The Case for a Campus Makerspace

Here is a (rough) transcript of my talk today at the ELI Annual Meeting in Denver. I've also Storified some of the tweets from the session and included a link to my slidedeck. Special thanks to Jentery Sayers (UVic) and Tim Owens (UMW) for the use of their photos from their respective campus makerspaces.

Open Source

This is not a talk about MOOCs.

This is not a talk about online learning.

This is not a talk about learning analytics or learning management systems, or any of the ed-tech apps that have investors and entrepreneurs, administrators and professors both intrigued and reticent, and/or students fairly indifferent.

This talk isn't about David Brooks and his "campus tsunami" nor is it about Thomas Friedman and his "MOOC revolution" nor is it a response to the technology tabloid Techcrunch and its gleeful pronouncement that this all marks "the end of the university as we know it."

Except that this talk is about all these things just as it wants so desperately to point to something else.

This is not to deny the existence of MOOCs and the like nor to refute their significance. This is a talk that, even when focusing elsewhere, recognizes the hype and the opportunity and the challenges faced by teachers and learners and by educational institutions.

But this talk hopes make a case for schools looking to the Maker culture rather than markets to help them reinvigorate themselves, to help keep them relevant, to help student be engaged and to make their learning meaningful and empowered.

Much of the punditry I hear lately about ed-tech hails this as the moment when teaching and learning will move online. We all know here, of course, that that trend actually isn't all that new. Computers are decades old. The internet is decades old. Ed-tech is decades old. 

Ed-tech, so one argument goes, will make education more efficient, more scalable, more personalized. It will liberate students from those wretched large lecture halls… by videotaping the lectures and putting them on the Internet.

Now, whether or not you believe that this will be efficient or scalable or personalized -- and I think we need to debate all of these, quite frankly -- this is the promise from some say we're being offered. And moreover, thanks to the move online and to digital, we'll now be able to do something "different" in our face-to-face learning environments.

But what does that "different" look like?

Now clearly, despite the Internet, despite computers, we can make the case to for offline, face-to-face learning -- for better offline learning, I hope. And I think we can make a case for physical learning spaces -- for better, beautiful learning spaces.  

This is a very long-winded introduction to my case for the campus makerspace. It's a case that invokes some of the educational practices that we know work well: small group discussion, collaboration, participatory, project-based, and peer-to-peer learning, experimentation, inquiry, curiosity, play. These practices, their values as we help students learn to build and make their own knowledge.

The makerspace is something that has grown out of what's called the Maker Movement, a loose affiliation of software and hardware hackers and hobbyists of all sorts. 

The Maker Movement is a contemporary version, if you will, of the old punk ethos and its DIY culture -- just with newer technology. Perhaps you remember the old illustration that said "here's three chords, now form a band" -- today, it's "here's a motherboard and some cables, now go build a computer." 

Makerspaces are a newer version of the old Silicon Valley "home-brew computer club," whose members included Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. 

But the makerspace takes a more public-facing, more community-oriented form than we've seen with individual DIY hobbyists or small hobby groups --  those who work in basements and garages and sewing rooms and living rooms and workshops. 

The Maker Movement brings them out into the open, into the public to share and to learn together. 

The Maker Movement is closely associated with Make Magazine -- sometimes described as a 21st century Popular Mechanics -- and the Maker Faires that the publication helps organize around the world. But there are many resources and traditions makers draw from and many places where makers gather.

I recently recognized the Maker Movement as one of the most important ed-tech trends in 2012, and although it is making inroads into schools I think it's notable here that much of what we see in the Maker Movement is the joy of learning -- lifelong learning -- in informal rather than formal environments. 

Those of us who work in formal educational settings thus need to ask ourselves: why does the joy and interest lie there and not here?

What does the Maker Movement "get right"? What can we learn from it?

Makers work with Arduino, paper mache, Legos, cardboard, robots, rockets, welding machines, gears, circuit boards, computer-assisted drawing software, string, vinyl cutters, LED lights, the command line, string, rubber bands, wire, duct tape, play dough, steamworks, sensors, hot glue guns, scissors, Raspberry Pis, gyroscopes, tesla coils, musical instruments, fire, water cannons, plastic, wood, motors, solar power, wearable computers, and 3D printers. For starters.

It's the latter, arguably, that's spurred much of the imagination and excitement about the possibilities for a new form of low-cost and local manufacturing. 3D printers will bring about the next industrial revolution, say both the Economist and New Scientist magazine. They will revive American manufacturing, says Forbes.

Now depending on your geography and/or the composition and the focus of your engineering or business departments, your school may or may not give a damn about the future of American manufacturing as part of its curricular mission. There might be faculty on your campus that roll their eyes at all the talk from politicians and pundits about STEM education and STEM majors and STEM jobs; there might be those who are (rightly) concerned what all this STEM talk will mean in terms of budgetary decisions for other non-STEM, i.e. not-21st-century departments.

I'd argue that we all should give a damn about the future of manufacturing. As Make Magazine founder Dale Dougherty says, we must see manufacturing as "a creative enterprise,” not something “where you’re told to do something but where you’re invited to solve a problem or figure things out.” And, despite our disciplinary backgrounds, we should all give a damn about the future of science, technology, engineering, and math. Indeed the Maker Movement and makerspaces aren't something for just those in the engineering or computer science or design departments. They aspire to be openly democratic and participatory.

That is one of their great beauties.

Steve Jobs once said that Apple's innovation was a result of the company's existence at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts. 

With that in mind, I'd argue that we can do more to situate colleges and universities at that intersection too -- not by buying iPads and certainly not by scrapping the humanities but by welcoming the maker ethos onto our campuses.

For many years now, we've talked about what it means to have "writing across the curriculum." We've decided as institutions that all students -- no matter their degree program, should write well, should write critically, should write often. 

And so I ask, what would it look like to have "making across the curriculum"?

The opportunities for hands-on learning are so few in modern-day education. Few and getting fewer. Our education system has forgotten -- or ignored, perhaps is a better word -- John Dewey and his argument that we "learn by doing." At the K-12 level, woodshop, metal shop, sewing, cooking, art, heck even science labs -- they're going away to save money and to make more time in the school year for "college prep" and for standardized testing.

Learn by doing. Learn by making. Not learn by clicking.

Makerspaces give students -- all students -- an opportunity for hands-on experimentation, prototyping. problem-solving, and design-thinking.

By letting students make -- whether they're digital artifacts or physical artifacts -- we can support them in gaining these critical skills. By making a pinball machine for a physics class, for example. Making paper or binding a book for a literature class. Building an app for a political science class. 3D modeling for an archeology class. 3D printing for a nursing class. Blacksmithing for history class. The possibilities for projects are endless.

And the costs for creating makerspaces needn't be that high.

And let me reiterate: the project-based component of making is important. "Making" rather than "writing" final projects for a class still demand students research and plan. But it also demands they prototype in ways that neither an essay or an exam really do. Making projects can be -- horrors! -- relevant and relevant. It can be experimental. And it can be technological -- or it can have used tech tools in its construction. It can be technological whether you're a classics or a computer science major. And arguably, these days it should be.

Makerspaces expose students to cutting edge technologies that could in turn lead to employment and entrepreneurial opportunities. And because of makerspaces' connection to open source hardware and software, students aren't learning just how to use proprietary tools. They aren't just learning a specific piece of software. Instead, they learn how to find resources and -- this is key -- they learn how to learn. 

Having some technical know-how -- tech literacy, sure, but also a comfort level with technical experimentation and with tinkering -- is becoming increasingly fundamental for all of us, as technology shapes how we learn, how we communicate, how we play and how we work.

There is a growing number of makerspaces that support these sorts of learning and building experiments. Some charge a membership fee. Some charge a materials fee. Some are for-profit. Some are not-for-profit.  Regardless of their tax status, makerspaces tend to be community-oriented. No surprise then, makerspaces are popping up in libraries and community centers. They're popping up in K-12 schools. And they're popping up on college campuses.

The ThinkLab at the University of Mary Washington. The MakerLab at the University of Victoria. The garage at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The science library at the University of Nevada, Reno. The library at Valdosta State University. The Open Hardware Makerspace at North Carolina State University. The FabLab at Stanford.

One recent estimate put the number of makerspaces on college campuses at about 60, which for those keeping score at home is not quite double the number of college campuses that have partnered with Coursera.

By and large, these makerspaces are not associated with any one department. Indeed, that's the argument that many librarians are making about opening makerspaces with them. The library is already open to the entire campus community -- students and faculty of all disciplines.

This openness -- openness to the public and openness to all disciplines and skill levels -- makes the makerspace very different than the science lab, for example, or the art studio -- the two places that are perhaps the closest -- in terms of equipment at least -- to the makerspace. 

But you needn't take a series of prerequisite classes to gain access to the tools in a makerspace, although they do typically offer instruction and help with the equipment to those who are interested. Classes in makerspaces are casual and usually not-for-credit -- and this offers lots of possibilities too, particularly when it comes to something like learning to code or learning to solder -- skills that students might not have the confidence or opportunity to pursue otherwise.

A makerspace is a safe place to learn.

And unlike the sorts of scripted experiments that often happen in the undergraduate science lab -- look at this slide, identify this rock, add this chemical, measure this arc, and so on -- the experimentation in the makerspace is inquiry-based. It is learner-driven. It is cross-disciplinary and as such undisciplined in the best possible way.

The flourishing Maker Movement shows us that people are hungry for this. We want to play and build and hack and make. Of course we do. We're human.

Informal learning opportunities are widely available -- "you can learn anything you want to online" as the adage goes. And in many ways, these opportunities are a lot more attractive than the formal ones, which at colleges at least can cost a lot of money and often come with a slew of requirements and mandatory assignments. You must study this then this then this to pass the class, to fulfill your major, and so on.

But making can happen at any level with any materials. Caine's Arcade -- a an elaborate cardboard arcade built by a 9 year old in his dad's auto-parts store -- is a brilliant example of what you can do with some cardboard and a rich imagination. 

And this isn't just for 9 year olds. From a blog post from Tim Owens' freshmen seminar Makerbots and Mashups at the University of Mary Washingotn, the following:

"Signing up for my freshman seminar class I had no idea what “Mashups and Markerbots” would entail. All I knew was that I needed another class on Tuesdays and Thursdays sometime after 3:15. Imagine my surprise when I found out that the class title with a typo really meant something cooler: 3D printing. Now imagine my even greater surprise to find out the second day that we were to make something out of cardboard. Yes, there were very few directions for this first assignment. Just make something out of cardboard… and it has to move.

Most people started working on their “cardboard automata” by looking at well made ones online and then drawing out exactly what the box would do, how the box would do it, and what the box would look like. I, on the other hand, decided to start making the box without a single idea in my mind.

The first parts I made were gears. I figured I could probably figure out a use for them while cutting them out. After they were made I attached them to wooden rods and put them together to see how they’d work.

After about 10 minutes of playing around with them to see how I could incorporate them into the box, I decided to trash the idea all together and go for new idea."

I'd say that's a fairly big lesson on planning and prototyping for day 2 of your freshman year in college -- a lesson learned via cardboard. A lesson learned via making

Let me repeat something I said at the beginning of this talk: "ed-tech, so one argument goes, will make education more efficient, more scalable, more personalized. It will liberate students from those terrible large lecture halls… by videotaping the lectures and putting them on the Internet." 

The ed-tech that fuels makerspaces does something different. It recognizes that learning is messy. It recognizes that small and local still matters. And unlike the adaptive learning software tool, this isn't "personalized" learning as a marketing message. This is personal learning. And yes, sure, by all means, a makerspace can provide an alternative to those large lecture halls -- not via the Internet, but on the campus itself.

What does it mean to create an informal learning space on a college campus? Are the Maker culture and academia even compatible? An interesting question, I'd say, to which I'd respond they may be more compatible than markets and academia.

Regardless: What sort of institutional support will students need -- if any -- to participate in makerspaces? How can we make sure everyone feels welcome? Will some students only want to "make" for a grade or for credit? Does having "making" as a course requirement impact students' willingness to experiment? Does the college campus itself alter the making? Perhaps.

But perhaps too, by bringing makerspaces to college campuses, the influence will flow the other way. The Maker Movement can help shift the academic landscape away from a teacher-focused endeavor to a more learner-centered one. It can prompt us to rethink our assignments. It can prompt us to evolve our expectations of what college students can do.

With makerspaces on campuses we will see more experimentation, and I think too more risk-taking, more iteration. We will see more cross-disciplinary interactions -- the 3D printer is the new water cooler. More sharing. More relevant, more technical projects. 

And most importantly here, these technologies are in the hands of the learner. Makerspaces mean that students are not the objects of technology, they're the subjects. They have agency in a makerspace. They are not the consumers of technology, they are creators. They are makers and builders and thinkers.

And really isn't that what we want all learners to be?

Photo credits: Tim Owens. Disclosure: my travel and accomodations to the ELI Annual Meeting were paid by Educause.



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