This summer at the CSSI program, we had an instructor who was greatly beloved by the students for “making the complicated things not complicated”, and that was Matthew Levine, who I grabbed on the phone this morning to chat about web literacy.  Matthew is a web application engineer at Google with a teaching background: not only did he have several younger brothers growing up, but he tutored in high school and spent some time teaching 2nd grade.

On his teaching style

  • Experience teaching 2nd graders taught him how to teach things that are intuitive to him (reading, numbers, etc.)
  • Start with a good orienting framework
    • Visual
    • Map with what they currently know to that model
    • Explain where we’re going to dive into that model
    • Example: have them build a social network.  They already have a mental model of how that works.
  • Along the way, “okay, now we want [some feature], so what do we need to do to do that?”
  • Repetition of the same task types.
    • Develop pattern recognition of that type of problem.
    • “Okay I want a new page.  That means I need to use django templates like we did for that other page.”
  • How to search for answers (independently)
  • How to look at previous examples and extract answers

On fundamental web literacy skills

  • Lose the fear
    • Learned behaviour: kids don’t have that fear, much more willing to play, make mistakes
    • Fear needs to be unlearned in proper context.
    • (Some fear, like privacy concerns, is good.)
  • Searching
    • Generally finding information
    • “How do I set up a twitter account?”
  • Community
    • Knowing that it’s okay to call for help
    • Etiquette around praising question askers
    • Giving opportunity to ask questions
    • Stack Overflow lowered the barrier to entry, and feels vibrant (so your question will get answered, and you’re not the only one asking “stupid” questions)
  • Mental model of how the web works
    • In the old days: links + pages = easy
    • Modern web is a harder mental model
    • Part pedagogic challenge + part design challenge: help ppl understand what’s going on on a website
    • Entities
    • “Blog” -> the post (blog entry) or the blog (site); lack of understanding of difference
      • Contrast with “tweet” = good.  Helps mental model.  “Status” = hard.  Current status?  Was current but no new current status?

On how much technical knowledge is necessary for web literacy

  • “I’m probably going to fall into the camp of very little technical skills.”
  • No HTML, CSS.  Great if they do, but not necessary.
  • When producing content, don’t need domain registry.  Use the tools out there.  Later, register a domain if you need it, when you need it.
On maker culture

  • The difference between working around problems versus solving them.
    • Once you realize problems are solveable, half the battle is won
    • Lots of ppl don’t even consider this.
On success metrics

  • 1) Info correctly absorbed
  • 2) Global scale: literacy
  • Things that are measurable:
    • Map people -> online identity -> content
    • But part of success is understanding privacy, invisibility, which makes that first mapping harder
    • Flip side: measure what % of ppl do things in public vs. private.
    • Measure # of content producers.
    • Measure average number of personas.
    • = reasonable estimate of people who are producing content

There’s definitely a lot to be said for needing people to be able to recognize problem types and apply the solution they’ve already learned for that type.  I think that half of my CS courses were just trying to drill this fact into our heads. :)

And it’s interesting to chat with Matthew about these sort of meta-skills, and how the combination of them can be used to learn specific technical skills.

Plus, this may be the first draft of an actual numeric metric for web literacy. :)

Thoughts from the peanut gallery?

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