A few months back I saw a tweet from my friend @clintlalonde which mentioned that he and a colleague at Royal Roads (the very awesome Emma Irwin) we organizing a Mozilla Hack Jam, one of dozens around the globe set to take place on June 23rd to kick off Mozilla’s Summer of Code. I chimed in to count me in, in whatever capacity, as I have been looking for ways to bring my own skills and my passion for teaching together with my other passion of the open internet and non-conventional educational models.
This event fit that bill in spades. Let me describe it a bit and then just highlight some bullet points about why I think this is an exemplary model (I have WAY too much work to do right now but I couldn’t let this pass without writing it up, so short form it will have to be.)
The event was targeted at kids aged 9-14 and has the goal of inspiring kids to make and remix the web. The main tool it introduces them to is Mozilla’s “X-Ray Googles” – a neat bookmarklet that once activated exposes the underlying code that makes up a web page as one mouses over, and with a click allows it to be easily changed. That, plus the instruction to then find a web page and make some changes and we were off to the races (actually, to be honest I don’t think we even got as far telling the kids to do that – they pretty much all figured out that was the point once they realized they could.)
In addition, as the kids got used to that (and for kids with a little more experience) there was a new tool from Mozilla named “Thimble” which basically places side-by-side a page and its underlying HTML, but focuses on the right area when a part of the page is clicked. It also comes with a set of fun games that help the kids go a bit deeper.
The day was kicked off by Clint with a fun icebreaker in which each of the kids were given 4 pieces of a larger puzzle and had to work together to reassemble the entire puzzle. I don’t think we finished the puzzle but that was beside the point, it very much served its purpose, to break the ice, get the energy level in the room up, get kids working together and having fun. Then Emma gave a very short talk about “hacking” and hackasaurus using slides from Mozilla, after which the real fun began.
Now for my reflections:
- First off, while we might have been able to do this in some other space, having access to an amazingly well set up lab at UVIc (offered by the gracious Dr. Valerie Irvine) was hugely invaluable. It is also to me an example of where we need to be going in education, towards projects, events, courses, workshops, whatever, that cross the formal boundaries of our institutions, in this case bringing together a NGO and grassroots organization like Mozilla, a University, kids from the K-12 system and volunteers from a number of other organizations, both educational and corporate. I know these do happen already, but we need to start weaving this into the fabric of our organizations (and their rules and regulations) instead of hoping that upstarts with some gumption will simply make them happen. I can give you a rant for at least an hour to explain how this is in the long term benefit of both our institutions and our society even when it might look in the short term like it can have some costs, but like I said, too much work right now!
- When Emma asked the kids what they thought “hacking” meant and pretty much all of the responses she received were about illegal systems intrusions, I shuddered and hoped that Emma would ride to the rescue and explain the more positive original sense of the term. And while she did a bit, I came to realize that there is a real genius in not belabouring that point and instead allowing the mischief the kids thought inherent in the term to secretly power their learning. You see, while the X-Ray googles allow you to change the source code of a page, they only do it to your local copy, not the server one. But the kids don’t know that (yet – I did explain it to some as we went along, especially the few who felt some concern about the ethics of what they were doing). So while the kids thought they were sticking it to the man by inserting pictures of themselves, or Justin Bieber, or bacon (these seemed like the top three choices) onto their school website or the google frontpage, inadvertently they were learning exactly what I used to teach people in the old days (like, the mid-90’s) when we taught them to create web pages – just view source, make some changes, save it and look at the results.
- Indeed, there is some really great thinking going on at the Mozilla team about how to introduce some potentially complicated stuff in a way that kids can engage with it – there was very little “instruction” going on during the couple of hours we ran the jam, and very much CONSTRUCTION (of knowledge, of web pages) and most of all FUN. This tapped into one of the pieces I too often forget myself about why making and the open web are so important – yes, it’s about preserving democracy and free speech, yes it’s about freeing culture from capital; but it’s also FUN, it’s about the sheer joy of making things.
- I could go on, but I need to get back to work, but I’ll end by saying it was also a joy to be able to bring my daughter along with me. While I like to think of myself as a progressive guy, I still catch myself making unconscious assumptions about the difference between my son’s and my daughter’s relationships to technology, to science, to math. These assumptions aren’t all “my fault” – we are still surrounded by messages that these are male domains (indeed the way they are currently practiced this is too often the case) and in some areas (for instance math) the stereotype does seem to be playing out – my son shows a real adeptness for it, but my daughter struggles with it.Yet that doesn’t mean it’s not important to become conscious and confront them – when my daughter turned out to have a greater interest in helping me solder a guitar stomp box’s electronics than my son (for whom I had bought it to do it as a project) I realized how often I was making these assumptions. Seeing her face light up as she started to learn through playing what goes on behind a web page, and how she could change it herself, is another step away from these stereotypes and hopefully towards an empowered young woman who can make her way in our increasingly tech-addled world. I’d also like to thank Emma and the other three women who were there for being such great role models, and to all the other families who brought their daughters (it seemed pretty close to a 50/50 split in both kids and volunteers.)
I really hope we figure out a way to do more of these, to do other ones too. I know all of us are full-time workers and full-time parents, and finding time and energy to put these things on in addition to all those demands is tough, but this is the future we need to create, one in which education is NOT just something we had off to specialists and only happens between 9 and 3 in classrooms, one in which learning about the means of production and creating them ourselves go hand and hand, one which starts to weave all of the learning opportunities and organizations together, not fracture them into more and more specialized (and silo’d) entities. – SWL