we've taught a new generation how to read, but not how to write.

.net: Why do you think this has happened?
Surman: Many of the technologies we use today are built primarily for 'elegant consumption' instead of active creation, tinkering and peering under the hood. Technology comes wrapped in a shiny black box that's harder to open and mess around with than in the web's earlier days. 'Mozillians' are passionate about making things. Moving people from consumption to creation is Mozilla's goal.

.net: How will you achieve that?
Surman: Mozilla believes it's crucial for schools, tech companies – and everyone who cares about the web – to address this gap, so we can build the next generation of digital creators, innovators and 'webmakers'. We need to empower the people who will come up with the web's next big breakthroughs, and ensure everyday people have the skills they need to be creative and take control over their digital lives.

That's the guiding principle behind our new Webmaker program: that the best way to learn something is by making something you care about – whether it's creating a web page about your dog, remixing an online music video or learning your first bit of HTML and CSS to tweak the template for your blog. 'Learning by making' is our motto, meeting people where their interests already lie.

We think that's the key to spreading digital skills and tech literacy to a much wider audience. And it's also how the best developers and digital creators have always learned, especially in the open source world: by tackling projects they're passionate about, learning as they go, getting help from peers, and sharing the end results.

.net: What is the best way of encouraging people to create for the web who've not considered it before?
Surman: Webmaker.org tackles this by providing people with easy tools and projects they can use to make something amazing on the web quickly. Tools like Thimble, for example, make it dead simple to create your own web pages, learning HTML and CSS as you go. Webmaker.org helps you use those tools to take on a whole series of inviting bite-sized projects, such as creating your own Internet 'meme', customising your Tumblr template and creating your own pop-up music video.

.net: How does the Mozilla Festival fit into all of this?
Surman: All of that learning by making and doing comes together at the Mozilla Festival. This year we're gathering more than 800 people in London for three days of hands-on making, learning and prototyping.

The key to the Mozilla Festival's success has been bringing diverse groups of people to experiment and make together. When you bring developers, designers and technologists together with leaders in other spaces – educators, youths, journalists, filmmakers – that's where the magic happens.

That kind of collaborative innovation has led to many of our most successful projects – and it's also very Mozilla to gather smart, passionate people together to make and learn together, in the open, freely sharing their work with the world. It's been hugely successful. And it's a tremendous amount of fun!