“Digital literacy has to be the key thing” – in conversation with Mark Surman

ela15_d1_opening_110Firefox has been one of the internet’s household names since the mid-noughties, when this free, open-source browser successfully broke the monopoly of Internet Explorer. Behind the software, and its plucky vulpine mascot, stands the Mozilla Foundation, a community dedicated to preserving the web as an open public resource. Recently there has been concern that this openness is coming under threat: the Foundation’s Executive Director, Mark Surman, has warned of the rise of “digital empires” controlled by a handful of tech giants; of the marginalisation of app developers from poorer countries; and of the entrenchment of the digital divide. Surman is a keynote speaker at this month’s OEB, so we called him in Toronto to ask what fears the open-source movement has for the future, and what it’s all got to do with education.

By Alasdair MacKinnon, 


Surman begins on a semi-reassuring note: while one version of the future does look dangerous, we have not got there yet. Rather, we are at a turning point, one at which we all need to decide whether the internet becomes “a force of joy and power” or “a force of oppressive misery”.


“The internet has it become a critical part of all of our lives, for all of humanity,” he explains. “… not just for engineers, but for all of us. We all have to understand the digital world because it’s going to be critical to our agency, to understanding what’s going on in life.”


Central to understanding the internet is the idea of web literacy: the collection of competencies that allows users to engage actively with the internet. This is something that Mozilla and Surman advocate strongly. The time has come, Surman says, to enshrine web literacy as “the fourth R”, drawing a parallel to the time, 150-odd years ago, when the term “the three Rs was coined*. “Then it was about preparing people for the industrial world; now we are at a point where we have to figure out again what it is without which our economy can’t evolve – without which we can’t build democracy”.


The internet has become a way of realising previously unfulfilled visions of learner-centred education. “Obviously the traditional way [of classroom education] works, but it’s not for everybody. We want to see universal public education that is adaptive as opposed to prescriptive,” Surman says. For him, the exciting changes the internet has wrought are outside of the traditional methods of education.


“You have the MOOCs and bla-bla-bla – you can quote me on that,” he says, laughing, “but the real revolution that has happened is in YouTube, Wikipedia, Minecraft, and people publishing things on the internet.”


Indeed, people can now “hack round” many of the traditional barriers to education, the internet providing access to a wealth of knowledge at low cost and high accessibility, “changing the expectations and the social power structure around learning”. If, however, the internet loses that accessibility – if people lose the ability to participate in it – we could fall back 150 years or further, to what Surman paints as a new dark age of digital “priests and peasants”. The first inklings of this less enlightened future are perhaps already with us, with the rise of tech giants monopolising online services and in the way technologies increasingly channel online revenue into the pockets of the few.


There’s also the danger that the digital impact on the structure of education will be of a less beneficial kind: instead of using digital forces to empower the individual, we might start dividing people, “based on algorithms that are biased into their own education categories – race, class, background.” In this way, the internet can keep sections of the population out of education rather than enabling them to participate in it.


I want to mention recent concern about confirmation bias in algorithmic news feeds such as Facebook’s – recently criticised for the spread of fake news and more generally for only showing people stories they want to see. Is there a worry about how the internet educates us there? “In general, the systems are trying to get smarter based on information created by people with biases and often with hatred,” he says. “Imagine if your whole uni experience was filled with confirmation bias. You could say that proper education has the role of countering this. The other piece of it is that emerging monopolies and empires, too much power in too few hands, are going to lead you down the path towards those kinds of challenges.”


This is the “dark side” of the internet’s future – when a public resource becomes of benefit only to a few private companies or individuals who define what you see and learn for their own ends. If we continue down this route, Surman says, “we risk losing the beauty of the internet. The ultimate concern is that a force for empowerment, liberation, and learning has as much potential to be a force of surveillance, control, and exclusion, so we need to nurture the internet as a source of empowerment and learning. Most educators don’t see that we are at a critical juncture where they have a role to play.”


So what’s the plan, I ask. “We’re all going to sit back and comment on it like this,” he jokes. “No – the plan is twofold. One is to build products that put people in control of their digital lives. Two is to look at a consumer movement toward the health of the internet. We do have a choice, part of it being educating ourselves and each other, part of it being demanding of corporations and governments, making sure that humans are included in design and decision making.”


Surman likens it to an ethical products movement. I rather like the analogy: responsibly sourced information, the organic internet. Open-source software – it’s the online equivalent of free-range eggs. Hear more from Mark at the #OEB16 Friday Plenary on “Limitless Learning”.

Hear more from Mark at the #OEB16 Friday Plenary on “Limitless Learning”.


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