Paul Oh “Hacking can seem like such a foreign and threatening term — so we facilitated a workshop which showed how the idea of hacking represents agency and the ability to repurpose, reimagine, and remix.”

Paul Oh is an educator, blogger, collaborator, and long-time champion of web literacy who is used to open forms of production and sharing, especially in his technology and community-building work. He currently works as the Senior Director at Teaching Channel. He has been active in the Mozilla network as the co-producer of the Mozilla Curriculum Workshop webcast. During his time at the National Writing Project (NWP), he pushed to champion web literacy and online composition as key forms of knowledge and production for the network.


Paul’s Story

Could you start by giving me an overview of your work?

I work for an organization called Teaching Channel, and I essentially oversee our website. Teaching Channel is a site that produces videos that are freely available to teachers that document their practice and that allow teachers to, ultimately, improve their practice by being able to see other teachers in action.

The metaphor that we like to use is “we open doors” — because so often classroom doors can be closed. Teachers can get into their own groove, which is a great thing, but sometimes it can be a lonely profession.

That’s the work that I do. Prior to being at Teaching Channel, I worked for a number of years at the National Writing Project and that’s how I initially got connected to the Mozilla Foundation — doing work connected to the Digital Media Learning Initiative through MacArthur Foundation.

Through those connections, I had opportunities to work with educators in our network, in the National Writing Project, on understanding better and taking up some of the Hackasaurus tools that Mozilla was creating at that time for educators like X-Ray Goggles. Tools that help teachers both understand the web and then be agents and creators of the web.

Over time, I got to work with a number of different people at the Mozilla Foundation, which was really great. I also connected with some of the community calls. Ultimately, when Chad Sansing joined the Mozilla Foundation team — he’s someone I’m closely connected to through National Writing Project work — he asked me if I’d be interested in helping to support the monthly Mozilla curriculum workshop calls.

I said, “Yeah.” That’s been really fun and really interesting. It’s been an amazing experience to see how bringing together people to think through problems, and then come up with solutions related to the open web — how powerful an experience that can be.

In this work, can you hone in for me on a time where you really felt a sense of success — a specific example?

I remember the very first time we, at the National Writing Project — actually, I don’t know if it was the first time — but it’s one of the very early moments in our collaboration with the Mozilla Foundation, we ran a workshop at a conference, a popular educational technology conference in Philadelphia called EduCon.

We had invited Chad to help facilitate. Chad was a teacher. Obviously, he’s still a teacher but this was back before he started working for the Foundation. We invited him and a couple of other teachers in our network to facilitate this workshop.

Essentially, the idea behind the workshop was that we wanted people to come to better understand what it meant to hack. Just to hack generally, to hack on things, but particularly to hack the web. What was really amazing about that experience was, there were a lot of educators who attended who really had very little idea of what that term meant — in terms of having a sense of agency. And it became really apparent that they did then gained that sense of agency through hacking.

Hacking can seem like such a foreign term to people and it can also seem very threatening — and well it should be in some respects. So one of the activities that Chad and a colleague Paul Alison really brilliantly conceptualized was the idea that hacking represented agency or the ability to repurpose, reimagine, recreate, remix. Many educators present did not associate those terms with hacking.

What Chad and this other educator, Paul Allison, did was to start with something very concrete, something that everyone knows. They started with the game Monopoly. Then they had teachers hack the game — so they came up with their own rules. The teachers, given this license, developed all kinds of new rules to the game. They really began to see the creative possibilities in hacking.

They also went in the direction that we hoped which was: And so what does this mean for me and the way in which I work with my young people? Not just in terms of the terminology — like the word hacking — but what does it mean to give my young people agency in the sense of being able to think of the rules of something that they can create.

During the second part of that workshop we presented them with the X-Ray Goggle tools. Again, for many of these teachers, light bulbs went off. “What are you talking about? What do you mean I can hack the New York Times front page?”

They were just blown away. They were blown away by that possibility. They were also concerned. “Is this really on the web? Have I really hacked the New York Times?” Again, they ultimately went down this path of, “Wow, we can give kids this understanding of what a website is, that it’s this code that you can see, that kids can see, and it’s manipulatable.”

It sparked their imagination in terms of what was possible for the kids — and not only what’s possible but what they perhaps should be trying to help their kids understand. That initial moment when I saw how powerful it was for teachers to be given tools — like the tools that the Mozilla Foundation had created as part of that Hackasaurus kit — was just really, really amazing.

Flipping that question, how about an example of a challenge?

The Mozilla Foundation seems to be able to create lots of really interesting resources. To me, the challenge is that, despite the large, diverse, and extensive network around the world, I’m not seeing huge traction in my sector, which is school and education.

I’m not seeing traction with the take up of using a lot of those resources. I’m not sure why that is. I could probably make some guesses. It seems to me that that is a big challenge. You can create great things, but if people aren’t using them that’s problematic.

How about a challenge in your day-to-day work, or in the volunteering that you do at Mozilla?

I have the personal challenge, in terms of volunteering, that it’s hard to always feel like I’m devoting as much attention as I should, to work that I think is important.

From the standpoint of the curriculum workshops, the challenge is related to what I was saying earlier — about the take up of the resources. There hasn’t been a large, consistent engagement with the curriculum workshop webcasts. This is something that Chad recognizes.

What are some of the ways that either you, or you and Chad, have been discussing to address that?

We’ve been talking about different engagement strategies. Chad has been proactive in terms of blogging about the workshops and putting them up on media. We talked about other things we might do. Can we leverage our own social networks to push out information about these workshops? Are there ways in which we can encourage the participants, themselves, to make visible to their communities, that they’re going to be participating, to invite people from their networks in?

What becomes challenging is, in the effort to create a really great experience in the moment, the communication piece can sometimes not be utilized as fully as maybe it can be.

That gets back to the issue of time, also.

Exactly. Everyone is so busy, and they’re trying hard to put together what they’re putting together. Chad’s traveling a lot. It seems like everyone at the Foundation’s traveling a lot, so trying to match up schedules can be difficult. Chad is a person who leads us, but there’s a team. Amira’s on the team. Kristina’s on the team. Amira and Chad are sometimes in the same time zone, very different time zones, or sometimes different parts of the world. Coordination across time zones can be challenging.

I would say another challenge — that I think Chad, Amira, and Christina have really thought a lot about and done a great job with, but I think is still a challenge — is remembering that the audience is international. So this means being able to think about that, both in terms of logistics and as well as in terms of content.

That’s a tough one for many organizations.

Yeah, and Mozilla has such an international footprint. I feel like you all seem so well versed in this, that it becomes automatic. I can imagine it’s even hard just to remember including different time zones, or a more universal time zone, when you’re advertising that a thing is happening, or remembering that if you hold it at a certain hour, here, it may be completely inaccessible to someone in another part of the world.

Those are really great pieces of feedback. I actually have a specific question about that at the end, so we can return to this. I want to turn, now, to the broadest issue in the Mozilla universe, the open internet. What for you — and I really want emphasize the “for you” here — is the open internet?

Good question. To me the open internet is a knowledge network that is able to be traveled by anyone, and that there are not undue restrictions placed on someone’s ability to access the nodes of that knowledge network.

As an educator it also means to me certain things. I often relate the open web with content, and the open availability of content. Also, because I’ve worked on a number of different technology-related projects or focused on technology and education, the idea of open source platforms that allow for multiple contributions from people.

Can you give me an example of how these open aspects that you’re mentioning have been important for you, and your work, or in your life?

I feel like, as educators, this idea that the open web is a knowledge network that’s available to all is, to me, a fundamental sort of precept in learning. I’ve come to believe that all knowledge is networked today.

If you believe that and if you believe that the web is the most powerful knowledge network then the idea that the web is an openly accessible space leads to the greatest knowledge developments and the greatest kinds of paths forward. That’s stated in a grandiose way, I suppose.

In a specific way, while I haven’t worked directly with young people on learning about the open web, I think giving teachers the ability to be actors on the open Web — versus having things simply visited upon them — has been really critical. These teachers then, in turn, work with their students to help them understand what it means to engage with the open Web.

From developing a constructivist Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) when I was at the National Writing Project to just championing the idea of a certain kind of licensing that allows for the remixing of content – to me, I feel like openness has been really fundamental.

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

It was through my organization, the National Writing Project. At a certain point, our National Writing Project’s Executive Director, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, had been in conversation with Mark Surman related to the Digital Media & Learning Initiative, and their work funded by the MacArthur Foundation.

Through that connection, I got connected to people at the Mozilla Foundation. We worked on different projects, pieces of work — ranging from the Hackasaurus Toolkit to the work of the HIVE network. We collaboratively planned for dissemination of work.

People from the Mozilla Foundation attended our national conference for the National Writing Project. We were invited to MozFest and a colleague of mine and I were even wranglers one year. That’s how I got involved.

Our work involved coordinating efforts related to teacher’s education in the open web. The way that played out was through these conferences, as well as trying to do our own parts in relation to the Summer of Learning initiative for a couple of years.

It’s been an amazing experience. As I said, I got to attend MozFest twice. It’s just such an amazing experience — bringing together people who represent different disciplines but who all have these similar interest around the open web and around notions of agency and being creators.

Having scientists and journalists and educators and coders all together in conversation with one another is unlike any experience I’ve had in terms of being at a conference.

Then the energy is so high. You’re in a place where you’re not just having information shoved in your face or thrown at you, instead there’s a spirit of sharing and of collaboratively building. Then, by the end, creating something.

It’s even different than MakerFaire, where usually you go and just look at what people have made. MozFest is a rare community event. Also the fact that it’s international. That’s been profound. Then I feel like I get the chance to work with people from the Foundation who are so dedicated to the mission.

Beyond openness, there’s a dedication to ideals of equity and social justice, and to see what that means in different locations around the world. It’s rare and really amazing to have forums where those issues are brought up and can be discussed and thought about from a solutions-based perspective.

Could you point to any specific things that are different about your working practices or approaches, before and after colliding with the Mozilla universe?

One of the Mozilla communities had a call — I can’t remember which community — that definitely had a very direct and specific impact on me in terms of the way that I wound up working with a group of grantees when I was at the National Writing Project.

What I took away was the idea that the call was shaped as much by what the people on the call had to say, as the agenda that I had brought to the table.

In fact, I’ve started using that terminology: the idea of community calls and bringing people together and having open tools that everyone can contribute to. The Mozilla community call made it really apparent how powerful it was to have a collaboratively created documents and a collaborative agenda as the focal point.

That’s one specific way that my practice has been affected. In general, I’ve also been affected by the idea of trying to leverage tools for the open web and to give people the opportunity to actually make and be creators on the web. Although that was already a part of my work, Mozilla’s approach had a big influence on the way we developed a MOOC at the National Writing Project — and on how we thought about what might happen during that MOOC.

For example, we developed these “Make Cycles” — periods within the MOOC where the participants had the opportunity to create something. Even if it wasn’t always web-related we would have this Google Hangout where you could see people actually making something.

They would be in disparate places, talking about what it was that they are making and collaborating together to create those things. This idea, making in online spaces, was influenced by what I and my colleagues engaged with through our connections with the Mozilla Foundation.

I’m biased, because I went into this project with the idea that I’m about to tell you, but I have not been disabused of it through these conversations. The idea is that part of the way that Mozilla is working has to do with providing people with small experiences that boost self-efficacy and that — as you pointed out — promote sense of agency. It’s as if they create this stepped series of small wins, which makes a person think, “Hey, I didn’t think I could do that, but now I see I can. Now, what else can I can do?” It starts rippling out until the person is tackling more and more complex issues that, eventually, start to look like civic engagement. I’m wondering is that completely off for you? Have you seen the same thing? Any thoughts on that?

That’s really well said. As you were saying that, it really rang true for me. Ultimately I found that what Mozilla is encouraging all of us to do is to participate. Essentially to engage in a participatory structure.

You’re right about the small wins. Another way that I’ve thought about that with regard to Mozilla Foundation, is this belief in constant iteration. This idea that you try something out and then you iterate on it, you improve it with the help of others.

This idea of trying something, building something, but doing it with others, and collectively creating something that then you might refine, or revise, or try again. It seems like so many tools that are now offered in the education space have been created that way.

You’re absolutely right that ultimately the idea is becoming more civically engaged through creation and participation. By my personal definition of what it means to be civically engaged today, it means to participate in, more often, digital spaces, and to be able to act knowledgeably in those digital spaces.