A Mozilla Developer Institute

TL;DR - Why Mozilla should create an Mozilla Developer Institute in order to train the next generation of technology inventors. And how Mozilla could do this by building on existing resources.

A few weeks ago, Mark blogged about a concept called Mozilla Academy as part of Mozilla’s broader vision. And he asked “What does a Mozilla Academy look like?”

Here is one piece of the answer:

Within the broader Academy framework, Mozilla could launch a Mozilla Developer Institute that provides high-end training for technologists, who will create the open technology infrastructure of the future.

Such an institute would serve an important need. It’s an idea that Mozilla would be well positioned to pursue. And it’s something the MIT Media Lab (where I work) might be able to help with.

Mozilla Institute of Technology

Creating a top training program for technology architects, designers and developers. The Institute is designed for advanced technologists, but all content is shared openly, and learning happens in the open so that others can build on it.

The Institute offers:

Hands-on relevant learning, online & offline

Learning doesn’t take place in lectures, but through participation in real meaningful projects, and by working with other developers.

Bootstrapped by building on existing resources

The Institute doesn’t need to be a huge new undertaking. It can get started quickly, by building on the pieces that are already in place.

Offering a path to careers and impact

Graduates have excellent career prospects, deep technology skills, an amazing network of Mozillians, and a well rounded understanding of the challenges and power of designing technology for millions of users.

Over to you > I’d love to get your reactions to the blueprint above. Does this sound like a useful piece of the overall Mozilla Academy? What’s missing? Which parts make sense, which ones need more work?

Background, details, context…

I am mainly interested in comments and reactions to the above part, but if you’d like to find out more about the background of this idea, why I think it’s important, and why Mozilla could be in a unique position to tackle this problem, feel free to read on.

The problem with technology training

The way we train technologists today, doesn’t emphasize how broad the impact of their decisions can be on our economy and society. Traditional computer science education as well as the growing number of alternatives, focus on technical skills first (and markets second).

However, as Lawrence Lessig has pointed out, the rise of network technology has upended the traditional ways that society organized behaviors: through norms, markets, laws, and architecture (infrastructure).

The ability to shape behavior through technology infrastructure is both uniquely concentrated (a few developers can develop tools that are used by billions of people), and influential: technology can quickly shape new norms (such as widespread file-sharing), create new markets (airbnb), and make it harder to apply existing laws.

Most technology training doesn’t cover this. Not coincidentally, Lessig teaches at Harvard Law School, not in the CS department.

Why Mozilla?

Mozilla has always played a unique role at the intersection of technology and society. And Mozilla has directly shaped many of the technologies that allowed people like me to use technology for social good. For example, the open web created mind-boggling opportunities to increase access to learning and education.

However, with the emergence of mobile technology and silo’ed ecosystems, we risk that today’s technology infrastructure is increasingly being closed off. Leading technologists shrug it off as an inevitable step in the evolution of technological systems. Others, including Mozilla, are fighting new legislation that would impeded the openness of our infrastructure, and are winning. I think it’s important to preserve the open nature of today’s technology. But it’s equally important to think ahead.

Future technology infrastructure is unlikely to look anything like the web we have today. It might look like the blockchain. Or something else altogether. Whatever it may be, we will need thoughtful technology inventors to be involved in its core development right from the start.

That’s why we need to train a community of technology experts who understand the great influence of their design decisions, and who are excited by the opportunity to use technology to create a better world.

How a Developer Institute would support Mozilla’s mission

Given Mozilla’s mission to keep the web open, it can pull different levers to achieve this. One lever is a community of innovators, whose work demonstrates the social value of having an open infrastructure. They “wield the web” to build better election systems, better newspapers, and better ways to do science. Another lever is a mass movement of people who are informed users, to the point, where they care about the openness of the web and would contribute in political action to stop initiatives like SOPA. Mozilla is already doing good work in both of these areas.

The third lever is the space that the Mozilla Institute would focus on. It’s the small group of engineers who are designing and building the technology that the “wielders” and “users” will have at their disposal.

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