Why Web Literacy Should Be Part of Every Education

Teaching our kids to code will make them uniquely prepared to fully contribute to the world.

Like reading, writing, and arithmetic, web literacy is both content and activity. You don’t just learn "about" reading: you learn to read. You don’t just learn "about" arithmetic: you learn to count and calculate. You don’t just learn "about" the web: you learn to make your own website. As with these other three literacies, web literacy begins simply, with basics you can build upon. For some it can lead to a profession (i.e. becoming a computer programmer) while for most it becomes part of the conceptual DNA that helps you to understand and negotiate the world you live in.

Our Information Age began, for all intents and purposes, in April of 1993 when the Mosaic 1.0 browser made the World Wide Web available—for free—not just for use but for contribution and participation by anyone with access to the Internet. Its decentralization, its open architecture, and its lack of a "director" or "owner" or even central switching point made the potential for worldwide co-creation of knowledge, art, science, literature, animation, and all the rest possible.

No one would have believed that peers could contribute knowledge and advice, helping one another to learn through YouTube videos, Wikipedia, or other sites. In fact, if you go back to 2000, before any of those things existed, you cannot find accepted theories of human nature, economics, or earning that could predict that those things could and would exist in less than a decade. No one guessed Wikipedia’s success, not even its founders. We simply didn’t know that, without a work plan, a lesson plan, or a taxonomy of what "counts" as knowledge, without leadership or payments or designated roles, people—non-experts—would build the largest encyclopedia the world has ever known, because we love to share what we know with others, and we’re even willing to spend endless hours creating our own community standards, editing, and making it right.

Why haven’t we had an educational revolution that takes advantage of this human quality that we now have proof exists? Making web literacy the fourth literacy begins with the premise that not only are humans capable of learning together—we’re doing it, contributing to peer learning online, every day of our lives. That is a major educational paradigm shift, the great gift we’ve been given by those who built the web on open architecture.

Web literacy explains the world we live in and gives us the tools to contribute to that world. You can learn enough basic HTML and CSS in a few months to be able to make your own simple website. You learn by doing it. As you learn more, your website gets better, and vice versa. But a website requires content. What content do you want to put up there? If you want to just take a Disney cartoon, you run into copyright problems. Learning the basics of intellectual property is part of web literacy. Or say you are 17 and want to put up some profanity or some scathing comments about a school pal of the kind you’d make in the halls. Do you really want that content, able to be data-mined and searchable by anyone, available for the world to see, now and in your future, by, for example, college admissions officers? Privacy, security, and web etiquette are other basics of web literacy.

Right now kids can go online outside of school all they want. Some schools drop iPads into the schools as if that makes kids literate. But if web literacy, including web programming, was adopted by every school as a fourth basic literacy, kids would not only learn how to code, they would learn about interactivity, collaboration, the melding of the artistic and the scientific, creativity, and precision. We’d also benefit from a far more diverse technology world if every boy and girl, from every economic, cultural, and national background, were learning about programming from the time they started school.

That’s why we need an alliance of technology and educators. If we’re going to truly change higher education to change the world, we have to begin by emphasizing web literacy as a required, basic, indispensable competency in the 21st century. To do that, we need a leadership alliance between education and technology developers—and higher education is a good place to begin since it has far more flexibility than K-12 and exerts a tremendous pull on the shape of all education.

Economics may not trickle down of its own accord. But educational requirements do. Witness all the AP classes high schools offer these days. You make something a college requirement, and pretty soon high schools change their curricula. Pretty soon, pre-schoolers are learning code—and they can too. Wonderful programs like Scratch, produced by the MIT Media Lab, are designed to introduce kids to basic programming concepts. They can then graduate to the web programming tools for grade and middle-school age (several of which Mozilla makes available for free) like Thimble, X-Ray Goggles, and Popcorn. They can make web pages, movies, animations, and more. It’s fun. It’s code. And, best of all, these resources are already available, for free, with lots of helpful guides for parents and teachers as well as peer learning opportunities and young webmaker communities.

The ethic and ethos of webmaking is, as Mozilla says as part of its 2012 Summer Code: "Meet. Make. Learn." That’s a great educational philosophy for the 21st century.

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  • Ejaz Naqvi, MD

    I agree. There are so many things I think should be mandatory for kids to learn. One thing I wish everyone would do is read religious texts before you commit to a religion and before you judge a religion. 

  • Evan

    I have attempted to get my 1st grader going on scratch. While the language is ver simple, one of the main challenges is that there is no self guided curriculum available from which my son can learn beyond the first few concepts and no achieve of project challenges matched to the level theY are working at. If we want our kids to learn to program we need to recognize that parents and teachers may not have the skills to teach this new literacy.

    Any suggestions on where I can find what I describe?

  • jebswebs

    Your article sounds like it was written 10 years ago. The world of web design is no longer HTML and CSS but PHP, MySQL and jQuery. Unless you do this full time, you cannot keep up with the continual changes in the on-line technologies. I think the idea of "web literacy" is also passe. Digital content is the current term and it includes all kinds of sources and all kinds of formats. Educators and technology folks have been getting together for years. In Maine the ACTEM conference which unites classroom teachers with technology folks, will be celebrating its 25th Anniversary this fall. Students in today's world need critical thinking skills now more than ever. They need to learn to scrutinize and evaluate everything - especially stuff on Wikipedia. 

  • Emma Irwin

    PHP and MySQL existed 10 years ago , so did JavaScript :)  -

    Web design is very much HTML and CSS  as an entry point client side.  As a 9 year old kid  - the first steps involve looking at things like the page source code....  I think you know that the PHP and database queries are not available in source? Nor would you want them to be for someone just learning. 

    Thee goal as I see it is not to create armies of programmers, but to empower children through the invitation to participate in the technology they consume each day.

    We have been moving in this direction for some time, I agree but making it a priority - acknowledging it's complete absence in academic planning k-12 is right now, today is so very relevant in my opinion.

  • umbrarchist

    HTML and CSS makes you web dependent.  What can you do with your own computer with those languages?  How about Python and C?

  • umbrarchist

        All of these devices are von Neumann machines.  The compilers hide most of the variations.  So it still comes down to learning a language that will actually run a machine.  HTML runs a graphics/text/interface interpreter.  That is written in some language that runs on a von Neumann machine.


  • Shafee

    Sorry, but without a bit of Computer Science education one cannot destinguish between HTML and programming languages. Unless you know what an algorithm is, and know what a universal algorithm is, you will not know what a programming language is. Needless to say that some knowldege of the architecture of modern computers is required for knowing what can be done with your computer.

  • christian briggs

    Fully agree, and thank you for this post, Cathy and Mark. 

    A colleague and I recently wrote a book on the topic of what we call digital fluency (which of course shares a good many characteristics with what you call web literacy). One of the important things in all of this, i think, is to promote not only first-order literacy in students to be able to use the web, but also second-order literacy in teachers to be able to understand how to think about teaching students to use the web, and third-order literacy in administrators to be able to think about enabling teachers to teach this sort of thing. 

  • christian briggs

    Hi Cathy and Carl. Yes, our book is available on Amazon. 

    We would love to have both of you read it and let us know what you think. 

    Cathy, your new book is on my list as well. Also, i tried out a version of your peer-grading method in a new media theory course i taught at Indiana University. The results were very positive. Keep up the great work!

    Carl, our focus in the book and in our research is on the role that digital fluency plays in any organization, whether a business or a school system. In this book we try to introduce, in an easy to understand and, more importantly, easy to discuss way, an idea of the stages of digital fluency, and how literacy (which we characterize as knowing what and how to use the technology) and fluency (knowing when and why to use it) are different. 

    Our second book, based on the research we are doing right now on this topic, will deal more with what things, at what level, affect each other (e.g., Does digital fluency of a manager affect either the fluency of a department, or the ways that fluency can be put to use?). We are finding that literacy/fluency at one level/order can really affect the ways it is developed and manifest on other levels.

  • Cathy Davidson

     Perfect.   Is your book out?  I'd love to read it.   Good luck with our mutual mission! 

  • Carl Trig

    That's amazing Christian! I completely agree with you, web literacy would be a tremendous advancement in our world, but having teachers and administrators on board with it can be tricky. I'm interested in seeing how you approach all of this in your book, is your book available to read/purchase?