As we scribble and plan for for Mozilla Education, a question sometimes comes up: why? Why is this interesting to Mozilla? Why not just leave educating to the educators? There are at least two different answers to this question.
The first is straightforward: providing people with high quality, easy to access learning opportunities helps with Mozilla’s goal of promoting openness and participation as a part of Internet life. We can offer courses about things like open source work methods and open web technology. People in Mozilla know these things inside out. By sharing what we know, we increase the number of people skilled in these areas, and we probably pick up new contributors along the way. This is pretty simple, and is reason enough to experiment seriously with education programs.
The other answer to ‘why?’ lays in the fact that well run open source source communities are inherently engines of learning. People can show up to a project like Mozilla with basic skills and a willingness to contribute. From there, they can: study the code and the project; get feedback on their contributions; work with more more experienced contributors to create things and solve problems. If all goes well, they leave (or move on to help others in the project) not only with better coding skills, but also with a deep understanding of how to work in a global collaborative community environment. While it’s more like apprenticeship than a PhD, there is no question that this is a process of learning.
Of course, this alone isn’t reason to create something called Mozilla Education. In fact, some might see it as an anti-reason: people are already learning, so why do anything different?
The answer is: we may be able to amplify and broaden the learning opportunities that flow from Mozilla by looking more systematically at the education side of things. Take the upcoming Labs Design Challenge as an example. It will use a course-like approach (interactive online lectures, competitive assignments, access to mentors) as a way to engage with human computer interaction design students. By doing this, the Labs people are opening up Mozilla participation and learning opportunities to a group of people that have been traditionally hard to engage through the regular open software development process. They are using education to expand our community and the number of people we reach deeply with Mozilla’s approach to open innovation.
The hope is that Mozilla Education can have this sort of broadening effect writ large: giving more people a chance to learn with and get involved in Mozilla. And not just technical students. Also students from disciplines like design, marketing and business.
On related question that a few people asked in response to my last post: why just focus on Mozilla, as opposed to looking at open source and education more broadly? The reasoning here is that you need real and concrete problems to learn around. In a traditional classroom, students work on ‘exercises’ — problems that someone else has already solved or that won’t actually get used in the real world. Whether its fixing a bug or developing marketing materials or coming up with design ideas, open source projects offer learning opportunities that are built around real world problems. By extension, these are learning opportunities that have potential for significant real world impact. The solution you come up with might just end up in a product like Firefox.
While Mozilla may eventually choose to champion the idea of open source as learning environment in a broader arena, the starting point has to be with the assets we have on hand: real problems in Mozilla projects, and mentors who can help people solve those problems. Eventually, we may learn enough about how open source and education work that we could do something broader than just Mozilla. But we’ve got to start somewhere more concrete than that if we want to have an impact.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t evangelize and connect with others who share our vision about teaching open source. We have alot to learn from initiatives like Summer of Code that are already making the education + open source link. Mozilla is hosting a small EduCamp event on the day before FOSDEM with this in mind. If you are going to be in Brussels, please consider dropping in. It’ll be a great place to share your ideas and learn about this whole space.
Upcoming posts: explaining education ideas we have on the table by interviewing some of the people who are making them happen.