Empowering women through equitable access and web literacy

Recently I had the honor of speaking at Mobile Learning Week in Paris, co-hosted by UNESCO and UN Women. The two agencies interwove their agendas to focus on empowering women through mobile learning. It’s a strategic and necessary combo.

I shared a panel with Shelly Esque (Intel), Adele Vrana (Wikimedia), Ingrid Brudvig (World Wide Web Foundation), and Doreen Bogdan (ITU), which was impeccably moderated by Valerie Hannon (Innovation Unit UK).

Here’s a summary of my remarks as well as thoughts from the discussion.

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The reason I’m here today is thanks to my mother—and Wikipedia. After some convincing, my mother agreed to join me on the train to the first Wikimania, held in Frankfurt, Germany.

I’d been enraptured by the Wikipedia project. And when I learned that Wikipedians were meeting each other for the first time just an hour away from our home, I had to go.

We spent the day talking with wonderful people. We listened to educational activists from Sub-Saharan Africa and had lunch with Serbian mathematicians. These volunteer Wikipedians were translating untold numbers of articles about math into Serbian. How incredible!

What struck me about the Wikipedians was that each worked in a small part on the project. In their language, in their subject. But together, they were creating something great.

They had a North Star to guide them. The Wikipedians knew there was a greater goal and that gave their individual contributions a direction.

Today, we are at a crossroads.

Billions of people are coming online for the first time. Thanks to low-cost phones, many are gaining access to technology that they never had before.

We know that technology is power. And knowledge is power.

With this new wave of technology, we can repeat the power structures of the past. Or we can change them.

Let’s ask ourselves: what is our North Star?

We represent many countries, many interests. But we’re here today galvanized around shared issues.

I’d like to propose that our North Star is not just equitable access, but access to knowledge. And that knowledge is understood as a literacy — web literacy.

Let’s create a web literate planet.

Literacy has been proven to combat all sorts of inequality: social, economic, political.

To overcome gender inequality, women must fully participate online–in their own language, in their own time, and in their own voice.

This requires knowing how to read, write and participate on the web.

Millions of people think that Facebook is the internet. It is not. We must show the possibilities of an open internet, and impart the skills that lead to empowerment online, beyond the walls of any particular corporation. We have to teach the web.

Importantly, it is not just about what we teach, but how.

The classroom is a microcosm of a society’s power structures. Traditionally, teachers see their students as containers, receptacles of knowledge that the teachers, as experts, must fill.

Instead, teachers should be facilitators. They should help their learners find agency and be empowered. Teachers are there to help their learners take ownership of their own learning.

In this way, we can challenge traditional power structures. Learners must have agency and ownership of their learning. This goes for women as much as for men.

At Mozilla, through our low-cost and open source phones, we’re reducing the barrier to access. Through our teaching and learning campaigns, we mobilize communities in 86 countries to teach web literacy to 130,000 learners. And now we are working to sustain those efforts through local groups meeting and teaching regularly.

But these are small, humble contributions.

We, like all of you here, dream big. We see all of our efforts amplifying each other, guided by a North Star.

Together, we can do it. We can create a web literate planet.

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Huge thanks to Jennifer Breslin and Mark West for inviting us and to Anar Simpson helping make the connection!

Images: “Inside the LAN House” by Laura de Reynal available under a Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0 license.. “Now at #mlw2015” by Ben Moskowitz used with permission. Mobile Learning Week Infographic by UNESCO The Equitable Access Panel by Anar Simpson.

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