Friday, February 28, 2014

Remix Learning: The Web is the Platform

[Adapted from a presentation given at iThink Therefore iLearn? conference in Manchester, UK; 27 February 2014.]

Many of you know Mozilla as the makers of the Firefox browser. We’re also breaking into the mobile space with FirefoxOS, and have just announced plans to make a £15 (USD$25) smartphone. FirefoxOS is a phone operating system, sure, but its bones are web-based. Mozilla is also making educational products and programs like Webmaker, which I’ll share in more detail later. 

While we are largely defined by our products, the reality is that we wouldn’t exist without our community. We are an international company with about 800 employees and over 10,000 volunteer contributors, and we are all Mozillians. This is one of Mozilla’s strengths: convening people around a shared mission, and making the whole greater than the sum of the parts. And if we’re going to talk about future technologies – especially in education – we have to talk about connecting people and communities.  

Mitchell Baker says “Mozillians are people who make things. Moving people from consumption to creation is Mozilla’s goal.” We support the making movement, whether that’s online or offline, and we see coding as one part of that movement – one of the many ways to express creativity and personal interest.

Remixing is a way to do just that.
My exposure to remixing was music, specifically electronic music. The more I came across the concept in the education setting – through the idea of collaging and mosaic making – I realized that remixing doesn’t have to be just about copy + paste. Remixing can be a recipe – taking little bits and pieces from existing materials, adding a pinch of your own original flavor, combining according to personal taste/style, and then baking (incubating/(taste)testing) as necessary.

When I was teacher drawing up my lesson plans I did exactly this, and I didn’t even know I was remixing. I would take one activity from the curriculum-mandated textbook, find a corresponding YouTube clip, perhaps get the students to apply the idea to their own lives and provide examples, then have a final presentation of sorts – usually outside!

So how can we surface the process so it becomes integral in learning? As educators we often teach skills without being explicit about it. Take writing for example; rarely do we assign worksheets with grammar exercises. Instead, we look for creative, fun ways to introduce, practice, and perfect these skills together as a class. I remember starting or closing class with a little independent writing; it could be diary writing or a reflective entry about something the students experienced that day. Sometimes we wrote plays as a class, bringing in elements of classic stories and adding our own twists. Storyboarding was my favorite activity, where we drew our stories, and then were forced to keep things short and concise when telling it.

The answer to “How can I remix in the classroom?” is “You already do!” But let’s add another element: the web.

Webmaker Tools
With Webmaker, you have three main tools for teaching the web. X-Ray Goggles, Thimble, and Popcorn Maker. There are loads of great templates on, but my favorite is the comic strip.  The idea here is to look at coding as a skill rather than as a content focus, and by doing so you’ll see how easily this could be integrated into any class.

Here we have a comic strip created by a student:    

Let’s look at the many elements:
  • Images
  • Colors
  • Text
  • Speech bubbles
  • Placement of the text and speech bubbles    
And most importantly, the story line.

When you click on the remix bottom, you see the code on the left and a preview of your webpage – in this case the comic strip – on the right. By changing the code of certain elements on the left, you change the content of what’s on the right.

Story telling through coding
If I had had this program when my 9th grade students were learning about Ancient Egypt, I would have asked them to create stories about the pharaohs or explain the building of the pyramids using comic strips.

First, they’d have to think of the story => exactly the same for any written work. Then they’d have to look for images to fit their story. Students who are good at drawing/graphics could produce their own, upload them, and include them in their comic strip; students who aren’t that good at drawing could look for images that fit their story. We’d be working with their strengths. And then they could fiddle with the background color, the text color, and the placement of the speech bubbles, all of which is customization. Most importantly, they could share their work with their peers, family, and the wider world.  

As a teacher or community club member, you can create the template if you’d like: you can choose the images and have learners build the story around them. Or, you could write a vague story and have the student build the story with images. Alternatively, you could have half of the class do one, and the other half do the other. The options are limitless!

We also encourage teachers to remix online, using their own creative lesson plans for content. With our teaching kit template, you can write up your lesson plans and share them with others. Or, you can remix other people’s teaching kits by picking and choosing the bits you want to keep, adding elements from a different resource, and so on. When you create a teaching kit, you can see how other people have remixed it for themselves; you get a visual feedback loop for your own work.

These skills – remixing, coding, sharing – are part of a wider Web Literacy Map that was designed by community members comprised of educators and people in the tech industry. When you look at this map, you see that there are 14 core competencies defined by three overarching themes; but only one of the competencies has anything to do with coding. And Remixing is its own core skill. For us, Web Literacy is larger and more nuanced than just coding; it’s about understanding privacy and security, what it means for the web to be open, and how to be a member of a larger community.

This is where community – the people—comes into the mix. Remixing learning isn’t only about bringing new materials or tools into the classroom, but also about taking those materials to different contexts, bringing in new people, and integrating learning with the community. In the UK, there’s a network of makers called Make Things Do Stuff. Last year Nesta, Nominet Trust, and Mozilla joined forces to promote and support digital making among young people.  Here in Manchester, there are handful of Make Things Do Stuff partners that run free, workshops for young people: CoderDojo, MadLab, Code Club, and YoungRewired State.   

Our partners meet young people where they are and take them further by connecting through their passions, and teaching new skills by building on what they bring to the table. Yes, this movement is about digital making and providing the skills to do so. But it’s also about sharing, about meeting other like-minded people – whether you’re a geek, a nerd, a sneakerhead, or a hip-hop dancer – and knowing that you’re not alone. For some people, especially adolescents, that can make a big difference.

Mozilla promotes this kind of community building all around the world. Make Things Do Stuff is a national network here in the UK, but we have the Hive LearningNetworks that are city-based initiatives, located in Toronto, New York, Chicago, and Pittsburgh. In Japan it’s called Mozilla Factory, and they aren’t focused just on young people. We support many different versions of the approach to promote making.

A Call to Action
So I offer all educators – whether you’re a teacher, a parent, or a community leader – a  Call to Action: Remix learning. Invite your local maker clubs to your classroom. Take something you made at school and explore it with your kids; and share something you made at home at a hackathon. Remake the web as you connect with other people and their ideas. Let’s open up learning and make all of our lives richer.

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