Open web educators in schools

The page is the detailed project proposal page for the Mozilla and Shuttleworth joint fellowship project proposal regarding open web education. It was written in May 2010.

The world as it is and as it will be if we succeed

Beliefs and stories of non-technical people

Most people don’t have a technical background. They often think that when there is a bug, the computer is to be blamed. We know bugs are issued from a developer’s difficulty to write bugless software, because developers are human.

These people often think that the web can disappear. We know that since the specifications of the Ethernet, IP, TCP and HTTP protocols are open, “the web” can be “recreated” anytime.

True stories :
Someone I know knew she was about to change her job. She was consulting her private Yahoo! e-mail account from work through her web browser. Afraid that someone could read her private e-mails after she left, she decided to erase all her e-mails. We know that erasing cookies would have been enough to keep her privacy.
Someone else recently discovered an online browser-based game. This person told me that the game was “sponsored by Mozilla”. There is here a misunderstanding between what a web-browser and a web application are.
Someone else tried to convince me that I was stupid to think that Linux was free (as in “free speech”), because Microsoft controls everything in the IT world. We know this to be not true.

The web as it is

Since the emergence of what is called “Web 2.0”, people can easily create and share on the web. However, very few people are aware of this potential and even less use it.

There are a lot of technologies which exist to improve the web experience. The web community is aware of it, but a lot of people are left behind. For instance, I have decided to write the third article (in French) of my personal blog about RSS feeds. Friends who don’t have a technical background told me that they had learnt something. They “had noticed this thing in Firefox, but never knew what it was for”

I still see a lot of people using a single tab on their web browser. I still see people being afraid to install a different web browser than Internet Explorer or even not knowing that alternatives exist. This seems to be changing slowly in Europe thanks to the ballot screen (wikipedia page), but still!

I still see a lot of people having thousands of e-mails in their “inbox”, struggling to find “the e-mail John sent around March with this very important attachment” and not using sub-directories and filters or a search feature while it would clearly address a lot of their concerns.

I provide extreme examples which are somewhat far from our day-to-day open web community actors life to demonstrate that the web (including but not limited to the open web) offers huge potential, but they are not well known nor used by the general population.

Computers and the web at school

In 2006, in Europe, more than 90% of schools had access to the Internet. There were about 11.3 computers shared by 100 students on average (source). 4 years later, these numbers are very likely to have increased. The paper also summarizes a survey about the computer skills of teachers. Even if the results seem to be pretty good, the regarded skills include word processing, electronic presentation development or use of an e-mail software. More web-related skills such as creating a blog/wiki or any kind of online community are not questioned. I draw the conclusion that first of all, the question wasn’t asked because those who prepared the survey didn’t have a good idea of what web-related skills are.

It seems like schools and education systems are willing to teach through technology. (Official document describing the interest of the French education system in Information and Communication Technologies (French)).

What we can do and how the world may change if we succeed

Non-technical people have misunderstandings and are not fully aware of the potentials of the web. We have this knowledge. I feel it is our responsibility to share our knowledge, on the technical aspects of the web, as well as on the social aspects such as privacy, copyrights or any concern that the web has brought or emphasis in modern societies.

If we succeed, the general population will be better informed about the web and the open web in particular.

The proposal

What I want to be done on the field

Someone with some knowledge on open web education (“open web educator”) comes to a school and manages a project in cooperation with professors and students using or working on open web softwares or technologies.

Why going physically to the schools?

The first reason is that because they (professors and students) won't come to us.

Moreover, during the last years, I have “converted” a few people to Ubuntu. I tend to think that I’ve achieved that, because I have talked to the persons and convinced them that free softwares were a good and reliable alternative. I was physically there to accompany them during the transition from Windows. Being available for questions, doubts or concerns is certainly what have been decisive in the process of changing from Windows to Ubuntu as the mainly used operating system.

My conviction is that no forum, wiki, website or any kind of online platform can replace the physical presence in the ability to reach people and share knowledge especially with the “scary and complicated things” that computers are.

Why a project-based approach?

I have met a lot of people who had been taught computing (word processing, spreadsheets, (un)zipping, manipulating files and directories) just for the sake of it. Each of them were disappointed and frustrated. A project approach necessarily means achieving a goal and here is already a first motivation. This motivation is bigger if the goal is to solve a problem that people had beforehand. This goal is very likely to fit educational goals that professors already have.

Moreover, a project-based approach is a sort of active learning as well as cooperative learning, both proved to be more engaging and motivating for students resulting in a better understanding of what they are doing and in being more receptive to what they are taught.

Examples

9-10 years old (~ end of elementary school). A school-hosted and privately accessible blog where pupils are the authors can be set up. They could talk about their village, the most recent book they have read or anything. It could be integrated as a language teaching. One of the advantages of the blog against hard copies is that pupils can very easily read what other pupils have written and learn from the mistakes of others.

Since each pupil will have an account, a discussion can be engaged about virtual identities. This could be an occasion to discuss about how to choose a good password, too.

14-15 years old (~ middle school). The same experience could be done in the context of a foreign language class. If the purpose of the blog is to do a book review, students could be tempted to copy/paste another review found on the web. It is a perfect occasion to discuss about copyright-related issues, to introduce Creative Commons licenses.

17-18 years old (~ end of high school). High school students are often stressed about high-school diploma. They may want to study exams of previous years. They could be taught basics of HTML (5 !), CSS, command line and FTP to build a website and gather resources (found or created). It would encourage collaborative effort since everyone could bring the result of his/her searches and share it with everyone.

Teaching basics of HTML and CSS could be enough at a first glance. View source magic can then happen. Not so long after that, a discussion could be engaged on the fact that the same functional goal can be achieved in different ways in HTML and CSS. This is a good occasion to give an insight on good practices, the importance of separating content and style.

Higher education, computer science major. Any open web-related project would be fine here. The project doesn’t have to be initiated though. Contribution to existing projects could be encouraged. Mozilla has “student projects” in its Bugzilla. Open web educators could be the link that encourage students to work on these bugs.

It would be a great occasion to encourage computer science major to get interested in getting involved in open source projects. Being physically present would be the occasion to help out with beginners questions on how IRC works, on getting used to tools such as Bugzilla or any other aspect of open source project which is not usually covered in computer science classes.

What has been done at Seneca College with the processing.js project is the kind of project that could perfectly get along with my idea.

Higher education, business/marketing/economics major. A competition can be organized among students to create imaginary companies dealing with the web and free softwares. It would be an excellent opportunity to explore business models of “web-based” companies as well as business models of companies dealing with free and open source softwares.

These are just examples. Other ideas will be highly encouraged and welcome.

For the targeted schools themselves, even if only in the beginning, it seems more reasonable to have partnership with “regular schools”, I would be particularly interested in “alternatives schools” such as “second chance schools (in French)” or in working with students with disabilities.

How to reach millions of people?

If there is only one person going in one school to manage a project during a couple of weeks or months, thousands of people cannot even be reached. My proposal is then the following: creating an institution which would coordinate several “open web educators”.

A very important point is that projects are supposed to take place in any country. For that reason, I have not given any delay or date in my examples. One golden rule will be the ability to adapt projects to education systems. In some places, projects might be during two entire weeks while other projects could require the presence of an open web educator once a week during three months. Some projects could happen during classes while other could be stated as extra-curricular activity. These aspects will have to be prepared and decided on due time in cooperation with schools and professors.

The institution

Legal status

I am constantly reflecting upon the legal status of the institution. This is one aspect for which I am going to rely on the resources that the fellowship provides. In this case, the legal support and administrative services.

Currently, the main ideas are :

  • A company.
    Pros :
    • Makes money which helps to be self-sufficient.

    Cons :

    • People attracted more by money than by the convictions (?)
    • The product of the company is a service. The client are either school or education systems
  • A non-profit organization.
    Sub-idea : Being a branch of Mozilla.

Missions and responsibilities

This institution would be in touch with education systems. Since it changes from country to country, this point will have to be investigated to target, for each country (or any other relevant political sub-division of the world) who is the “right person” to talk to.

The institution would contact and discuss with schools (directors, professors) to prepare projects. In practice, the contact with the school will be the “open web educator” him/herself.

The institution would be available to back up the open web educator that would have any problem in the school (hardware, operating system, software…). At the end of the project, the institution would gather feedback from students, professors, the school and the open web educator.

It’s the institution role to think and discuss about what a kid of each age “should” know about the web. It’s its role to maintain such a list and make it evolve throughout the years.

The community and the platform

The institution would need a platform to accept project ideas in an open manner and discuss about them. This platform could reasonably be a Drumbeat-like platform. The platform will also be a place to discuss about past projects and discuss previous experiences. It will also contain resources to support teachers who would like to reproduce projects without the help of an open web educator. Self-perpetuation is very important, mainly to reach more people without having necessarily to grow the institution proportionally. It is also important to not cultivate any dependency toward the institution.

I have in mind to have this platform as an open source project for computer science majors. This platform will contain resources for external communications and keep the world updated of our great achievements in schools.

This platform would host a community.
The community will be composed of people from different horizons. First of all, the Drumbeat contributors, then, the people met thoughout actions in schools, finally, any person who would have heard of the project by any mean. In the longer term, the actions in schools and especially in high-schools and higher education will be the occasion to have contact with people who are going to work in companies which is one more occasion to spread the word to people we could not reach otherwise.

Who is going to pay the bill?

The open web educators will have to spend time in the schools. They need to be paid somehow and the institution I want to create is the right entity to “pay” them. The institution needs money. My first idea is that since the project is educational and in interaction with schools, funds could be obtained from Europe, countries, local areas, educations systems, etc.

Contributions from companies which would support the idea are welcome as well. The conditions of this point need to be more deeply investigated.

An interesting interaction between companies, the institution and schools would be that some employees become open web educators and be paid to spend time working on projects in schools rather than in the company. Once again, this is just an idea and deeper reflections need to be done.

What I would do with the fellowship

The first open web educator

It is essential that before growing, the institution is able to have achievements to prove that the initiative is well-founded and credible. As such, I consider that the first priority is to achieve projects.

Month 1-2 : prepare some (4-6 depending on length/intensity) projects with pilot schools. Even if there is nothing official yet, I am already in touch with a couple of professors who would personally be interested in such projects. These first projects are very likely to happen in France since the French education system is the best I know.

Month 2-3 to 9-10 : I become the first open web educator on these projects. During this period, the Mozilla and Shuttleworth foundations will adopt the backup role of the institution.

Prepare other projects with other schools in the meantime.

The institution

Month 1 : decide the legal status and create it.

Month 2-10 : find funds from countries, educational systems, Europe, regions, supportive companies
and actually get the money as soon as possible.

Month 2-10 : create the institution platform. This can actually be one of the projects I could manage through my “open web educator” role. The target would be a computer science department at a university or a computer science and engineering school.

As soon as possible, when the money is available and depending on the number of waiting projects : hire other open web educators and people to take care of the institution structure and communication.

One year out

One year after the beginning of the project, the success will be measured by the existence of the institution, its ability to be financially independent and its achievements in schools.

…and beyond

Connections made through Drumbeat during the first year will be used to prepare projects in several countries. I have currently no preference (even if I do have a strong curiosity for Korea and the African continent). The Drumbeat project seems to be willing to expand in Europe or Brazil. This can be a first track.

The team and social interactions

For the moment, the team is proudly composed of one member.

David Bruant. French, 23 years old. I am currently a computer science and software engineering student at ENSEIRB-MATMECA (supposed to be in English, but currently (June 2010) in French) in Bordeaux, France. I am completing my final year before graduation abroad at the Computer Science and Engineering department of University of California, San Diego.

This year, I was living at the International House (iHouse) where I have realized how the world is vast and the individuals are diverse. I thought I knew but I had no idea (and this could be the title of my biography). This year definitely influenced the proposal in terms of respect of education systems differences throughout countries and the importance of the institution adapting to education systems and not the opposite. I am also more willing to travel and learn new languages.

I am passionate by the web. I have realized that I have this passion when I realized that I was spending a lot of my free time reading the W3C specifications, the ECMAScript 5 specification, the HTML5 and latest open web technologies specifications as well as participating in the WHATWG mailing-list. Besides the specification readings, I read technical blog articles (which tend to be more practical), rework the examples I can find and try to develop them further. Being particularly interested in JavaScript, I have recently opened a technical blog in which I try to teach good practices through examples.

I am deeply convinced of the necessity and the goodness of free softwares and open approaches. I am a Ubuntu user and as you have certainly read, I am working on converting people to it when they share the convictions and feel ready for it. I try to share as much as I can and as much as non-technical people can handle about computers and the web to try to make their relationship with their computers more efficient.

Interactions and team effort

Even if I am the only author of this page, I don’t consider having worked alone. I have talked about the proposal and asked for feedback to people (I would evaluate about 15-20) I know. A lot of ideas in this document came or got refined during interactions with these people. I have also received a lot of help regarding the video (script, shooting, editing, subtitiling) and people proof-reading (both for the language since I am not a native English speaker) and the content. Thanks to each of you!

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