Mozilla and the future of education, part 2

9 minute read

[This is part 2 of a two-part post. Part 1 discusses the future of education and the possibility of customized online educational offerings as a disruptive innovation that might eventually grow to rival and even dominate traditional educational systems. It ended with a question: what does this have to do with Mozilla? I now attempt to answer that question.]

Online education evolves to be user-driven, not vendor-driven

By definition disruptive innovations allow users to do things they could previously not do, or could do only at great expense and/or effort. But while disruptive innovations make users’ lives easier, they typically make vendors’ lives harder, at least initially, because creating truly disruptive products can be difficult and expensive. (For example, think of all the industrial design, usability engineering, software development, and other work that Apple put into creating the iPhone and its simplified user experience for running mobile applications and using the web from a handheld device.)

The first products that embody disruptive innovations thus tend to have a high degree of internal integration and a relatively closed architecture (again, consider the iPhone). However over time the state of the art advances to the point where vendors can create comparable products using modular components communicating through standardized interfaces. (Christensen’s favorite example here is Microsoft Windows vs. Linux distributions; in the mobile space would-be contenders include Android and Limo.) This move to modularity also allows disruption in the commercial system, i.e., the context within which a firm establishes its cost structure and operating processes and works with its suppliers and channel partners to respond profitably to customers’ common needs (Disrupting Class, p.124).

In particular, Christensen and his co-authors believe that the first-generation commercial system for online education is too tied to the current commercial system for education in general, and shares its orientation to expensive one size fits all solutions. They predict an eventual move to a new commercial system organized as a facilitated user network, in which users exchange with each other as opposed to being supplied by traditional vendors, with one or more third parties facilitating that exchange (as, for example, YouTube facilitates the exchange of video content):

[In] the first phase of disruption of the instructional system the software will likely be complicated and expensive to build. ... Within a few more years, however, two factors that were absent in stage 1 that are critical to the emergence of stage 2 will have fallen into place. The first will be platforms that facilitate the generation of user-created content. The second will be the emergence of a user network .... The tools of the software platform will make it so simple to develop online learning products that students will be able to build products that help them teach other students. Parents will be able to assemble tools to tutor their children. And teachers will be able to create tools to help the different types of learners in their classroom. ... User networks ... will be the business models of distribution. This will allow parents, teachers, and students to offer these teaching tools to other parents, teachers, and students. (p.134)

So: modular interoperable standards-based products, user-created content, and user networks within which such content gets created and freely distributed. I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like something Mozilla knows something about.

Tasks for the Mozillas

Let’s assume that education will indeed involve in the direction of user networks producing user-generated and -distributed content for customized online education. Let’s further suppose the continued growth of a movement to ensure that this and other educational content is freely available for others to use and adapt. This certainly sounds like a movement that is in line with the goals of the Mozilla Manifesto (which notes, among other things, that [the] Internet is … a key component in education …), and a trend we might like to encourage. How we might do so in a manner consistent with the Mozilla DNA? I think the answer varies based on the particular Mozilla entity in question (what I call the Mozillas within the overall Mozilla project).

The task of the Mozilla Corporation I think would be mainly to continue on the path it’s currently on. Any modular standards-based personal learning environment or open learning network is likely to be based on web technologies, and the goal is to have Firefox be the very best way there is to bring the web to end users. There are some particular areas that might be relevant to an educational context, though not necessarily limited to that context.

For example, the Mobile Firefox effort will help bring the full power of Firefox to future low-end 4P computing systems that might be deployed for primary and secondary education, and initiatives to support open audio and video formats would assist in efforts to provide rich learning experiences whose delivery doesn’t depend on proprietary technologies. There might also be some supplemental work that might be called for; for example, robust out-of-the-box support for MathML and other specialized markup languages is clearly more important for the educational market than for the general consumer market to which Firefox is pitched.

Mozilla Messaging is a somewhat different case, and perhaps a more interesting one in terms of how a focus on education (which, again, would not be the sole focus) might help shape a future strategy. As I see it, one problem with Thunderbird is that its user base is often conceived of in negative terms: they’re people who don’t like webmail and don’t want to use Outlook. I think Thunderbird and related technologies need a real constituency, a group of people for whom the product is designed to fit their special and distinct needs, and who respond to that focus with enthusiasm. That constituency might be found within the traditional enterprise market, but I confess I’m concerned about Mozilla Messaging trying to re-fight the groupware wars that Netscape lost a decade ago.

Might Mozilla Messaging be able to find its constituency, or at least a significant part of it, within the educational market? Educational institutions are certainly more open to standards-based open source products than your typical enterprise. Also, to the extent that Mozilla Messaging is about not just email but about the broader market for collaboration and communication tools, the education market certainly has a lot of models for collaboration and communication — one to many instruction, one-to-one tutoring, small group collaboration, synchronous vs. asynchronous, text vs. video vs. audio, and so on. So perhaps this might be a fruitful question for Mozilla Messaging to explore: What types of collaboration and communication products would be needed to support advanced online learning environments, and could Mozilla technologies be instrumental in creating such products?

Next comes what might be called the missing Mozilla. As Gerv Markham recently noted, with minor exceptions (e.g., the HTML editor in SeaMonkey) the Mozilla project has for the most part left to others the task of creating tools for web content creation and application development. Is this an area we should look at re-entering over the coming years? In the educational context, consider what sort of rich content might go into a simple Physics 101 online course: mathematical equations, static and dynamic graphs, interactive simulations of experiments, perhaps some archival video, and so on. It would be a shame if people created, distributed, and collaborated on lots of great open education courses like this, but they turned out to be a collection of glorified Flash or Silverlight apps. Should Mozilla do something about this and, if so, how might it best be done? This is a question that extends beyond the context of education, and I think one that needs to be discussed.

Finally we come to the Mozilla Foundation. What role if any might it play in an educational context? The Mozilla Foundation could certainly endorse and perhaps help shape a particular vision for education along the lines discussed above, and could lend moral, financial, and other support to other groups working on the front lines to make it happen. (By coincidence the proposed new executive director for the Mozilla Foundation has relevant experience in this area.) It could also encourage the Mozilla Corporation, Mozilla Messaging, and others within the overall Mozilla project to make Mozilla-based technologies and products the preferred ways by which next-generation customized online education is experienced by end users; where there are gaps in capabilities, the Foundation could provide some funding and other support to help fill those gaps (as we did with accessibility, for example). Finally, the Foundation could go further and pick a particular subproblem within the broad educational space and seek to play a leading role in addressing it.

Most notably, the Mozilla Foundation has a clear interest in (and has already financially supported) the work at Seneca College to bring open source development methodologies into the classroom. The Foundation could continue and expand upon that work, including working with Seneca to promote the adoption of similar Mozilla-related curricula at other like-minded institutions and the creation of Mozilla-related materials suitable for self-education. Beyond focusing just on Mozilla, the Mozilla Foundation could also work with others to change the entire manner in which the next generation of software developers is educated. This could include teaching software development in a more comprehensive and interdisciplinary manner in which topics like QA and release engineering, project organization and governance, user experience, marketing and evangelism, copyright and other legal issues, and others assume equal importance to traditional computer science and programming language instruction. It could also include expanding the range of contexts within which software development is taught — not just in formal academic institutions but also within informal learning collectives associated with open source projects or other groups of people with common interests and objectives.

Ten years until the revolution?

If Christensen and his co-authors are correct, in about ten years time we could very well reach a tipping point in which the educational system in the US and elsewhere will rapidly transition from the traditional instructor-in-the-classroom model to a model based on customized online education provided on standards-based platforms and supported by a network of teachers, students, and others collaboratively creating, distributing, and recombining rich collections of instructional materials. Today we stand at a point in online education comparable to the late 1970s and early 1980s with respect to personal computers or the late 1980s and early 1990s with respect to the Internet and the web: We can envision the promise of what might come, and have early examples of that promise to learn from and build on. But we do not know exactly how the story will play out, who its heroes (and villains) will be, and whether it will have a happy or sad ending for those of us who value openness, freedom, and grassroots participation. We may have an opportunity to help shape how that story unfolds. Should Mozilla grasp that opportunity? That’s the question I’m putting forth for discussion.