August 10, 2007

elementary education

David Utter, a tech writer over at WebProNews, says Firefox Needs To Go To School and I think I agree. Though, I would probably approach things differently than he's suggesting.

Putting aside the discussion on Mozilla's approach to improving retention rates, I do think that it's important to find a way for Mozilla to communicate with young children. David says, "Mozilla needs to target the most inquisitive, adaptable demographic with their efforts. Kids who work on computers in school each day have the 'E = Internet' lesson reinforced."

Rather than "target kids" with Firefox marketing programs, I think there's a more effective, and more important message we should be delivering. For some background on what I'm going to suggest, I encourage you give Mitchell Baker's recent blog posts, The Internet as a Public Good, and Firefox is Public Asset. I'll excerpt a small portion here, but you really should read the full articles.

I want to ensure that the Internet has robust public interest aspects. That the Internet has social, civic and individual benefits as well as commercial benefits. I suppose one could call this ensuring the Internet has robust non-commercial aspects. But this is a negative approach. I'm not against commercial activity being a vibrant part of Internet development. On the contrary, I believe commercial activity brings great value to individuals and society.

But I don't want to live in a world where the only thing the Internet is useful for, or effective at, or pleasant or fun, are activities where someone is making money from me.

[W]e want to create a part of online life that is explicitly NOT about someone getting rich. We want to promote all the other things in life that matter -- personal, social, educational and civic enrichment for massive numbers of people. Individual ability to participate and to control our own lives whether or not someone else gets rich through what we do. We all need a voice for this part of the Internet experience. The people involved with Mozilla are choosing to be this voice....

We need a public benefit aspect to the Internet. That's why we started building browsers in the first place.

So, rather than spending a lot of Mozilla's resources trying to "market" Firefox to young children -- something I'd rather not be doing at all, we could focus on education itself, teaching young children the importance of the Internet as a "public good" and raising awareness about all of the other-than-commercial activities that make the Internet such a valuable commons.

The other guys in this business have spent literally billions of dollars over the last several decades pushing their computing solutions and their view of that space into the classroom. With so many resource constrained schools across this country alone -- and my public middle school was a great example, administrators really, really appreciate that inflow of resources. For those big companies, though, I suspect that the business justification for gifting or severely discounting their products to schools was not that it was for the public benefit, but that it served to cement their positions being seen as "the computer" or "the operating system" or "the office suite" or "the Internet".

David is right when he says "the normal non-tech-absorbed person, who looks at a typical PC desktop and thinks the blue E symbolizing Microsoft's Internet Explorer equals the Internet" and this is a problem. It's not just a problem because it makes marketing Firefox more difficult. It's a problem because the blue E is not the Internet.

Mozilla's mission, as Mitchell described it, is to ensure that the public benefit aspects of the Internet, the social, personal, educational, and civic enrichment aspects have a strong and capable advocate. That is very different from Microsoft's mission and hopefully it will have very different outcomes.

I believe that Mozilla's mission, if it is to be successful, is one that we should be undertaking through activities outside of the direct production of software.

Participating in education programs is a service that would advance Mozilla's public benefit mission and at the same time help to counter the "the blue 'e' is the Internet" message that's being pushed on our children at an increasingly young age. Delivering an early education Internet curriculum to schools in need is an activity that our grass-roots community could accomplish with similar impact to the massive spending on hardware and software distribution undertaken by the big guys. This could be another highly-leveraged approach that would bring in a whole new kind of Mozilla contributor.

I haven't thought through the specifics a program like this would entail, but I do think that something like this would be a more practical, more effective, and more important effort than "marketing" Firefox by "targeting" children.

What do you all think?

Posted by asa at 10:11 AM