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CHRIS MILLS: The importance of learning networks

Chris Mills says access to top resources should be the absolute standard for developers

CRAFTED BY – Chris Mills, Senior technical writer at Mozilla

Technology has always been an essential resource; one that has allowed for people to achieve great things, build new ways of exploring the world and in many ways act as an equaliser. This last point is the most important, as the moment that technology becomes accessible only to a few people, it loses one of its most fundamental benefits and charm.

Everyone deserves access to high-quality learning resources that are and always will be free. The difficulty with sticking to this principle comes from a number of sources. Some resources are kept locked in closed ecosystems, which limits access for those without the means to purchase them. Others show irrelevant or out-of-date information due to a lack of resource and the time needed to update as the digital landscape and its requirements evolves. For example, in 1996 there were roughly a million websites; now there are more than a billion. Back then, there were roughly 50 million internet users; today there are more than three billion. Diverse and fragmented device and web ecosystems, and languages, have grown to cater for this rising number of internet users but have radically changed how developers write code with new languages, APIs, platforms and IDEs launched all the time.

All of this means that, despite the best efforts of educators and other web-learning portals, it can be difficult to give people the access to the right resources – the ones that will not only teach beginners how to code, but also the principles and methodologies that create the foundation for best practice that can be applied to a number of web languages. If learning is skewed to favour one language or platform from the start, beginner learners limit their understanding and scope for progression within the digital space.

In the long term, education and access to as many high-quality resources as possible is key

Take for example the issue of cross-browser compatibility. Many developers believe the browser they use is the only browser that anyone really uses, therefore they should develop only for that platform. By some measures, 70 per cent of web developers use Chrome on the desktop. But only about 50 per cent of web traffic across all device types is on Chrome, and only about 62 per cent of web traffic on the desktop is on Chrome. Building and testing on Chrome alone ignores almost half of global users. This means half of global users are instantly being cut off from technology that could help them.

Browser use also varies by geography. Chrome, Firefox and IE/Edge are the top browsers in many locales, but the proportion of users on each varies. German users favour Firefox over Chrome and IE is big in Japan. Quite a few Australians choose Safari. More than one in five Vietnamese users run a fork of Chromium called Coc. Building and testing on just one browser ignores market differences.

So what can be done? What is needed is for an extensive range of resources to be available from the start for people to learn from. Tackling specifically the case of cross-compatibility, access to the right educational materials, such as cross-browser testing tools like BrowserStack or coding tools such as Modernizr, sets developers on the right path.

In the long term, education and access to as many high-quality resources as possible is key. The Mozilla Developer Network (MDN) is an online resource mainly centred around providing reference materials for experienced web developers who want to look up the information they need to do their jobs more effectively.

Open and collaborative learning

But there’s a new kid on the block — running alongside this is the MDN Learning Area (MDN LA, an open and collaborative learning platform for web technologies (which already includes a glossary with over 300 terms, and over 90 articles to teach HTML, CSS and JavaScript from the start; basic fundamentals such as creating and manipulating files; and the difference between a website, web server, webpage and search engine). This area is focused on helping beginners, getting them comfortable with the basics, giving them the confidence and enthusiasm to learn more, and acting as a gateway to the wider core of MDN.

In being able to provide for both beginners and experienced users, the MDN acts as a companion for every part of the learner’s journey

In being able to provide for both beginners and experienced users, the MDN acts as a companion for every part of the learner’s journey, and a community for everyone to take part in. As well as being suitable for self-learners, teachers are also invited to pick up the material and use it as the basis for their own courses, or as further resources to link to.

MDN goes beyond providing essential coding information; it addresses developers’ needs through its supporting community of volunteer developers, with the aim of inspiring ideas, encouraging collaboration and ultimately, fostering the growth of the open web. This idea of openness is central to MDN in that anyone can create an account to edit the content, and anyone can also copy and reuse the content under its Creative Commons (Attribution Share-Alike) licence. Likewise, absolutely anyone can join in discussions about planning and task management via publicly accessible tools. At a higher level, this process can then help to foster the open-source philosophy. This is integral to ensuring that technology continues to be something that is shared and is used by everyone, regardless of their location or their ability.

Learning networks such as this are essential if ideas are to spread quickly and effectively. Ensuring that everyone, from first-time coders to experienced developers, have access to the best resources possible should be the absolute standard.