Openness & access

Openness at Mozilla, part 8

This post is part 8 of the Openness at Mozilla series. Read the other parts here:

Hacking Games 4 Web Literacy at MozFest 2014, CC BY Doug Belshaw

Even into my mid-30s, I believed that I would never code. I’d never make a webpage. I’d never be able to contribute to an organization or project like Mozilla. I told myself:

  • You didn’t go to school for that.
  • You never read the book that lists all the codes and commands.
  • You can‘t even read the “view source” on a webpage.

It wasn’t that I didn’t have access to code, education, or technology. It was that I thought I didn’t have the right — the expertise, the experience, the permission — to learn how to make something new or even to ask for help. I was frustrated. Whenever I tried to start learning, I felt lost.

I couldn’t do it. I probably never would. The best I could do was buy an editor and cross my fingers that my HTML tables wouldn’t break in the WebQuests I’d built in Dreamweaver for my students. TL;DR: they did.

It was strange to be a teacher who believed I couldn’t learn something new. I couldn’t imagine myself as a coder, whatever that meant.

And then things happened, almost all at once, that changed my mind.

  • I joined a movement to save federal funding for the National Writing Project (NWP) in 2011. It didn’t entirely succeed, but it connected me to…
  • Mozilla, which had begun working with the NWP at that time to explore “web making” as a form of composition in writing classrooms and which inspired me to…
  • Use Thimble, Mozilla’s web-authoring tool that showed you how the changes you made to HTML and code made immediate changes to a webpage, which led to…
  • An invitation to MozFest to share the work my students and I did with Thimble, which introduced me to…
  • Developers at Mozilla who sat down with me and helped me fix my first ever coding project: a random sandwich generator that took me 5 more years to write and rewrite and really understand, a process that finally gave me the vocabulary to…
  • Ask for help and finally recognize myself as a coder, albeit a horrible one who was over-specialized in random text generators about food.

I went home feeling like I could do things again. Heck, I even fixed my dryer using a screwdriver and video tutorial.

Mozilla and the NWP showed up for one another at MozFest and as part of a movement to broaden and democratize what it meant for kids to write in the classroom. They helped me and my kids see writing as a form of production. They saw each other as partners and stakeholders engaged with a shared goal in a sustainable relationship that wound up lasting for years. They supported teachers and students using Thimble and web literacy curriculum in their classrooms. They found each other at events like the Digital Media and Learning (DML) conference. Mozilla staffers and volunteers presented at NWP Annual Meetings. NWP staffers wrangled at MozFest 2014. These organizations didn’t work on the same things every day, but together they championed web-making as a student-owned means of creative expression and production in classrooms that historically limited and regimented young people’s speech and work.

After being welcomed into that movement, I found supporters at Mozilla who guided me into the world of code and taught me the vocabulary I needed to make sense and use of sites like Stack Overflow or CodePen. The words and websites I needed all existed before I needed them, but I didn’t know whom or how to ask my questions. Those resources were open in a technical, traditional sense, but I didn’t have access them. I needed the people at Mozilla and MozFest to explain what words like “camel case” and “conditionals” and “counters” and “loops.” Openness isn’t ever static or complete; calling something “open” doesn’t make it accessible; openness is dynamic and depends on people sharing power and privilege in community in very clear, equitable, and specific, and ways.

Because I learned how to code like this, I went back to my classroom with a new appreciation for vulnerability and transparency. I knew how much privilege I had; coding still terrified and flummoxed me for years. How did my kids struggle in similar ways? Different ways? What assumptions did I make about whether or not they understood all my teacher-talk and techno-babble? How did I know that there was any overlap, at all, between work that held value for me and work that held value for them in the classroom we shared? I learned to see my students’ struggles as symptoms of my own shortcomings as an educator and person. I began to ask what they wanted to do, learn, and make, and worked to match our assignments and projects to their interests and the media they wanted to use, including code and the web.

Becoming transparent with my kids about my struggles to teach them well helped us all become more transparent about what they wanted to learn, how they wanted to learn it, and how we might evaluate their learning in helpful, not harmful, ways. Class didn’t become a paradise; I didn’t become teacher of the year. Things got better because we learned how to trust each other to give honest feedback about what worked and what didn’t work. We learned how to hold each other accountable for the teaching and learning we negotiated and committed to together. Transparency isn’t ever one-sided or a check-box on a list; transparency is a necessary condition of involving others and sharing power in community.

These lessons about openness, transparency, working like a movement, and myself brought me to Mozilla, to help people discover what they want to do and then to discover they can do it. The internet health movement is full of allies leveraging the web to do the same — to help people claim agency for themselves online and to enjoy the agency, knowledge, power, production, and the rights that come with a healthy internet open to all.

We have to keep inviting more people in; we have to make our invitations clear; we have to ask people what they need. We have to share our stories in ways that make sense to each of our allies, and we have to listen to — and amplify — the stories they bring to the movement, as well.

Openness may be a beginning of access, but the relationships we share and the commitments we sustain are what will make our work truly open, transparent, and useful to the internet health movement.

These big ideas can each seem messy and overwhelming. It’s daunting to think of how to do all of them all at once.

I’m excited for us to acknowledge the messiness. I’m excited for us to express vulnerability along with our resolve to identify and embrace the parts of openness, transparency, and working like a movement that we’ll tackle together next. If we can appreciate the complexity of these ideas and commit to a manageable set of specific actions, processes, and tactics, I know that we’ll become a stronger organization and a better ally than ever in the movement for internet health. Let’s invite each other to this work, help each other understand it, and continue sharing our power with the people and communities on the front lines of internet health projects around the world.

Where has your open journey taken you? Please join the discussion! Leave a comment below and share your stories of openness, transparency, and working like a movement. Have feedback, questions, or suggestions? Let us know at leadopen@mozillafoundation.org or @MozOpenLeaders. Learn more about the OLE team and our work here.