Tag: learning (page 1 of 10)

3 things I learned during my time at Mozilla


On my to-do list for the last year has been ‘write up what I learned at Mozilla’. I didn’t want this anniversary week to go by without writing something, so despite this being nowhere near as comprehensive as what I’d like to write, it at least shifts that item from my to-do list!

The following are three (plus one bonus) personal learning points that I felt were some of my main takeaways from the three years I spent working for the Mozilla Foundation. After being a volunteer from 2011, I became a member of staff from 2012-15, working first as Badges & Skills Lead, and then transitioning to Web Literacy Lead.

1. Working openly by default is awesome

Mozilla is radically open. Most meetings are available via public URLs, notes and projects are open for public scrutiny, and work is shared by default on the open web.

There are many unexpected benefits through doing this, including it being a lot easier to find out what your colleagues are working on. It’s therefore easy to co-ordinate efforts between teams, and to bring people into projects.

In fact, I think that working openly is such an advantage, that I’ve been advocating it to every client I’ve worked with since setting up Dynamic Skillset. Thankfully, there’s now a fantastic book to help with that evangelism entitled The Open Organization by the CEO of Red Hat, a $2bn Open Source tech firm.

2. The mission is more important than individuals

This feels like an odd point to include and could, in fact, be seen as somewhat negative. However, for me, it was a positive, and one of the main reasons I decided to spend my time volunteering for Mozilla in the first place. When the mission and manifesto of an organisation are explicit and publicly-available, it’s immediately obvious whether what you’re working on is worthwhile in the eyes of your colleagues.

No organisation is without its politics, but working for Mozilla was the first time I’d experienced the peculiar politics of Open Source. Instead of the institutional politics of educational institutions, these were politics about the best way to further the mission of the organisation. Sometimes this led to people leaving the organisation. Sometimes it led to heated debates. But the great thing was that these discussions were all ultimately focused on achieving the same end goals.

3. Working remotely is hard

I do like working remotely, but it’s difficult — and for reasons you might not immediately expect. The upsides of remote working are pretty obvious: no commute, live wherever you like, and structure your day more flexibly than you could do if you were based in an office.

What I learned pretty quickly is that there can be a fairly large downside to every interaction with colleagues being somewhat transactional. What I mean by that is there’s no corridor conversations, no wandering over to someone else’s desk to see how they are, no watercooler conversations.

There are huge efficiency gains to be had by having remote workers all around the globe — the sun never sets on your workforce — but it’s imperative that they come together from time to time. Thankfully, Mozilla were pretty good at flying us out to San Francisco, Toronto, and other places (like Portland, Oregon) to work together and have high-bandwidth conversations.

Perhaps the hardest thing about working remotely is that lack of bandwidth. Yes, I had frequent video conversations with colleagues, but a lot of interaction was text-based. When there’s no way to read the intention of a potentially-ambiguous sentence, dwelling on these interactions in the solitude of remote working can be anxiety-inducing.

Since leaving Mozilla I’ve read some studies that suggest that successful long-term remote working is best done based in teams. I can see the logic in that. The blend I’ve got now with some work being done face-to-face with clients, and some from home, seems to suit me better.

(4. Technical skills are underrated)

This is a bonus point, but one that I thought I should include. As you’d expect, Mozilla was an environment with the most technology-savvy people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. There were some drawbacks to this, including an element of what Evgeny Morozov would call ‘technological solutionism’, but on the whole it was extremely positive.

There were three specific ways in which having tech-savvy colleagues was helpful. First, it meant that you could assume a baseline. Mozilla can use tools with its staff and volunteers that may be uncomfortable or confusing for the average office worker. There is a high cognitive load, for example, when participating in a meeting via etherpad, chat, and voice call simultaneously. But being able to use exactly the right tool for the job rather than just a generic tool catering to the lowest common denominator has its advantages.

Second, tech-savvy colleagues means that things you discuss in meetings and at work weeks get prototyped quickly. I can still remember how shocked I was when Atul Varma created a version of the WebLitMapper a few days after I’d mentioned that such a thing would be useful!

The third point is somewhat related to the first. When you have a majority of people with a high level of technical skills, the default is towards upskilling, rather than dumbing down. There were numerous spontaneous ways in which this type of skillsharing occurred, especially when Mozilla started using GitHub for everything — including planning!


Although I’m genuinely happier than I’ve ever been in my current position as a self-employed, independent consultant, I wouldn’t trade my experience working for Mozilla for anything. It was a privilege to work alongside such talented colleagues and do work that was truly making the web a better place.

One of the reasons for writing this post was that I’ve found that I tend to introduce myself as someone who “used to work for Mozilla”. This week, one year on, marks a time at which I reflect happily on the time I had there, but ensure that my eyes are on the future.

Like so many former members of staff, I’ve found it difficult to disentangle my own identity from that of Mozilla. I purposely took this past year as time completely away from any Mozilla projects so I could gain some critical distance — and so that people realised I’d actually moved on!

So who am I? I’m Dr. Doug Belshaw, an independent consultant focusing on the intersection of education, technology, and productivity. But I remain a Mozillian. You can find me at mozillans.org here.

Image CC BY Paul Clarke (bonus points if you can spot me!)

Radical participation: a smörgåsbord

Today and tomorrow I’m at Durham University’s eLearning conference. I’m talking on Radical Participation – inspired, in part, by Mark Surman’s presentation at the Mozilla coincidental workweek last month.

My slides should appear below. If not, click here!

I was very impressed by Abbi Flint’s keynote going into the detail of her co-authored Higher Education Academy report entitled Engagement Through Partnership: students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education. In fact, I had to alter what I was going to say as she covered my critique! Marvellous.

After Abbi’s keynote I was involved in a panel session. I didn’t stick too closely to my notes, instead giving more of a preview to what I’m talking about in my keynote tomorrow. As ever, I’m genuinely looking forward to some hard questions!

Announcing Maker Party Newcastle 2014

I’m delighted to announce that we’ve confirmed the date for this year’s Maker Party Newcastle! Building on the success of previous ones held at the Centre for Life, this year we’ll be at Campus North, home of the Ignite100 startup accelerator on Saturday 13th September. Many thanks to Lyndsey Britton and Lauren Summers for their help in making this happen.

Sign up here: http://bit.ly/makerpartyncl14

Maker Party Newcastle 2014

Maker Parties are for everyone, but given Ignite100’s links with Code Club, we’ve decided to make it relevant to the new English primary school computing curriculum. Children of all ages will be welcome, but if you’re a teacher – or aged between 7 and 11 – it will be particularly relevant!

We’re looking for mentors to help out with this event. The most important qualities are enthusiasm and a willingness to be a co-learner. Some rudimentary HTML and CSS skills would be a bonus. Extra points for JavaScript!

If you’re based in the North East of England, please do share this widely with your networks. 🙂

Questions? Please direct them to doug@nullmozillafoundation.org.

Rethinking Literacy for the Web [Educating Modern Learners]

Educating Modern Learners, a new subscription site from Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon, is now live. Excitingly, the editor of the site is none other than Audrey Watters, whose blog and newsletter I’m sure you already subscribe to.

They commissioned me to write one of the first articles to appear on the site, a process that meant I benefitted from the editorial eye of Audrey. The post is currently available via the free subscription tier for the site, so you’ll need to sign up to access it.

The article is entitled Rethinking Literacy for the Web. In it, I provide an introduction to what the web means for literate practices, the challenge for educators, and ways we can respond.

The time has come to move beyond discussions of whether the web, social networks, and mobile devices are inherently “good” or “bad.” Debates about whether such things can (or should) be used for learning drag on while the next generation cobble together their own understanding of an increasingly blended online/offline world. It’s time we as educators stepped up and taught more than just “e-safety.” It’s time we started facilitating learning experiences around reading, writing, and participation on the web.

Once you’ve had a read I’d be interested in your comments here (I don’t think they’re turned on over there!)

Image CC BY-SA Alberto Garcia

The Web Literacy Standard is dead (long live the Web Literacy Map!)

I spent a good chunk of 2013 working with colleagues and a community of stakeholders creating a Web Literacy Standard. The result is testament to the way Mozilla, as a global non-profit, can innovate on behalf of users. I’m delighted with what we created.

Until recently, the literature and language in the field of Web Literacy has been relatively undeveloped. This is important, because although it doesn’t always seem like it, words are hard:

This seems to be a problem for anyone trying to explain the unfamiliar. If you invent new words, few people will know what you’re talking about, but if you make analogies using existing words, you bring along all their context, whether you want to or not.

In early 2013 we wanted to avoid creating just another ‘framework’. Why? Although we wanted to be more descriptive than prescriptive, we still didn’t want people to just pick-and-choose the bits they liked. Instead, we wanted to co-create something more holistic. That’s we chose to call what we were creating a ‘Standard’. The idea was for the community to come together to build something they felt they could align with.

And that’s exactly what we did. We created something that, while not perfect, we can feel a justifiable pride about.

A problem we’ve encountered is that because words are hard and dependent upon context, ‘Standard’ can have negative connotations – especially in North America. So after announcing the first version of the Standard at MozFest we, as a community, started to have a discussion as to whether ‘Standard’ was a word we wanted to keep.

The result of that consultation is that we’ve decided to move away from ‘Standard’ to describe what we’re doing here. While we could fight a valiant crusade on behalf of the term, it doesn’t seem like a battle that’s worth our time and effort. It’s better to focus on winning the war. In this case, that’s ensuring the newly re-titled Web Literacy Map underpins the work we do around Mozilla Webmaker. After all, we want 2014 to be the year we move beyond the ‘learn to code’ movement and focus on a more holistic understanding of web literacy.

We decided on Web Literacy ‘Map’ because we found that most of the language we used to describe what we’re doing was cartographic in nature. Also, it means that our designers have a lot more scope around visual metaphors! It’s going to be (and, importantly, look) – amazing!

3 things I saw at the Mozilla Summit that blew my mind

At the Mozilla Summit in Brussels this weekend I saw three technologies in particular that could revolutionise the (learning and teaching) world I inhabit. I’d include Open Badges, Webmaker and the Web Literacy Standard in there, but I blog enough about those. 🙂

There were awesome ideas at the summit as well – most notably around User Personalization (UP). But for this post I want to focus on things you can play with right now. I’ve written more generally about the Summit on my conference blog and you can see some photos I took in this Flickr set.

1. Together.js

Together.js is two lines of JavaScript you can add to a website to enable realtime collaboration. Check out the video above to see some scenarios in which it could be useful. For online teaching and learning I think this is awesome.

2. AppMaker

While Mozilla AppMaker is still in ‘pre-alpha’ it can be used now and has an exciting future ahead of it. AppMaker is a really easy and straightforward way to create HTML5 cross-platform apps that can be used on FirefoxOS and, indeed, on any device that supports the Web.

Read more about AppMaker on the Mozilla Labs blog.

3. Shumway


Flash on the Web is past its best. It was a dying, proprietary platform even before Steve Jobs hammered the nails in the coffin. However, there’s still some decent Flash-based stuff out there, so how can we make it accessible in a secure and HTML5-friendly way?

Enter Shumway. It’s currently in Firefox Nightly and should work its way onto the main release channel in a few months.

Were you at the Mozilla Summit? What did you see that was awesome?

Why would I send my child to secondary school?

You don’t have to believe in the lazy education is broken meme to think that there’s something wrong with the way we educate young people. As someone who worked for seven years as a teacher and senior leader in schools I’m not just some guy who has a view on education: I’ve seen what it looks and feels like behind the scenes in both ‘outstanding” and ‘failing’ schools.

I want to make it clear that nothing I’m about to say has anything to do with the role, status or professionalism of teachers. As I’ve said many a time, most teachers I’ve ever come across do a fantastic job and are dedicated and hard-working. My target here is, specifically, the English education ‘system’ (if we can even call it that).

It’s also important to bear in mind that I’m not talking about my own choices as a parent here, but rather me qua parent. The question I’m asking isn’t “should I homeschool my child?” but rather, “how should we as a society educate young people?” It’s a symptom of our age that the former is always assumed whenever I bring it up. Individualism and the logic of the market seems to pervade everything these days.

I’m also going to be setting aside the purpose of education for the moment. Going into any depth here would make this into either an inordinately long post, or a series of posts. That’s not my aim and, in any case, I spent a couple of years exploring that question with Purpos/ed.

Secondary school is a huge waste of time. I mean that literally.

Let’s do the maths.

Many secondary schools I’ve taught in divide the day into six 50-minute lessons. Children go to school five days per week so that’s 5 x 6 x 50 = 1500 minutes (or 25 hours) in lessons. However, in terms of learning time, once we’ve factored in changeovers, settling, the costs of task-switching and routine tasks/admin, that’s probably down to 5 x 6 x 30 = 900 minutes (or 15 hours).

The way that people get better at things is through formative feedback. In other words, someone gives you timely advice on a thing you’ve just done and shows you how to improve it. That could be how to write persuasively or how to swing a tennis racquet. In a class of 30+ children formative feedback happens less often that we’d all like.

So, going back to the calculations, the learning that takes place in 15 hours per week with a 1:30 ratio could probably take place a lot more quickly and accurately with a 1:1 or 1:5 ratio. I’m well aware that the research on class sizes shows that numbers have to be cut dramatically to make a difference but with these kinds of ratios Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development starts kicking in on a regular basis. My son’s footballing skills came on a lot more during 16 hours in a small group during half-term than they would have done in 16 one-hour lessons within a large group over four months.

We can, and I believe should, organise learning differently. We could have smaller learning groups for 20 weeks per year and the other 20 weeks could be the equivalent of apprenticeships – putting those knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviours into action. Or each week could be divided into two. Or they could do one week on, one week off. There’s many permutations.

I know I’m likely to get some pushback in the form of how important a role schools play in terms of socialisation. I get that. But I think it’s important to realise that, as parents, we seem to have outsourced learning and socialisation and conflated it with reliable babysitting to allow us to go to work. We’re missing the point by tinkering around the edges.

Having worked in schools with extremely poor pupil behaviour, I realise that this, too, is likely to be another objection. But then, behaviour is the responsibility of those who construct the environment as well as the actions of the individual. If we organised learning differently, in re-imagined spaces, then we’d probably get different kinds of behaviours.

In short, instead of asking what we need to do with schools to perpetuate what we’ve already got, perhaps we should be thinking about the society we want to create for our children when they grow up. All I’m asking for is a rethink. There’s no point in adding epicycles. Iteration is all well and good but, to begin with, you have to be heading in the right direction.

If you haven’t already read Will Richardson’s book Why School? I’d recommend it as a short read that fleshes out some of the points I’ve made above. Also, Sir Ken Robinson’s RSA Animate on Changing Education Paradigms is a must-see on just how crazy the system has become. Once that’s whetted your appetite, then dive into Prof. Keri Facer’s marvellous Learning Futures. 🙂

Image CC BY-NC-SA donnamarijne

TILTW reaches 100!

A lot has changed in both my life and the world at large since January 3rd, 2010, the date when I hit publish on a post marking the first in a series entitled Things I Learned This Week. The structure of the weekly roundup, however, has remained similar with its rationale pretty straightforward: I get a chance each week to read and review the links I’ve collected and curate something of interest to others. Everyone wins.

Originally, I used this blog to post the weekly roundup and diligently produced TILTW for the whole of 2010 before declaring a hiatus. When I resurrected TILTW in April 2012 it was in the form of an email newsletter (which has now grown to a subscriber base just shy of 400).

I’ve linked to all 100 TILTWs below for the sake of posterity, if nothing else. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank those who have have expressed their pleasure at the newsletter either by hitting reply when the email lands in their inbox, or via various social media channels. That always makes me smile! 🙂

If you haven’t yet signed up for TILTW you can do so below. The newsletter arrives in your inbox every Sunday morning (UK time).

>>>Sign up here <<<

List of all TILTWs

Originally, I thought that other people might like to create their own Things I Learned This Week. I’m not precious about the name and would welcome more curated content! Feel free to riff on the idea. 🙂

Image CC BY vxla

Thinking through helping my kids learn Web concepts.

TL;DR version:  I’ve been thinking of the best ways to help my six year-old son understand some of the concepts behind the Web. I’ve settled on a non-linear, interest-based approach that sparks his interest through ‘hooks’. These should build on his curiosity from other areas. He should also get to just ‘mess about’ a lot with some just-in-time intervention.

I went on a walk down to Druridge Bay and back today. It’s my headspace – not just the beach itself, but the whole act of walking on my own without any stimulii but the environment. It gives me a chance to think, and today I was thinking about the Web.

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how to introduce the fundamental concepts of the Web to my kids. My daughter is two, so she’s probably slightly too young at the moment, but my son is six which is definitely old enough for him to start understanding some of the concepts behind the Web. While the browser is not completely foreign to him his digital life is funnelled predominantly through iPad apps and games platforms like the Wii and PS3. I want to show him the vast expanse of the Web, to begin to help him understand how it’s structured.

While I was walking I was thinking about how best to start introducing Web concepts to my son. The classroom teacher in me made me think about formal, linear structures – about concepts that were fundamental to grasp before he even looked at a Web browser. But then I realised just how disingenuous such a pathway would be; no-one I know who is ‘Web literate’ learned this way. They learned based on their interest and curiosity, they learned just enough to get done what they wanted to do, they learned almost by accident.

When you’re a parent, it’s very difficult to let go of the reins sometimes. It’s hard not to make everything into a learning moment for your child, into an intentional activity with a particular outcome.  And yet, an unstructured, slightly chaotic approach is how I and millions of other people have learned how not only to read but write the Web. At the same time, it’s important not to fetishise such a free-flowing approach: some people understand the Web better than others. Indeed, some misunderstand the Web, some use it in sub-optimal ways, and some don’t understand the basic concepts behind it. I’m trying to avoid that.

So, what to do? I want to list the things I think my son should know about the Web but I don’t necessarily want to place these into any kind of linear order. What I need are ‘hooks’ to sustain his interest long enough to be able to explain concepts that, at times, can be fairly nuanced for someone in their first year at school. Those hooks will, of course, be different for every individual but one good place to start is to find Web-based resources that lend themselves to peeking under the bonnet.

I work for Mozilla and my colleagues are building some fantastic Webmaker tools. One such tool that might be really worth using with a six year-old (and their associated reading level) might be something like Popcorn Maker. This is a video tool to ‘enhance, remix and share Web video’ that relies primarily on visual clues to get started. Basing a project around this tool would, for example, allow for the teaching of concepts like URLs (copying and pasting from YouTube/Vimeo), staying safe online, and fair use/copyright.

Despite their protestations, I’ve found people to be fundamentally creative. It’s the reason why showing users how to change their background, theme or avatar usually gives them so much satisfaction. Indeed, even much more advanced users tend to set up their digital environment before getting on with doing something with a tool. Putting your mark on something makes it yours. The last thing people want when they’re learning about the Web for the first time is to sit through a lot of theory before they get going; they want to tinker, they want to customise, they want to ‘see what this button does’.

One thing that six year-olds (thankfully) haven’t yet had crushed out of them is a fear that ‘they might break something’. Such apprehension isn’t natural, but a learned behaviour that tends to affect technophobic adults. Indeed, it’s a significant reason for such people being technophobes in the first place. Although with my son I won’t have to tell him it’s OK just to mess about with the Web, if this was an adult I may well have to do that. It’s something to bear in mind when introducing new digital concepts, I think. Horses for courses, and always start where the learner is at.

Finally, a word on measurement. It might seem like what I’ve said so far about providing ‘hooks’ to the user and going with their interests would preclude assessing their progress. But, actually, I think feedback – so long as it’s useful to the user – is extremely beneficial. Indeed, it’s the essence of video games, where you get pretty much instantaneous feedback on what you’re doing. These games tend to throw you right in from the start, without a ‘manual’. You learn how to play the game not by reading about them, but by playing the first few levels. Games designers scaffold the experience for players both in terms of them learning the controls and giving them feedback on their performance. A common way to do this is through some kind of in-game achievements or trophies that signal a player’s progress. These can be expected or can be surprises. The can be easy to acheive or fiendishly difficult.

I intend to follow up this post at some point with a list of the concepts I think my son as a six year-old should understand. Feel free to chip in with some suggestions in the comments below!

Image taken from the iA Web Trends map

Towards a Web Literacy standard: (3) Who?

Update: For the latest information on the Web Literacy standard work, head to http://mzl.la/weblitstd

TL;DR version:  Mozilla is working with the community to define a new learning standard for Web Literacy. Who should be involved? Anyone that’s interested, but certainly organizations developing learning activities around web skills, as well as those teaching and facilitating in formal or informal education. More here: http://mzl.la/weblitstd

Posts in this series:

  1. Introduction
  2. What? Why?
  3. Who?
  4. How?

In the first post of this series I revealed Mozilla’s intention to work with the community on defining a new, open learning standard for Web Literacy. In the second post of the series I explained what we mean by an ‘open learning standard’ and why, in fact, we need one. In this third post I want to look at who should be involved in this kind of work.

It’s important to say, of course, that anyone can be involved. Even if your job or responsibilities outside of work have nothing to do with teaching and learning the Web, that doesn’t matter. If you’re interested in what we’re doing then you’re definitely welcome and your voice matters. On the flip side, even if standards are your job/thing this might interest you. And that’s OK.

There are some obvious candidates of those who should come along to the kick-off online gathering this Thursday at 11am EST and/or get involved in the discussion group. The first of these would be representatives of organisations producing activities that allow learners to ‘level-up’ in their web skills. The value of being involved for this group of people is that they get to map their work onto a framework that both potentially eases their workload and surfaces their offerings to more learners.

Another group of people who should get involved are those who teach in a formal context. These may be teachers in schools where they want to deliver Web-related learning activities as part of the curriculum; it may mean lecturers in universities who want to ‘break down the walls’ of their classes and enable students to participate from wherever they’re based; it may be mentors in hospitals or prisons where improved Web skills allows learners to connect with others outside of their (fairly static context). We’re interested in a Web Literacy standard informing work in all of these – and other – formal contexts.

A third group of people we think should be involved in helping define a new, open learning standard for Web Literacy are those involved with informal education. This is a wide and diverse group of people including (for example) Scout Leaders, after-school club leaders, and CoderDojo mentors. Instead of the (fantastic) activities already being organised remaining in silos, they can be joined up in meaningful learning pathways or playlists. This can allow learners to go to a wide range of places to level up in their Web Literacy skills.

The great thing about bringing people together as we are around this new, open learning standard for Web Literacy is that it surfaces great work already being done by people. I’m very much looking forward to Thursday and the great conversations that start there.

Join us! 🙂

Image CC BY http://heretakis.com