Toward The Development of a Web Literacy Map: Exploring, Building, and Connecting Online

LRA slides

I’m presenting at the Literacy Research Association conference next Friday. I got some useful feedback after my previous post so this is pretty much the version I’m going to present. The slides are above (modern web browser with fast JavaScript performance required!)

Introduction #

Hi everyone, and thanks to Ian for the introduction. I’m really glad to be here - it’s my first time in Florida and, although I’ll only be here for about 46 hours, I plan to make full use of the amount of sunshine. I come from the frozen wastelands of northern England where most of us have skin like ‘Gollum’ from Lord of the Rings. Portland, Oregon - where I’ve just come from a Mozilla work week - was actually colder than where I live!

But, seriously, I really appreciate the opportunity to talk to you about something that’s really important to the Mozilla community - web literacy. It’s a topic I don’t think has been given enough thought and attention, and I’d like to use the brief time I’ve got here to convince you to help us rectify that. I’ll show you this quickly - the competency grid from v1.1 of the Web Literacy Map but I want to give some background before diving too much into that.

I’m a big fan of Howard Rheingold’s work, and he talks about ‘literacies of attention’. It seems appropriate, therefore, to tell you what I’m going to cover and to front-load this presentation with the conclusions I’m going to make. That way you can process what I’m trying to get across while the caffeine’s still coursing through your veins.

I was always taught to say what you’re going to say, say it, and then say what you’ve said. So my conclusions, the things you should pay attention to, are the following:

  1. Web literacy is a useful focus / research area
  2. We should work together instead of building endless competing frameworks
  3. There’s a need to balance rigour and grokkability

Given the looks on some people’s faces, I should probably just say quickly that ‘grok’ is a real word! The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as, ‘to understand intuitively or by empathy; to establish rapport with.’ The Urban Dictionary, meanwhile, defines it as, ‘literally meaning 'to drink’ but taken to mean ‘understanding.’ Often used by programmers and other assorted geeks.‘ You should probably grok Mozilla first, as it seems a bit odd to have some corporate shill from a browser company at the Literacy Research Association conference, no?

Well, that’s the thing. Every part of that sentence is incorrect. First, Mozilla isn’t a company, it’s a global non-profit. Second, Mozilla is not just about the half a billion people who use Firefox, but about a mission to promote openness, innovation & opportunity on the Web. And third, no-one’s selling anything here. Instead, it’s an invitation to do the work you were going to do anyway, but share and build with others for the benefit of mankind. Ian is a Mozillian who works in academia, as was I before I became a paid contributor. We have Mozillians in all walks of life, from engineers to teachers, and in every country of the world. It’s a global community that also makes products instantiating our mission and values.

Also, we work in the open and make everything we do available under open licenses. You’re free to rip and remix.

OK, so I think it was important to say that up front.

Web literacy is a useful focus / research area #

Let’s start with web literacy as a useful focus / research area. I wrote my thesis on digital literacies and if there’s one thing that I learned it’s that there’s as many definitions of 'digital literacy’ as there are researchers in the field! Why on earth, then, would we need another term to endlessly redefine and argue about? Well, I’d argue that the good thing about the web is that it’s easier to agree what we’re actually talking about. Yes, there may be some people who use the term ‘web’ when they actually mean ‘internet’ but, by and large we all know what we’re talking about.

As well as being something most people know about, it’s also ubiquitous. If you have access to the internet, then you almost always also have access to the web. That’s not true of other digital spaces where walled gardens are the norm. I’m sure there are very specific skills, competencies and habits of mind you need to use locked-down, proprietary products. And that’s great. But I think a better use of our time is thinking about the skills, competencies and habits of mind required to use a public good. To use an imperfect analogy, we don’t teach people to drive specific cars but give them a license to drive pretty much any car.

Web literacy is also an important research area because it’s political. Take the live issue of ‘net neutrality’. To recap, this is “the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication” (Wikipedia). While this may seem somewhat esoteric and distant, it’s a core part of web literacy. Just as Paolo Freire and others have seen literacy as a hugely emancipatory and liberating force for social change, so too web literacy is a force for good.

One response I get when I talk about web literacy is, “isn’t that covered by information literacy?” or “I’m sure what you describe is just digital media literacy.” And maybe it is. Let’s have a discussion. But before we do, I will note how fond researchers are of what I call ‘umbrella terms’. So they conceive digital literacy as including media literacy and information literacy. Another thinks media literacy includes information literacy and digital literacy. And a third believes information literacy to include digital literacy and media literacy. And so on.

Perhaps the clearest thinking in recent times around new literacies has been provided by Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel. They write in a clear, lucid way that makes sense to researchers and practitioners alike. They’re a good example of what I want to talk about later in terms of balancing rigour and grokkability. I’m particularly fond of this quotation from the introductory chapter to their New Literacies Sampler. Apologies for the lengthy quotation, but I think it’s important:

Briefly, then, we would argue that the more a literacy practice can be seen to reflect the characteristics of the insider mindset and, in particular, those qualities addressed here currently being associated with the concept of Web 2.0, the more it is entitled to be regarded as a new literacy. That is to say, the more a literacy practice privileges participation over publishing, distributed expertise over centralized expertise, collective intelligence over individual possessive intelligence, collaboration over individuated authorship, dispersion over scarcity, sharing over ownership, experimentation over “normalization,” innovation and evolution over stability and fixity, creative-innovative rule breaking over generic purity and policing, relationship over information broadcast, and so on, the more we should regard it as a “new” literacy. New technologies enable and enhance these practices, often in ways that are stunning in their sophistication and breathtaking in their scale. Paradigm cases of new literacies are constituted by “new technical stuff ” as well as “new ethos stuff.”

Now if what they describe in this quotation doesn’t describe the web and web literacy, then I don’t know what does!

I’ve been working recently on a brief history of web literacy. That was published earlier this week over at DMLcentral, so do go and have a read. I’d appreciate your insights, comments and pushback. In the article I loosely identified five ‘eras’ of web literacy:

I haven’t got time to dive into this here, but it’s worth noting a couple of things. One, not everyone gives the name ‘web literacy’ to the skills required to use the web. And, two, this isn’t a linear progression. For example, I’d argue that we’re entering a time when popular opinion realises that these skills need to be taught; they’re not innate nor just a result of immersion and use.

We should work together instead of building endless competing frameworks #

So far, I haven’t defined web literacy. I’ve hinted at it by talking about skills, competencies and habits of mind but I haven’t introduced one definition to rule them all. Why is that? Well, as I mentioned before, there’s a lot of definitions out there. And definitions are powerful things. They can constrain what is in and out of scope. They can give some people a voice while silencing others. They can privilege certain ways of being above others. Given that digital skills are currency in the jobs market, definitions can have economic effects too.

Here’s how the Mozilla community currently defines web literacy:

the skills and competencies needed for reading, writing and participating on the web.

We hope that this definition is broad enough to be inclusive but specific enough to be able to do the work required of it. But if you want to change it, you’re welcome to - come along to one of the community calls, file a ‘bug’ in Bugzilla, start a conversation thread in the Teach The Web discussion forum. We work open.

Let me explain what that means and what it looks like.

If I make something (say, a framework) and write a paper about it, then you could adopt it wholesale. You could. But what’s more likely is that you’d want to put your own stamp on it. You’d want to ‘remix’ it to include things that might have been missed or neglected. In software development terms these are known as ‘unmerged forks’. In other words, you’ve taken something, changed it, and then started promoting that new thing. Meanwhile, the original is still kicking around somewhere. Multiply this many times and you’ve got a recipe for confusion and chaos.

Instead, what if we merged those changes? What if we discussed them in a democratic and open way? And what if there was a global non-profit as a steward for the process? What I’ve described applies to the World Wide Web Consortium (usually abbreviated to W3C) which is the main international standards organization for the web. But it also describes something that we’ve defined and continue to evolve within the Mozilla community: the Web Literacy Map.

The Web Literacy Map v1.1 is currently localised in full or in part in 22 languages. This is done by an army of volunteers, some of whom have been part of the discussions leading to the map, some not. It forms the core of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America’s new digital strategy. The University of British Columbia use it for student onboarding. And there are many organisations using it as a ‘sense check’ for their curricula, schemes of work, and rubrics. (Quite how many, we’re not entirely sure as it’s an openly-licensed project.)

Interestingly, the shift from calling it a Web Literacy ‘Standard’ in 2013 to calling it a Web Literacy ‘Map’ in 2014 seems to have slightly decreased its popularity in formal education, but increased its popularity elsewhere. The decision to do this came after we had feedback that, particularly in the US, ‘standard’ was a problematic term that came with baggage. These cultural differences are interesting - for example ‘standard’ doesn’t particularly have positive or negative connotations in most of Europe, as far as I can tell. Another example would be from Alvar Maciel, an Argentinian teacher and technology integrator. He informed us on one community call that while the translation of ‘competence’ makes literal sense in Argentinian Spanish, because of the association and baggage it comes with, educators would avoid it.

At the same time, the Web Literacy Map exists for a particular purpose. That purpose is to underpin Mozilla’s Webmaker program. Webmaker is an attempt to give people the knowledge, skills and confidence to ‘teach the web’. In other words, to train the trainers helping others with web literacy. The focus of the community building the Web Literacy Map has these people in mind and, because Webmaker is a global program, difference, diversity and nuance is welcome.

So far, this all sounds very edifying and unproblematic. Like any project, it’s not without issues. Perhaps the biggest, especially now version 1.1 is out the door, is participation and contribution. Although there are core contributors - like Ian and Greg and a few others. But a good number of others are episodic volunteers. By and large these are people who know the domain - researchers, teachers, consultants, industry experts. Their occasional contributions are great, but it can be difficult when we have to explain why decisions were taken - sometimes quite a while ago. At the same time, new blood can mix things up and force us to question what went before.

Let’s use the current development of what for the moment we’re calling Web Literacy Map v2.0. Here’s how we’ve proceeded so far. First off, I decided that if we were going to fulfil our promise to update the map as the web evolves, we should probably review it on a yearly basis. Back in August I approached people - mainly in my networks, mainly people who know the space - to ask if they’d like to be interviewed. I can’t think of anyone who said no. The questions I asked to loosely structure the recorded half-hour conversations were:

  1. Are you currently using the Web Literacy Map (v1.1)? In what kind of context?
  2. What kinds of contexts would you like to use an updated (v2.0) version of the Web Literacy Map?
  3. What does the Web Literacy Map do well?
  4. What’s missing from the Web Literacy Map?
  5. Who would you like to see use/adopt the Web Literacy Map?

I also gave them a chance to say things that didn’t seem to fit in elsewhere. Sometimes I asked the questions in a slightly different order. Sometimes I fed in ideas from previous interviewees.

From those interviews I identified around 21 emerging themes for things that people would like to see from a version 2.0 of the Web Literacy Map. I boiled these down to five that would help us define the scope of our work. I formed them into proposals for a web-based community survey. This, following demand from the community, was translated from English into five other languages. The five proposals were:

Every question on the survey was optional. Respondents could indicate agreement with the proposal on a five-point scale and add a comment if they wished. We received 177 responses altogether. Some chose to remain anonymous, which is fine. The important thing is that almost every respondent completed all of the survey.

From that I proposed a series of seven community calls. There was an introductory call, we’re towards the end of separate calls discussing each of the proposals, and then we’ll conclude just before Christmas. This will help decide what’s in and out of scope so we can hit the ground running in 2015.

This is a microcosm of how we developed what was then called the Web Literacy Standard from 2012 onwards. Back then, we did some preliminary work and then published a whitepaper. We invited lots of people to a kick-off call and decided how to proceed. Once we decided what was in and out of scope, we dug into some of the complexity. The Mozilla Festival seemed like a good place to launch the first version, so we set ourselves September 2013 as the deadline. This involved some ‘half-hour hackfests’ where a few of us focused on getting certain sections finished and ready for review.

It’s important to note that we all have skills in different areas. For example, Carla Casilli - who’s now at the Badge Alliance and who worked closely with me on this - has a real gift for naming things. Ian’s particularly good at practicalities and bringing us back down to earth. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to create a Web Literacy Map!

There’s a need to balance rigour and grokkability #

So my third and final point is that we need to balance rigour and grokkability. Just as I’d happily argue until the cows come home about the necessity for that ‘u’ in ‘rigour’, so I’d be happy to get stuck into philosophical discussions about literacy. Seriously, grab me later today if you want a conversation about Pierce’s theory of signs or Empson on ambiguity. I’m definitely the person at Mozilla who’s most likely to say:

That’s all very well in practice, but how does it work in theory? (Garret FitzGerald)

However, that’s not always a great approach. I’ve learned that perfect is the enemy of good. We need to balance both, because:

Theory without practice is empty; practice without theory is blind. (Immanuel Kant)

If you like your thinkers more revolutionary than conservative, I’m also fond of the quotation on Karl Marx’s tomb:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.

So how do we do that? We invite everyone in. We care about the outcome more than about individual contributions. After all, given enough eyes, all bugs are shallow.

I think we also need to think about what ‘rigour’ means. Grokkability is easy enough - we put what we’ve produced in front of people and see how they respond. But rigour is trickier. It depends not on the start of the journey but on the end of it. Does what we’ve produced lead to the outcomes we want?

With the Web Literacy Map, the outcomes we want are that people improve in their ability to read, write and participate on the web. We’ve intentionally used verbs with the skills we’ve listed, as we don’t want this to be ‘head’ knowledge. It’s not much use just being able to pass a pencil-and-paper test. Applicability is everything. Literacy means a change in identity.

So we come to the dreaded problem of measurement. I said that grokkability is understanding things at the start of the journey and rigour getting the right outcomes at the end. Here’s the point at which it gets very interesting. The easy thing would be to throw our hands up in the air and say that we’re only providing the raw materials from which others can build activities, learning pathways and assessments. And to some extent that is the scope of the Web Literacy Map. It’s kind of infused with Mozilla’s mission but anyone can use it and contribute to it.

It’s outside the scope of this talk, really, but I thought I’d just point to some things my team is doing in the future. First, we want to build clear learning pathways that lead to meaningful credentials. People should be able to show what they know and can do with the web. That’s likely to start with Web Literacy Basics 101 and will probably use Open Badges. Second, we want to encourage mentors and leaders within the community. We’re gong to do this through what we’re currently calling ‘Webmaker Clubs’. These are best understood as people coming together to learn and teach the web. Third, we want to focus on mobile - both in terms of devices and the mobility of the learner. This is particularly important in areas of the world where people are experiencing the web for the first time, and doing so on a mobile device. Finally, and tentatively, we want to use ‘learning analytics’ to find out the best ways in which we can teach these skills.

If you’d like to help us with any of that, you can.

Get involved! #

I’m really looking forward to finding out what you all think about what I’ve discussed here. If you’d like to get involved, that’s great. There’s a canonical URL to bookmark that will take you to the correct place on the Mozilla wiki:

We’ve got a couple more community calls before Christmas and then there’ll be some in the new year. I also invite you to contribute even if you can’t make the calls. I’m happy to begin that process by email, but after a couple of exchanges I’ll probably invite you to work openly by posting to the Teach The Web discussion forum.

So, that’s pretty much it from me. Please do ask me hard questions and push back as hard as you can. It helps all of us sharpen our thinking and means we put the best stuff out there that we can!

Comments? Questions? Email me:


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