Conference sneak preview

Digital society at a crossroads: Do we want learners or consumers?

xecutive Director of the Mozilla Foundation Mark Surman
xecutive Director of the Mozilla Foundation Mark Surman

Digital literacy is just as important as reading, writing and maths. This is the message the Mozilla Foundation, the non-profit organisation supporting open source projects, wants to spread as it powers forward to provide a web that’s empowering and educating people. Because, they say, “we can’t do it alone.”

By Annika Burgess

“We are at a crossroads as to choosing what we want the digital society to be. That is either something that empowers and educates people or it’s something where people become consumers. In Africa in particular where people become consumers of products offered only or primarily by foreign companies,” says Executive Director of the Mozilla Foundation Mark Surman, who will be a keynote speaker at the eLearning Africa conference in May.

The number of people accessing the Internet is outpacing expectations. In 2015, the number of Internet users worldwide is predicted to crack the 3 billion mark, with two-thirds of them coming from the developing world. By 2018, nearly half the world’s population will have regular access to the web. But without basic web literacy, what do these millions of new users have to gain?

“It doesn’t matter if we all get access to the web, what matters is if we know how to use it. How to use it to unlock a job, to unlock creativity, and unlock learning opportunities – that’s what the web can do for all of us. But we really need to know how to wield the web, we need to have a basic literacy of what the web can do for us in order to do that,” Surman says.

Mozilla has been experimenting with ways to address this problem through various activities over the years that encourage people to ‘teach the web.’ Notably, the global Maker Party Campaign, which brings together educators, organisations and enthusiastic web users at community-run events around the world to experience hands-on web making. So far, there have been 2,513 events in 450 cities across 86 countries.

“It comes from the idea that if we want people to have the power of the web in their hands and to know how to wield it then we need something pretty creative and massive – we can’t just go through schools. So we started with this grassroots approach, getting people to teach each other or focus on what we call a ‘make first’ approach; get people doing stuff and creating things on the web, and from there giving them opportunities to learn more,” Surman says.

Ariam Mogos, the Director of New Initiatives and Research at GMin in Kenya, says of her Maker Party experience: “Pockets of youth are springing up across Africa and engaging in empowering hands on activities and innovative practices, but when we can bring them together for an event like Maker Party, it has the power to cultivate a community of global youth that can drive development forward.”

In addition to the learning networks is the Webmaker app, which is a set of open source online tools that allow people to create anything from apps, web pages for their small business, to online videos. You start by developing something simple, share it, and then through that social engagement continue to build up your skills.

As Surman explains: “Really the theory behind the Webmaker app is that we want to take the millions of new mobile web users who are coming online, get them to make something quickly, then take them on a journey of creativity and learning. Part of that is that they hone it and learn it more, then there is the theory that we will layer in a kind social online support element so people can help each other out – peer learning – and then from there, as people get more interested, we can give them a channel to our face-to-face learning opportunities.”

Mozilla also hopes that through Webmaker people will realise how easy it is to modify content. And through having the power to modify content, they can make it more relevant: “Around 70% of the web is in English and that’s not the demographic of who speaks what on the planet. There’s a chance with the web and what we are doing with Webmaker to really get people to embrace their traditional languages on the web,” Surman says.

“People are not really going to adopt the web in Africa or in a lot of other places unless there is relevant local content; that’s number one. Number two is that there’s not going to be relevant local content unless people can create that content for themselves.”

Currently the new Webmaker app is in beta and the results so far have been promising. But, as Surman admits, despite the progress they are making to build global digital literacy in innovative ways, they need “much, much more than that.”

“We need to build a tidal wave of people who in a really practical, business-oriented way can have an impact on the future of the web, on what the web becomes. What can industry do, what can governments do to creatively look at how every African can fully understand the power of the web and use it to make their lives and societies better? Really we need governments and businesses to get behind the idea of mass digital literacy. We don’t have the power to make this happen on our own.”

Hear more from Mark Surman at the eLearning Africa conference, taking place from May 20 22, 2015, at Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  

Photo by Lawrence Kisuuki


  1. Vuyisile Bentile

    In my school days I used to receive free books at school. But today, I pay for my children’s school books. Now, how are we going to ensure that all school children receive tablets (smart phones) to use for school work and assignments? As much as the technological evolution takes its toll, we must ensure that our education budets meets up with new demands. It is useless to give away free tablets (smart phones) to one school and call it a ‘PILOT PROJECT’ when the country is dire need for tranformation. In this ‘consumer oriented’ distribution of resources way of doing things, I’m afraid an African child will always be the last to benefit. By the time we fit in, one person or group will already be in the drivers sit as proclaimed billionaires. For example, Bill Gates is the billionaire who benefits out of the digital technology, Steve Jobs, the Google guy, I mean the list is endless. It’s always about this individual. If we carry on like this, poverty will never eradicated.

  2. When we talk of Digital Society, we mean a society that is computer literate in terms of knowledge and skills in accessing the internet. Today,United Nations Sustainable Development Goals should as of 2015-2030 should mobilize its resources to ensure the world should be a Digital Society and not Digital Consumers.

    • A Digital Society stems from digital literacy. In my view this involves not just Internet skills but sufficientnt mastery of the digital language and skills for operating all forms of digital technologies and gadgetry that now characterise modern life style. I have observed how amazingly young babies confronted with a mobile phone today are very quick to employ touch screen skills such as tapping and swiping. Knowledge of operation and navigation icons on most electronic devices are part and parcel of life in the digital age. However given that there is no end to the development of digital technology, the ultimate Digital Society concept is like a horizon, we shall only see it but will never get there!

  3. Pingback: Digital society at a crossroads: Do we want learners or consumers? | weiterbildungsblog

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