Hackasaurus: showing kids how the Web is not just to be consumed

This is the third installment of Mission:Mozilla, a series of interviews that link Mozillians, the technology they produce and the Mozilla mission. This time, We’re interviewing Atul Varma and Jessica Klein about their project,  Hackasaurus.

Tristan – Jess, Atul, could you introduce yourself in a few words?

Jess –  I am Jessica Klein, the Design and Learning Lead of Hackasaurus. I design the various curricular aspects of Hackasaurus, and help learners of all ages delve into the building blocks of HTML and CSS with our tools.

Atul – I am Atul Varma, the technical lead for Hackasaurus and implement the tools such as the web X-Ray Goggles and the website.  Jess and I iterate on the design of the tools based on user observation and feedback from the hack jams that we hold.

Tristan – What is Hackasaurus?

JessHackasaurus is a suite of tools and curriculum that make it easy for anyone to learn webmaking through HTML and CSS. Our primary tool is the X-Ray Goggles, which makes it easy to see through Web pages and tinker with their individual parts. Our primary learning resource is the Hacktivity Kit —  — which tells you everything you need to know to host your own “hack jam”, where participants can remix the web together and learn basic HTML and CSS.

Tristan – What issue are you trying to solve with Hackasaurus?

Atul – Hackasaurus is really about bringing HTML back to the non-technical audience. When I first learned HTML in high school in the mid-1990s, lots of other folks knew it, because it was what people those days did — they made web pages on Geocities. As the masses of the day turned to making blogs and then simply having Facebook pages, we’ve lost a lot of that knowledge, culturally — which is particularly unfortunate since HTML has gotten so much more amazing over the past decade.

Hackasaurus’ aim is to give everyone what film critic Roger Ebert calls “restaurant HTML” — enough knowledge to know how the bones of the Web work, and how to use it to empower themselves in their online lives. In doing so, they will also understand, at a very visceral level, what makes the Web such an amazing public resource.

Tristan – How did you end up working on Hackasaurus?

Atul – For me personally, it was something I was excited about and blogged about in 2009. Mark Surman (Mozilla Foundation Executive Director) really liked the post and later invited me to a brainstorming session with the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago — they were working on turning libraries into maker spaces for kids, but weren’t yet doing anything with the Web other than using it as a passive medium to e.g. upload videos to YouTube. So Mark thought there might be some way to connect the idea of teaching kids about the Web with MacArthur’s efforts.

That ultimately led to the Drumbeat Festival in Barcelona at the end of 2010, where I met Jess and led a design session with a cross-disciplinary team of hackers, librarians, and educators to come up with a curriculum and motivate the use cases for a tool that eventually became the X-Ray Goggles.

Jess – I came to the project through my work with the Hive Learning Network, an initiative started by the MacArthur Foundation as part of their Digital Media and Learning portfolio. They connect museums, libraries and community based youth organizations who are really trying to take risks with technology in their programming. At the time, the Hive and Mozilla were “dating” so to speak and this project was the first time we really started to work together. I came to the Learning, Freedom and the Web festival and met Atul and we really just started to tinker and figure out what kinds of curriculum would complement the technology. We did a lot of user testing and iterating incorporating the lessons learned by directly working with the end user (teenagers!) to create the software and eventually that defined a really nice and organic community-driven design process.

Tristan – How do you plan to evolve Hackasaurus?

Jess – Right now, Hackasaurus just released its beta — so we are really at the phase of exploring how our tools and curriculum hold up on a global level to the design question of — how do you teach code to users in an accessible, fun and interest driven manner? We are constantly experimenting and iterating our tools, but our next steps are really to expand the learning tools so that our users transition from simply hacking websites to really becoming full on webmakers.

Tristan – Can other people reuse this material? Under which license?

Jess – yes, everything is available currently under a creative commons license. We actually really want to encourage users to essentially fork our content- which makes our project both an open source project and an open educational resource (OER).

Tristan – Do you need help with Hackasaurus?

Atul – Yes! Currently localizers can use Mozilla Verbatim to help translate, and they can easily see the results of their translating on our staging server. Testers are all welcome too — for more information, check out http://hackasaurus.org/contribute/.

Also, a good way to stay connected to our community of webmakers is to participate in the webmaker community calls on Tuesdays.

Tristan – How do you plan to reach to a broader audience? Or is it too early to discuss this?

Atul – Not at all! We’re currently working with the MacArthur Foundation, and the Hive Learning Networks to bring Hackasaurus’ curriculum and tools to libraries, museums and community based organizations across the US, and we’re recruiting “Mozilla Youth Ambassadors” to hold their own hack jams and spread the word. The Hacktivity Kit, which we just released last month, is another way we’re trying to scale participation, as it gives anyone all the tools they need to hold their own event.

At a technical level, another thing we’re trying to do to reach a broad audience is to make our tools available on as many platforms as possible. The goggles, for instance, currently work on Firefox, Opera, Chrome, Safari, and IE9–we’re working on IE8, because many libraries and schools don’t have the ability to run a newer browser. Initial work has been done to have the goggles work on tablets, too, as a number of places only have access to those.

Jess – We are also working with community members to run local hack jams. Currently, people have run jams in locations including:  Nairobi, Barcelona, and Brussels. Some of these members have come to us through the Mozilla Reps program , while others have come to us through like minded organizations like the National Writing Project. But this kind of community involvement is really integral for the success of the project, because as we know, creating meaningful learning experiences isn’t going to just be about translating our open source offerings, but truly localizing.

Tristan – Who, other than Mozilla, could have done something like this?

Atul – Probably the MacArthur Foundation and its network of informal learning organizations — the Hive — which is why it’s so great that we’re working together with them on the project. I don’t think Hackasaurus would exist today if it weren’t for Mozilla’s technical know-how and non-profit mission of turning web users into Web makers working in conjunction with the MacArthur Foundation’s plethora of research on informal learning and their network’s practical knowledge on holding events for youth. It’s been really inspiring to see the two organizations work in concert to do something that neither one could have accomplished on their own!

Jess – Mozilla is truly committed to empowering a generation of web-makers — people who want to make things on the web — and I think that really requires us to design our tools and learning resources with different communities of makers, including filmmakers, journalists and young people. So, in a sense, this project is enhanced by Mozilla but designed by the community.

Tristan – Anything else you’d like to tell our readers?

Jess – I guess I would just say, that when people learn the basic building blocks of the web as they are learning through Mozilla projects like Hackasaurus, they are not only empowered to make things they are passionate about, but they also come to expect the web to work in a certain way — to be open, editable, remixable and accessible. The most skilled among them will make things that are useful to others that embody those values of the open web- and thus, help to build the web for everyone. With our tools, and programs we are helping to educate the next generation of webmakers — what is possible and hopefully empower them to design the rest.

Tristan – Amen to that, Jess! I see that you have a partly localized version in French. I’ll walk through it with my son, I’m sure he’ll fall in love with it… Thank you Jess and Atul, and long live Hackasaurus and the Open Web!

About Tristan Nitot

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One comment

  1. Paul Booker

    Is there and audio version of this interview?

    // Paul Booker

    January 4th, 2012 at 10:24

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