The essence of web literacy

Read. Write. Participate. These words are at the heart of our emerging vision for Mozilla Learning (aka Academy). Whether you’re a first time smartphone user, a budding tech educator or an experienced programmer, the degree to which you can read, write and participate in the digital world shapes what you can imagine — and what you can do. These three capabilities are the essence of Mozilla’s definition of web literacy.


As we began thinking more about Mozilla Learning over the past month, we started to conclude that this read | write | participate combination should be the first principle behind our work. If a project doesn’t tie back to these capabilities, it should not be part of our plan. Or, put positively, everything we do should get people sharing know-how and building things on the web in a way that helps them hone their read | write | participate mojo.

Many existing Mozilla projects already fit this criteria. Our SmartOn series helps people get basic knowledge on topics like privacy. Mozilla Clubs brings together people who want to teach and learn core web literacy skills. And projects like OpenNews bring together skill developers who are honing their skills in open source and collaboration while building the next wave of news on the web. These projects may seem disparate at first, but they all help people learn, hone and wield the ability to read, write and participate on the web.

If we want to insert this minimalist version of web literacy into the heart of our work, we’ll need to define our terms and pressure test our thinking. My working definition of these concepts is:

  • Read: use and understand the web with a critical mind. Includes everything from knowing what a link is to bullshit detection.
  • Write: create content and express yourself on the web. Includes everything from posting to a blog to remixing found content to coding.
  • Participate: interact with others to make your own experience and the web richer. Includes everything from basic collaboration to working in the open.

On the idea of pressure testing our framework: the main question we’ve asked so far is ‘are these concepts helpful if we’re talking about people across a wide variety of skill levels?’ Does a first time smartphone user really need to know how to read, write and participate? Does a master coder still have skills to hone in these areas? And skills to share? Also, how does our existing basic web literacy grid hold up to these questions?

Laura de Reynal and I have been running different versions of this pressure test with people we work with over the last month or so. Laura has been talking to young people and first time smartphone users. I’ve been talking to people like Shuttleworth Fellows and participants at eLearning Africa who are emerging leaders in various flavours of ‘open + tech’. Roughly, we asked each of them to list a thing they know how to do or want to know how to do in each of the read | write | participate areas. In most cases, people understood our question with little explanation and got excited about what they knew and what they could learn. Many also expressed a pride and willingness to share what they know. By this quick and dirty measure, read | write | participate passed the test of being applicable to people with a wide variety of skills and sophistication.

One notable result from the groups I talked to: they all encouraged Mozilla to be incredibly opinionated about ‘what kind of reading, writing and participating’ matters most. In particular, a number of them stressed that we could do a lot of good in the world by helping people learn and hone the sort of ‘working in the open’ participation skills that we practice every day. Backing this up, evaluation research we’ve done recently shows that the educators in the Hive and fellows in Open News really value this aspect of being part of the Mozilla community. It could be that we want to formalize our work on this and make it a focal point within our Mozilla Learning strategy.

Building our work from the last few years, there is a lot more to dig into on web literacy and how it fits into our plans. However, I wanted to get this post up to put a stake in the ground early to establish read | write | participate as the north star to which all Mozilla Leading efforts must align. Being clear about that makes it easier to have discussions about what we should and shouldn’t be doing going forward.

As a next step to dig deeper, Chris Lawrence has agreed to form a web literacy working group. This group will go back into the deeper work we’ve done on the web literacy map, tying that map into read | write | participate and also looking at other frameworks for things like 21st century skills. It should form in the next couple of weeks. Once it has, you’ll be able to track it and participate from the Mozilla Learning planning wiki.


  1. türkçe replied on | Reply

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