Marc Lesser “Success is hearing young people say things like, ‘I always wanted to lead but now I know I can, and I better understand what my capabilities are.’ … the experience has impacted not only what a person can do, but also their perspective about what their potential is.”

Marc works at the intersection of education, technology, and youth development, serving as Senior Director of Learning Design at Mouse, a national youth development nonprofit that empowers students to create with technology, solve problems, and make change. Since 2008, Marc has led the design and development of web-based and live learning environments, drawing on his earlier work as an educator, trainer, and specialist in the area of arts, media, and technology education. In 2012, Marc was named a National School Boards Association “20-to-Watch” Program, which recognizes national leaders in education and technology. He is also the co-founder of Emoti-Con! New York City’s Youth Digital Media & Technology Festival.


Marc’s Story

Could you tell me a bit about your work?

Mouse works on the opportunity gap, for young people looking to participate in not just STEM [science, technology, engineering, math], but in all kinds of identities that involve creative technologies.

Whether they want to be community activists, doctors, software engineers, it’s equally important to us that they all have an opportunity to see technology as a creative tool and a thinking tool. I try and make the distinction between Mouse as a STEM organization and who we are at our roots, which is really a youth development organization. We think about the young people’s developmental trajectory and how to support them through engaging in technology, engineering, and design — but also about how we might sustain that engagement through experiences that go deeper than a one-off exposure.

We do that in a couple different ways. We have a web platform that serves up everything from 15 minute to 5- to 7-week course content for mostly beginner and intermediate levels, although we do some advanced design and engineering work.

We partner. Beyond Mouse’s network, we are a thought partner to national and global organizations who want to create a bigger digital literacy imprint — in all of its forms. We think about how practitioners and organizations can come together, boost their impact, leverage each other, and figure out how to make change together.

We have program modules that take place in schools and after-school sites, like clubs and classes, that focus on everything from the foundations of technology literacy to game design.

We also do some programming and computation literacy. For all of this, the specifics take on different shapes depending where we are.

Mouse is a national organization, founded in New York. I lead the Learning Design team. We also have an affiliate on the West Coast who runs programs in about 100-odd schools. Beyond that, in any given grant year, we have programs in about 12 to 15 states, most of them with a smaller footprint, aside from New York, California, and Minnesota, where we have a bigger presence.

Are Mouse’s courses self-directed?

They can be self-directed for the right student. They’re designed to be either. We try to make them facilitator-optional wherever possible. For kids who are getting into things like electronics for the very first time, they can certainly self-lead the course, but to go a little deeper on a lot of the concepts it really does take a mentor of some kind.

In your work, can you tell me about a time where you felt a real sense of success?

There are a few different kinds of success. Hearing from young people when they say things like, “I always wanted to lead or thought I could be a leader, but now I know I can, and better understand what my capabilities are.” That’s a huge indicator of success for us.

“I was interested in code, or interested in graphic design. Now I know have some facility there.” Those are big successes for us. Hearing that self-report on how an experience has impacted, not only what a person can do, but their perspective about what their potential is. It’s tremendous.

We feel a tremendous amount of success when we hear about young people who came to us in their sophomore year of high school and didn’t really have aspirations to go into science, technology, or engineering. Then they end up getting accepted to a software engineering program or a design program in their senior year. That’s kind of a magical moment. They came to us saying, “I think I’m going to be a cop, like my brother was,” or whatever it is, and then they become a Posse Scholar, which is a big deal in the US.

To me, it’s not really that different if they end up at Carnegie Mellon, or at City University. To me, them having come in with absolutely no clue what a portfolio would look like — were they to be interested in applying to engineering or design school — and then starting their freshman year in one those schools, that’s another type of huge success.

Another type of success — that’s a lot of fun for us — is when we run into alum who went through our more advanced high school programs. We run into them in the world doing amazing things. For example, two years ago I was working on a training for teachers at MakerBot in Brooklyn. It’s a big open office, and people milling through the office were stopping by and seeing what we were up to. At a certain point, a woman walks through and recognizes one of the teachers — the woman is now part of the MakerBot software development team. Her interest in technology started with our middle school programs. Mouse has been around long enough that that type of stuff happens now. It’s really magical when that kind of thing happens. And then there are the students who go into a political science track — it’s not just technology and engineering — those successes are really important to us too.

What about an example of a challenge?

There are so many challenges. The most frustrating ones are when you have a thing, whether it’s a model or a piece of content or whatever else, that you know works. And the only thing between you and doing it bigger or deeper is money — but because of the timing you don’t have a funder behind it.

You may have the most home run program or curriculum or whatever — but if you haven’t triangulated the right stakeholders it can stay flat for a long time. That’s frustrating.

Then there’s the disconnect between what the K-12 field believes and what the world knows about the skills and literacies that young people need. The disconnect between that ideology and the state of the system and what it can absorb is extremely frustrating.

We know what’s important for young people to leave K-12 experiences with. There’s a digital age mentality — very much a zeitgeist. Yet you can walk into way too many schools and see lots of talented educators bogged down by externally imposed constraints, or you can walk into lots of environments where educators aren’t passionate about what they’re doing and wouldn’t strive to hit those digital age competencies. There’s some of that, too, but that happens in every field.

It’s extremely frustrating when you’re trying to offer those kinds of learning opportunities more widely and you bump up against people who really don’t get it. But that happens less and less.

We’re lucky to be working at a time where the glass is more than half full . The field is full of really talented educators who have similar ideas and vision. There are a lot of really energized people right now. The question is whether they can work within the existing system or whether we need to blow all that up and start fresh and get all these people to start schools in their own way.

Those are some of the frustrations, but I’m not a get-stuck-on-frustrations person. It’s really hard to stay in this work for very long, if you’re a stuck-on-frustrations person. We have really rewarding work, and at the point where it feels like it’s more a frustration than reward, you move on to something else.

How have you approached addressing these challenges?

I think it’s really about patience. It’s being good about knowing when the time is right and not forcing it, and being patient and knowing that there’s going to be a point where things fall into sync in a better way. So not giving up on it but knowing when you have to shelve something for a period of time.

On the flip side, balance is really important. You have to know how to be patient and wait for the right opportunity. Yet you also need to not go down every other rabbit hole, because sometimes the opportunity you want doesn’t exist.

There will be 12 opportunities you’re not really interested in and what most non-profits end up doing is going after those things because there’s money behind them. When they do that, they sacrifice their mission or sacrifice the things they do really well for things they don’t do so well and end up having build those competencies or do them half as well. A lot gets lost and sacrificed. So I think it’s a balance.

You have to be opportunistic and anybody who does this work knows that there’s a certain degree to which you really have to be ready for opportunity when it strikes and if that means being flexible, you need to do that. If you’re good at it, you know when it’s a bridge versus stretching too far.

Part of what you’re talking about here is how donors set the agenda and determine what’s important. Have you seen any opportunities influence their agenda? For example through partnerships?

Yeah, there have been those opportunities. They are a little bit of a unicorn but really rewarding when they happen. One example comes to mind that is actually an incredibly frustrating one. There was an opportunity where the Mozilla Foundation was in a spot to bring educators together for a particular funder, to provide some direction. The funder came to the Mozilla Foundation and basically said, “We want to make a grant, a big one. We don’t really know where to put it. Help us do that.”

So Mozilla brought together a cohort of people to do some visioning — and then it didn’t go anywhere. At the end of the day, the funder said “There’s not enough there, there. It feels too soft.” It wasn’t there. Or maybe the whole time they were saying “We want you to direct us” really they were feigning openness to being directed. But, at the end of the day, the failure was that the practitioners couldn’t come together and figure out a way to create deeper impact together that also served their own interests. The really frustrating part was that we couldn’t put together an idea that was mutually beneficial. So we left it in on the table, which is insanely frustrating.

It happens that way sometimes. The best luck that we’re having lately with being able to help with the agenda of the funder is less so in the foundation space and more so in the corporate funder space, where there are sometimes fewer strings attached. They approach it much more the way an investor would approach a small niche business — they come to us and say, “You guys do this work and you know what you’re doing. We just really believe in it and we want to give you some capital to do that.”

We’ve had some luck recently with that set up and it’s such a relief because we get to do the work we think is most important and we’re not bound by crazy restrictions and reporting timelines and things that end up, and the end of the day, really holding up the work and costing you. For example if your take government funding, say a federal or a local grant, you always have to factor in that you might be able to do only two-thirds of that work because you will need to put a third of the effort into administering the grant. That can be frustrating.

Foundations are finally starting to catch on to the fact that it’s a dusty model and it’s not going to serve the field for very long, because you have way too many people going after the same money and then realizing that the effort isn’t worth it because there’s just so many strings.

Now, turning to the broadest issue in the Mozilla universe, what for you is the open internet?

Oh my gosh, that’s so funny. Since I started working with Mozilla this is something I came back to constantly in the first couple of years. I’d say, “I think you guys are thinking that everyone is on the same page about what the open internet is and how much they care about it.” This was a constant inquiry.

What is the open internet? The internet is a technical medium for communication, and it can belong to the people who use it or it can belong to the people who conduct the most business on it.

The battle that Mozilla is engaged — and that we’re engaged in — is that it’s a venue that should belong to the user. It has become a matter of human rights relating to who owns the channels where information is consumed. That’s the way this has been debated in different spaces over time. This issue has gotten much bigger because of the way we — and everything — are now connected.

The challenge we’re all engaged in is to figure out how we create policy that protects the Internet as an open and public space.

Did you experience the web when it was more open? Was that important to you?

Yes — but I don’t know that I was engaged with it in such a way that the difference between what people are now calling the “closed internet” and what was the more “open Internet” affected me profoundly. I was in college at the time — filling my computer with music downloads and playing games for free and doing that kind of stuff.

You can make an argument that the Internet is now more closed to us as individuals. But do I think a more closed internet — where people like artists are able to better protect their work and stuff like that — is necessarily worse? No, not really. The internet used to be a little more Wild West. Maybe if I was using that Wild West to further democracy then I’d be pissed that it was more closed now — but I wasn’t. I was a college kid not yet smart enough to know that that’s what the potential of the tool was. It was a cool way for me to connect in open and closed ways. My use at that time was more selfish.

Do I care that much? I care a lot — but I care less about its impact on me being able to fire up a chat room that nobody else owns and more about all the gains we’ve made in who has access, and where access is happening. And those gains may not be possible without commercial interests on the Internet.

I’m a pain in the ass about this topic. There are a lot of people who would much rather not have a conversation about what private industry has done for the Internet. That’s okay, but I see it both ways.

Despite the fact that I’m very protective of the internet as public space, I also think we need to figure out a balance where private interests can help us sustain and continue to make it as important as it is. Maybe that’s being wishy-washy, but I really do have two minds about it.

I think it’s really important to have “pain in the ass” voices. Otherwise, we have an echo chamber, and that’s not good for anyone.

No, it’s not. And when I hear Mark talk — or talk with people like Mark — about it I’m always inspired. But his experience was much different than mine, so he has different reasons for demanding it the way he does and for his vision of what an open Internet looks like.

From a policy perspective, I understand what the open Internet means. But, in material terms for the end user, I don’t know how different that internet is from what it is now. If we’re talking about better protections, more transparency, for the individuals who use it — if that’s the end game then, yeah, I’m totally with that.

The limits placed on hyperlinks on platforms like Instagram and Facebook has been mentioned as a problem — as inhibiting people’s abilities to create connected conversations. Another concern raised is the decrease in personal blogs in favor of creating content on platforms like Facebook where the focus is on a constantly changing stream — nothing sticks around for very long so ideas and conversations get lost.

Again, there are two takes on that. One perspective is that it’s less about the individual and personal identity and more — well, it feigns to be — about the voice of the collective, which is a more democratic ideal in some ways. It goes both ways.

I get stuff like that and I totally agree, but at the end of the day I don’t feel like either as a professional or as an individual that I’m limited by that in the ways that I connect with people or am able to get my ideas and messages out there. I don’t feel that there’s a shortage.

I agree that you should be able to hyperlink from every possible thing on the Web. I also agree when somebody says, “Hey, I’m going to create a platform that’s great for a lot of people, but I’m going to have to put in some constraints so that I can make money.”

That’s capitalism, and I’m okay with that. It doesn’t bother me that much. One of the things that I find so interesting is how people are competing now. If Facebook won’t do it, you go to another tool. In some ways it’s a battle to balance what the user wants and what the business needs, which puts competitive advantage in favor of the user, which isn’t bad.

A lot of times people are going to the smaller, scrappier, newer kid on the block because they’re not yet so established that they need to have all the constraints there. They open up the tools so you can do more with it. Suddenly, Facebook realizes, “Oh, people are valuing the openness.” When industry is competing for users who all value openness, they’re going to have to present an open tool eventually or people will find another way.

I do see a problem if the infrastructure gets so bogged down by policies and laws that are in the advantage of commercial industry that we literally can’t go anywhere else. But that doesn’t feel as immediate a reality to me as it will to some. I have that luxury because there are people like the Mozilla Foundation who are working really hard to make sure it stays that kind of reality, which I think is wonderful. Openness does not exist because commercial industry wants to be Kumbaya. People are working really hard on this issue and I appreciate that.

Getting more specific about Mozilla, how did you get involved with them and what has that been like for you?

The first time I got really deeply involved with them was in 2009-ish. In 2009 and 2010 they started to get interested in the badges space. My first involvement with them was working with a small team who ended up becoming the Open Badges group. It was shortly after MozFest was in Barcelona.

Mozilla started putting these little think groups together — there was one in New York and one in the Bay Area. These groups were thinking about what the world of alternative credentialing could look like.

About a year-and-a-half after that that they took on the role of managing Hive NYC. At that time, there were no hives in other cities. That’s when Mouse got much more involved.

Chris [Lawrence] and I had been colleagues in his previous life, and when he took on the directorship of Hive NYC, I became much closer to Mozilla Foundation through him. When Chris became a Mozilla Foundation employee, my involvement with them deepened again.

So my relationship with Mozilla started through multiple channels: the educator networks through Hive and the alternative credentialing work. Then, over time — as often happens with Mozilla — those engagements ended up spinning off into other projects. Eventually, I became part of the original working group with Doug Belshaw around building the web literacy standard. There have been lots of different pockets of involvement over time.

Overwhelmingly, being involved with Mozilla has been great. Occasionally frustrating. Inspiring in good enough intervals that I’ve kept wanting to be a part of it. The frustration is that at times it can feel like a challenge to keep up, or know where they’re going, or know what their interests are, or how we can support their efforts.

Occasionally it feels really frustrating because it’ll feel like Mozilla is not that interested in supporting our efforts — and then other times we feel overwhelmingly supported. It’s a little frantic. That’s the hardest part about the relationship. We’ll go stretches where we don’t hear from them for six months and then we’re back into a project and doing more.

To be fair, they have had to go through all of the challenges that a small nonprofit does. So, if I’m being truly fair and I give them the benefit of the doubt, then part of that is because they’re trying to manage nonprofit ideals in their work with their controlling factor, which is Mozilla as a company. To keep that on track, to keep it making sense, and to keep it being all of the things we just talked about: keeping it in their wheelhouse, making sure that they’re not overstepping and overreaching, making sure they actually have the infrastructure to do the stuff they say they want to do.

All that stuff is really hard. I know those guys very well and consider most of that team friends. I get that there are all kinds of challenges there. Speaking just on behalf of my nonprofit, I would say that it’s challenging sometimes because it’s a little frantic and it can feel spread too thin. Overpromises happen and that kind of thing.

But, like I said, overwhelmingly my experience has been extremely positive. In the early days of Mozilla Foundation, one of the things they did really well was to lift up practitioners in organizations that were doing great work. They were an advocate and helped showcase on a much larger platform work that was happening very locally.

So, to be at a small nonprofit in one place, but at the same time part of a collective that was thinking about much bigger issues and be able to put some of that work product in front of thousands of people — a much larger audience as opposed to what would typically be the case for a small nonprofit — that’s a really powerful thing and a platform that not a lot of people are lucky to have.

That was always the secret sauce for me. It felt like they were leveraging their brand and all of the capital that that brought with it to lift up real things that were happening, real practitioners, and people who cared a lot about the work and wanted to collaborate to do more, better. So as a convening body, they were just really strong and promising to educators.

The place where it becomes frustrating is as they have tried to figure out what their role is in all of that over time, whether it be hard material products like, “We’re going to help build the open badge infrastructure,” for example. They often can’t — despite, I’m sure, what their desire is when they start out on a project like that — see it through and spearhead it indefinitely. I don’t think they realize how much people are relying on their leadership in some of those areas. Sometimes that can backfire a little bit because when they need to drop something because either they don’t have the resources to continue or when it’s not part of their vision moving forward or whatever else, their style is to make business decisions about those things behind closed doors.

Then the rest of us find out that, “Oh, Mozilla’s decided to leave that space. What do we do now about all of these organizations who built practices around a this?” That can be hard and frustrating. The field can’t pivot like they can. It can be hard to negotiate that. You have to know that that comes with the territory when you’re working together.

Another frustration is around staff transition. Lots of times projects seem to end with staff transitions, and transitions often have very little in the way of hand-off. It would help with trust to make sure that staff transitions are handled with some form of announcement from the organization — not just the individual — and an assurance to project stakeholders that responsibilities will be transitioned gracefully.

Open Badges and the nuts and bolts behind that is one example. Are there other examples of times when Mozilla pivoted?

Yeah, there are a few. Mozilla has tested the water on a lot of things. That’s bound to happen by virtue of the fact that they’re willing to take a risk, willing to try things out, and willing to iterate and see if it works.

We talked about open badges infrastructure. The web literacy standard is another example where there was a point where things pivoted and the original project lead left the foundation. Things happened where suddenly it was abundantly clear to the partners who had been working on it that it wasn’t the priority it once was for the Mozilla Foundation anymore. That was over the course of three weeks. It was like, “Oh, OK. So I guess they left the party on this. What do you guys want to do about it now?”

To have half a dozen small nonprofits sitting around the table saying, “Well, the whole reason we were doing this was so that we could use the microphone of Mozilla Foundation to push this thing out. Now we don’t have that. What do we want to do with it?”

It will quickly disintegrate because the small nonprofits need to default to, “Let’s go pay the bills. If we dodn’t have this thing anymore, I need to shift my focus over to something that is going to keep my organization moving.” So they do.

Sometimes Mozilla will trust that practitioners will keep it alive. “We came into this thing, and we sparked it, and then we go away, and you keep it going.” That’s a whole methodology that I know a lot of the nonprofit consulting world thinks is a thing. Sometimes they can be, but most times it’s not.

To be more fair, I think that time frames need to be more realistic. It’s very infrequent that I have been part of something, where it’s a six month project and then it’s going to live on its own forever. Typically, that has not been the case in my experience. It really takes a sustained interest and a sustained scaffolding. The point at which it has legs to live on its own, is most frequently as somewhere off in the future, after someone has determined that its potential has lapsed. That can be a bummer.

How might these stories that we collect be useful to you? If at all.

Mozilla Foundation has a lot of the communities that it supports and that support it. So a foundation — that is not a grantmaking organization — comes to you and says, “We really want you to participate in this thing. We think it’s important. We know you think it’s important. Come with us on this journey. But we can’t fund it.”

Organizations make a huge leap and say, “You know what? This is either going to pay off long term, they’re going to help us make sure our name is attached to whatever big impact it makes.” There are lots of ways that a small- or medium-size nonprofit makes sense of that.

Maybe most important, if that’s the way that they continue doing business — they’re not grant making and they’re being an organizing group — is that they be able to make good on those promises. They need to be able to help groups claim the stuff that they contribute and leverage it to do more on their own.

I’ll give you a very concrete example. From the time we started working on the web literacy work, we helped contribute to building the standard and we were also a content developer. So we would write separate grants to foundations to give us funding to contribute content to the web literacy work that Mozilla could then push out through its teaching platform. That felt like a wonderful way for us to get our name out there, and to get more people interested in the work that we did.

We had asked from a very early stage, “Can we have some mechanism to pull analytics on that stuff so that we can report back to funders and say something like, ‘While the content we created serves our network, there are an additional 5,000 people in Europe accessing our stuff, and who now understand better…”

You wanted to show how your work was being amplified?

Yeah. I know those conversations. I’ve been part of the roundtable with Chris [Lawrence] and Mark [Surman] and all the players who have kind of come in and out over time. I know they love to think about how their imprint looks, and what the best way to organize groups is, and the rest of it. That’s all really important. That’s their job — to think about how to have that kind of effect. But if I’m contributing to something that’s being promised — if they say “We have our full support behind this thing, and we’re going to do everything we can. Even though we can’t fund it, we’re going to do everything we can to help you find more funding to do this.” — then you better be able to make good on those kinds of promises. And they often can’t. I need to know that that’s part of the deal — sometimes it’s going to work out and other times it’s not.

Back to my example, I just wanted to know who was hitting our content. I know that those analytics are not hard to pull and be able to have for collaborators, especially groups like us who have been closer partners over time.

They tend to not prioritize that stuff. They’ll often look to the group for feedback. “Hey, here’s the platform we’re trying to create. Can you be part of a think-tank to help us make it better?” “Sure, we’d love to.”

Then, when we come to the Mozilla foundation and say, “Hey, you know what’d be really helpful, is if I had this one analytic to show funders that this is really making a big impact.” “OK. I’ll get back to you.” It’s radio silence. That can be frustrating.

In the example you’re describing, what’s unfortunate is that it’s a repeated game, where if you deliver those results back to the funder then the relationship with the funder can continue and you can continue contributing. So getting that information could create a cycle that benefits both Mouse and Mozilla.

Yeah it makes a big difference.

Communication has been an issue over time. So, in places where the foundation has decided they want to pivot work on a project or take a different tack, you’ll often find yourself in a place, even as a close partner, where you’ll hear from a third party, “Hey, they’re not supporting this anymore.” We think “Oh. Okay. So priorities changed? What did I miss? Did I miss an email? What’s going on?”

Often, there are communication blips, where either they’re assuming things are getting communicated, or just not communicating them and assuming that people who want to come along for the ride come along for the ride.

My guess is that folks within the Mozilla Foundation would say, “That’s crap. We communicate. We’re over-the-top communicators. We all have our own blogs, and we have 400 back channels etc.” And that’s true. The problem is that it all is within this bubble that nobody is paying that kind of attention to, except for those inside the bubble, those at Mozilla, who are reading each other personal blogs, on IRC and that kind of stuff, to keep up with the work because they’re in so many different time zones. But no little program partner can keep up and be on so many different channels at once.

One consistent, concise line of communication to partners might be what’s needed. The way a software group would report fixes and updates quickly and regularly in one place, that might help.

I’m trying to be constructive and helpful to them, because I know that they would want it, but again, qualifying all of this with the fact that I love them as partners and they have helped us do a lot of fun work over time.