Exploring the interface between culture, technology and experience: a critical perspective on digital making in education.
Digital fabrication is largely predicated on the aim of democratising inventive and creative practices that were previously available only to experts. However, one might say that there is a degree of naivety in the way the notions of ‘creative practice’ and ‘innovation process’ get conflated in the language of making and fabrication.
Creativity is one of the most researched and contentious topics in educational research, and significant uncertainty still surrounds its constitutive elements and its manifestations: does it take unique forms specific to areas of artistic expression and professional practice, or is it a general trait that shifts and adapts according to situational and educational demands?
The debate seems to have partly settled over the last decade, and the current consensus is that whether creativity is domain-dependent or domain-general does not matter: pragmatic educational approaches must take into account that creative behaviours exhibit both context-free and context-dependent aspects.
Even so, an additional layer of complexity is added to the discussion when the languages of creativity and technological innovation get mixed up – there are certainly overlaps, but important distinctions need to be fleshed out and explored further if we are to improve our understanding of ‘making’, viewed less as a novel phenomenon than the 21st century reframing of traditional themes at the intersection of education, techno-romanticism and economic calculation.
The three factors/themes at play are as follows:
- The economic and socio-cultural revival of ‘tinkering’: something that harks back to hobbyist cultures in the US and Europe, which have been in recent years ‘reframed’ as economically and educationally relevant activities.
- The liberating potential of technologies, which for a few years now have been strongly associated with grassroots creative practices, first in exclusively digital settings, and now spilling over into real, situated contexts thanks to the growing availability and affordability of development tools and ‘rapid prototyping’ devices (e.g. 3D printers).
- The ‘silicon valley’ entrepreneurial myth of technological proficiency, pioneering spirit and unbridled, unconventional creativity.
These three factors have very much shaped the current digital making ‘discourse’- a discourse which, speaking as a social scientist, feels unsatisfactory both from an educational theory perspective and a technology studies one.
In particular, I feel that the mainstream rhetoric fails to adequately reflect the fraught and deeply social process that from ‘creative ideas’ leads to prototypes and inventions.
My argument is that the socio-technical nature of how design processes move from intangibles to ‘artefacts’ must be examined more closely if we are to develop a more informed notion of making in formal education – including a balanced discussion about its very possibility. Although the literature on making emphasises notions like iteration, debugging and the need to overcome repeated failures, these aspects are always ‘individualised’, that is, reduced to ‘skills’ or aspects of individual character that ‘young innovators’ need to develop. While this is certainly the case (to an extent), there are other equally important aspects missing in the digital making narrative.
Making as a ‘sociomaterial’ phenomenon
The famous philosopher and sociologist of science Bruno Latour has something very interesting to say about technological innovation. He describes technologies as (quite literally), high maintenance lovers that require full, uninterrupted attention and a great deal of propping up, encouragement and cheerleading.
Perhaps, this notion of ‘technological love’ can help us make more sense of the making practices emerging at the crossroads of formal and informal education. Latour’s starting assumption (shared to a greater or lesser degree by others interested in the ‘social shaping’ of technology) is that – historically and sociologically – humans, society and objects (artefacts, machines, etc.) have developed together to form tangled-up, multi-layered networks which evolve, adapt, change and, more often than not, die.
Neither the nature of a ‘novel’ technology, nor the role of social factors on their own determine an innovation’s fate: whether it is successful or gradually withers out. It’s rather the overlapping negotiations across all elements that constitute a network that may or may not cause the much desired transition of innovations from a state of indeterminacy to one where they begin to actually ‘exist’.
This approach assumes that reality is ‘co-constructed’ and reflects in equal measure the influence of social and material factors. It was used, for example, to describe the historical and technological trajectory that led to the bicycle, as it evolved from earlier versions (i.e. various iterations of the penny farthing) to the artefact we know today, through a process of negotiation, influencing and, indeed, ‘discoursing’.
Rather than being the work of ‘invention’, technological progress requires a commitment to a tireless process through which innovators must mobilise opinions, recruit each other and generate interest. With a modicum of tongue in cheek, Latour suggests that such a totalising commitment can only be described as a form of love: so is there never any respite? Can’t the work of creating interest ever be suspended? Can’t things be allowed just to go along on their own? Isn’t there a day of rest, after all, for innovators? No: for technologies, every day is a working day (…) the innovator’s work is very complicated. Not only does she have to fight on those two fronts, dealing with supports that are removed and parasites that are added; not only does she have to weave humans and nonhumans together by imposing the politest possible behaviour on both; not only does she have to attach nonhumans together; but also she has to know who, among the engineers, executives, and manufacturers speaks for the good actors that need to be taken into account. Should the managing director order a market study – which would speak in the name of consumers – when his technical department is declaring that the project is not technologically feasible without a revolution in microprocessors?
In our own Maker Ed project I observed something remarkably similar, although at a much smaller scale. The process of working with students from a vague design idea to an output of some description was as much based on a playful engagement with tools and hackable devices, as on the constant need to generate interest and secure localised forms of ‘micro-sponsorship’, whilst maintaining high levels of engagement and motivation.
The truly interesting thing – and possibly a valuable contribution of our project to the general understanding of these practices – was the distributed and multidirectional nature of this process.
On the one hand, we encouraged students to inject personal motivations and interests in their designs; we asked them to convince us and their peers that their ideas were interesting and worth pursuing; and we invited them to go online to seek validation and advice from various online communities of makers.
On the other hand, we were doing something very similar in our own relations with schools, teachers, our employers and external funders. Laboriously rekindling interest among actors while trying to secure sponsorship for the project and convincing our interlocutors that this was a worthwhile effort which would generate impact.
It was precisely at the juncture points of all these networked relations and performances that the ‘creative’ process was taking place, not in the heads of students – although the educational value of their engagements with technology is beyond doubt.
It is also undeniable that some of the creative outcomes that emerged from this process were more successful than others – by ‘success’ we mean the coming together of individual, technical and social factors that allowed some ideas to eventually ‘become real’, leaving behind the nebulous stage of sketching and ‘messing about’ (often accompanied by playful banter and mild forms of disruption- see pictures) and acquiring tangible connotations.
Whenever this happened, it led to those magical ‘eureka’ moments which were as uplifting for students as they were for us , as we were all equally implicated and invested in this miniature innovation process.
So, as we approach the end of the fieldwork with schools in Leeds I begin to see the ways in which a more theoretically informed definition of Maker Education can be articulated, beyond the myth of the inventor and the rhetoric of entrepreneurial creativity.
Above all, I think digital making and fabrication offer the opportunity to develop educational languages that can be used pragmatically to discuss technologies and innovation processes in a more critical fashion, even with younger students.
Fully accounting for the technical side of things (e.g. learning to code, or soldering, or 3D printing and whatnot) but also unpacking the messy, negotiated nature of sociotechnical phenomena.
Part of this ‘new’ language has to be a pedagogical impetus to (sometimes at least) go beyond ‘learning’, by engaging students in educational dialogues about the political/economic/cultural nature of innovation processes.
For instance inviting questions about biases, assumptions and exploring critically the formation of alliances and interest groups around ideas and artefacts – rather than focusing too narrowly on individual work and the linear assessment of skills and knowledge.
This post was initially published on August 14th 2014 on my personal blog – I am republishing. I think the post still makes some valid points relevant to “digital making”.
In 2013 the video gaming press reported the story of a young modder’s quest to break into the industry. You can find it here and here. The trajectory of this young, talented game developer from amateurism to professionalism is remarkable in a number of ways. His journey began, as it is often the case in the video games industry, with increasing degrees of involvement with official modding tools.
When the story broke Alexander (that’s his name) was 19 years old – but it all started much earlier as a passion-driven endeavour across several modding projects, fuelled by the desire to create something as compelling as the games he had enjoyed so much since an early age. The tale is reminiscent of so many others, except Alexander started making headlines when he turned to crowdfunding to finance what had become an ambitious job application. In this YouTube interview he recounts how his love for playing and creating role-playing games led to setting sights on Bethesda, developers of the immensely popular Elder Scrolls games. He came to an agreement with his parents– this is when things get interesting –to not apply to university and rather dedicate himself fully to his project, which over two years evolved into a fully-fledged game expansion enlisting the efforts of other contributors, including 29 amateur voice actors. The crowdfunding campaign was launched when Alex realised he needed further help to fund a trip to Washington DC, so that he could meet his heroes at Bethesda and convince them he had the skills and the drive to join them.
The tale has a happy ending, although Alexander landed a job not at Bethesda as he had originally hoped, but at the equally prestigious Bungie Studies – creators of the Halo franchise – to work on the upcoming, eagerly anticipated Destiny.
I find this anecdote remarkable because it illuminates – the way only real stories do – a lot of the assumptions and values that can be found – often in an implicit guise – in the area of “digital making”.
In the first place, it effectively conveys the significance of gaming subcultures and practices in providing a template for the field of digital making. The playful and “gameful” nature of digital making has been noted before, but I think it’s worth remembering that since the digital age of the dinosaurs (the early 90s) video games blazed many trails at the intersection of digital technology, the economy and media literacy: the evolution of shareware alongside the open source movement, the rise of geographically distributed groups of hackers developing “demos” and modifications– a lot emerged from the primordial broth of gaming that contributed to the digital landscape as we know it. The video game industry is also unique in that it’s the only one where private, IP-owning developers release modding tools and free assets alongside their official products. The phenomenon has grown to the point that community involvement has become a fully-fledged business strategy. Take the enormously successful Valve, which nurtures (and profits from) a culture of community-orientated development, data-intensive research and crowdsourcing, or the amazing case study that is Minecraft.
Secondly, it highlights the tension between externally prescribed educational expectations and informal, internally sanctioned labour. The story shows how individual ambition demanded the interruption of the “conventional” academic path (from school to higher education) in order to be fully realised. Here we have a situation where tangible evidence of productivity – i.e. proof that one can already produce outputs of professional standard – takes priority over evidence of learning – i.e. qualifications and other educational achievements. It appears that competition for jobs in the games industry (and the in the high-tech creative industries in general) is so fierce that the imperative to “stand out from the crowd” translates in a celebration of precocious professionalism and productivity. While I don’t believe this celebration is a problem per se, I see it as symptomatic of a broader shift in the nature and function of childhood and youth (more on this later).
Thirdly, the story draws attention to the accessible and friendly nature of modding toolkits. The striking thing about such tools is that they are simplified versions of those used by the original developers. These are technologies designed to provide fast-tracked access to industry-grade resources, while remaining accessible and user-friendly to novices, who in most cases are young people lacking the specialist background in programming or computer science.
Childhood, youth, education, labour and technology: are we oversimplifying things?
In his book Between Reason and Experience the philosopher of technology Andrew Feenberg describes how the struggle over child labour developed in Victorian intellectual circles during the 19th century. His critique focuses in particular on the deterministic arguments that were made against any form of regulation. Influential and vocal sections of the Victorian establishment brandished economic and technological imperatives to justify the continued employment of children (and women). A common trope of the time was that the very nature of industrial machines was such that many tasks were better accomplished by workers with short limbs and small hands. Any interference with this “objective” state of affairs was bound to have dire economic consequences, such as productivity slumps, bankruptcy, unemployment and ensuing social tragedies.
Feenberg effectively turns this techno-deterministic argument on its head by showing how Victorian industrial machinery wasn’t inevitably bound up with child labour by some kind of unexplained necessity. Rather, those machines had been often designed from the ground up to be operated by small people, as the famous picture “Girl Worker in Carolina Cotton Mill” (also featured on the cover of Feenberg’s book – see below) clearly illustrates. From this observation Feenberg derives a crucial conceptual point: “technological development is not determining for society but is overdetermined by both technical and social factors”.
As we know, child labour was eventually abolished in most Western economies as new machines emerged which didn’t require children to be operated, and a consensus coalesced around notions of childhood as a period of innocence, leisure and unproductive learning that required a mix of moral safeguarding and compulsory instruction – a consensus which, to a degree, has endured into the present. Here’s what Feenberg has to say on the matter:
“A vast historical process unfolded, partly stimulated by the ideological debate over how children should be raised and partly economic. It led eventually to the current situation in which nobody dreams of returning to cheap labor in order to cut costs, at least not in the developed countries”. (p13) (…) today we see children as consumers, not as producers. Their function is to learn, insofar as they have any function at all, and not earn a living. This change in the definition of childhood is the essential advance brought about by the regulation of labour” (p.39)
Feenberg’s outlook is very sociological, especially in the claim that the meaning of childhood – and of the technologies that in different times become “entangled” with it – are not fixed but socially contested and shifting (“overdetermined”).
Going back to my introduction and the following brief analysis, I think Feenberg’s non-deterministic argument can be safely re-deployed to suggest that a range of socio-technical and economic factors have been at work over the last two or three decades to alter once more our understanding of childhood, youth and labour. Digital making, and the subdomain of game development and modding in particular, are for me the main arenas where those meanings are being challenged and contested, and where new values are rapidly coalescing into a widespread, global consensus.
Today’s child as productive, self-motivated, digitally literate worker is obviously not comparable with the uneducated, impoverished and ill-treated Victorian child labourer. Somebody may provokingly suggest that digital technologies are often designed to be “child friendly” and to be operated effectively and productively by inexperienced young users, in a way that uncannily resembles the cotton mills in 19th century factories. But things are infinitely more complex than that, and we should avoid jumping to simplistic and hysterical conclusions.
It seems to me that one amalgamation of factors in particular can act as a conceptual lens through which the latest “assemblage” of childhood, technology and economic imperatives can begin to be understood. This conceptual mixture is the typically post-industrial and post-modern blend of leisure and work. In his study of hobbies in American culture from the mid-nineteenth century, Steven Gelber notes that the boom in leisure activities went hand in hand with the diffusion across all swaths of society of capitalist, self-driven work ethic.
“For a leisure activity to be a hobby it must, above all, be productive. Like work itself, hobbies generate a product and therefore hobbyists have something to show for their time, it has not been wasted. Even if they never even think of selling the products of their leisure, hobbyists know they have economic value, and that knowledge ties their free time to the ideals of the market economy” (p.295)
So, it’s time to summarise things in the attempt to clarify my own thinking and derive one or two points for future consideration.
To begin with, it seems clear that the increasing celebration of precocious productivity and professionalism in the contiguous fields of digital literacy and digital making needs to be seen in the context of a crisis of “traditional” child-centred, educational values. The implications of this crisis are not fully clear to me (and I suspect to many others as well). Our “developed” societies used to place children and young people in a protected (and protracted) state of moratorium, during which they could learn without being productive and explore different identities before choosing a suitable path. This is still true to an extent but is being increasingly challenged and contested.
These challenges and contestations tend to gravitate around two opposite positions, which are ideologically at odds while sharing a common set of epistemological assumptions: the neoliberal position and the collectivist/democratic one. Are children and young people willingly and enthusiastically subjecting themselves to the logic of capitalist exploitation, having fully internalised and accepted the principles of self-entrepreneurship and constant “productivity”? Or are they appropriating and altering those very principles in highly diverse and unexpected ways, thus contributing to pluralism and hybridising the democratic discourse?
Hence the dilemma: do we celebrate the encroachment of neoliberal values on all aspects of life, including the half-formed subjectivities of children and young people; or do we subscribe to the narrative of individual-meets-collective through networked participation and precocious technological expertise?
For me, the main challenge when trying to make sense of new literacies and practices associated with digital technologies is to acknowledge- and possible move beyond- the above oversimplifications.
End of part 2
As the project has looked at the impact of making on learning with this group, I’ve shared innovative examples to try to inspire through the planning, thoughts and decision making stages to support students’ own innovations.
Threaded into inputs about design and process have been ideas to extend making opportunities and draw out comparisons and thoughts about a maker’s propensity to be creative and what that can look like.
Interestingly, for some students, this correlated to maker projects with perceived ‘high tech’ physical computing devices incorporated such as Raspberry Pi. Conversations and discussion around complexity and purpose with such examples even gave a “Woah, that’s proper tech” from one interested student (for research purposes I’ve kept to the local language colloquialisms used!)
Complexity in this case, through possible projects with an Internet of Things focus, impacted on particular students’ engagement and interests with such tools as the touchscreen and sensors as inputs/outputs.
Talking through a Retro Pie project also generated enthusiasm for some too; particularly from the gamers amongst the group. Through guided questioning they started to use the project idea to differentiate purpose and assimilate how inputs can radically change a design plan and outcome combinations.
What followed were fascinating insights into perceptions of the tech element of digital making and how students can become engaged with the addition of wider learning possibilities. For some, it was an indication that their engagement levels increased when consolidating knowledge and skills from across the curriculum.
Taking an interest built up from a technology discipline in school for example, or at home, saw one of the students keen to create a project using crochet. Designing an adornment through textiles was already familiar to her, but then adding a wearable tech component gave the chance to consider broader purposes and more perceived ambitious outcomes.
For another student then the thread of a ‘tech for good’ project saw her sketching ideas to take wearables into the feline market. That approach was definitely with a purpose of pet protection and collar design came before actual functionality. It was through the iterative design stages on paper before second stage decisions with tech became clear, and during the prototype stages she seemed to enjoy tinkering with the code online rather than committing to an initial written plan.
Throughout the term we’ve observed examples of personalised and collaborative student approaches in this school’s maker environment. For me, some have been compelling as reinforcement to the ideas that digital making can be self-differentiating and inclusive.
For this post I wanted to consider the students’ perceptions of creativity potential through digital making; particularly with tech and how that was incorporated into their designs.
Of course impact on learning is paramount and over time we saw a realisation that process can be more important than outcome. Sketches sometimes became a stimulus to build on progression of ideas and programming.
Using Codebug as a physical computing device, to design a wearable tech piece, supported differentiation and progression capabilities. The starting point as a communication tool, to write a scrolling message through remixing shared code, gave everyone the chance to download a functional algorithm.
Sketching then gave some students the impetus to consider complexity and progression, particularly to visualise feasibility for inputs and outputs, and for some this approach was new; something more akin to art. That’s also where the progression routes with other physical computing devices and craft circuits came to the forefront with project possibilities.
What struck me during the final workshop was the expectation from the students that they each had unique designs but could collaborate to learn from each other. Perhaps also that self-guiding roles in a practical environment seemed informal?
And sketches. Sketches evidencing progression of ideas and adding the potential for further creative and tech elements.
How did the last session end?
With a commitment from the school to continue to provide opportunities for this group of students in their makerspace. Next term they’ll be working on new wearable tech projects with the same Codebug devices; either as one team or through two very distinct projects.
And sketches; that’s how the session finished. Maybe the final week of term had planted a festive seed of imagination and creativity, but could wearable technology have a Yuletide theme?
Here’s how one of the students explored his own question through designs; as yet, unfinished:
Our research focuses on the impact of ‘MakerEd’ on the formal curriculum, but as an educator I’ve wanted to incorporate tools and chances for students to recognise opportunities outside of school which can also impact on their learning.
Opportunities, perhaps, to offer collaborations which support progression of learning or meeting role models. In Leeds there’s an ever growing maker and digital creator community which can be accessed by these 12-14 year old students (sometimes with family members) and for which we share upcoming events.
Inspiration and programmes from the tech and craft/maker communities are examples and some students have shared times of family learning and intergenerational conversations and discussion of ideas.
Project ideas, plans, designs, personal notes and evaluations have been uploaded by students using the SeeSaw App tool.
For some, and definitely not all, this has given the chance to continue with their designs and reflections beyond school and share with family members or peers.
Extended learning opportunities also emerged for some students when new resources and tools were added to project possibilities.
Examples with the Jumping Clay air-dry modelling resource or adding ‘more tech’ such as using Codebug with a Raspberry Pi mini-computer were engaging factors for the group; moreover different inspirations for different students’ interests. For those intending to use their wearable device outdoors and to be secure, then introducing Sugru as a Maker tool helped to develop ideas – particularly those with a cycling focus.
Still with a wearable tech focus, additional ‘low tech or no tech’ tools extended creative ideas and discussions about Art or Textile projects becoming STEAM or e-Textile activities. In turn that became conducive to exploring MakerEd in the formal curriculum; wherever the students think that may be.
‘Making’ a start in school
We’ve facilitated MakerEd workshops in our first school this half-term and, recognising teacher observations and students’ preferred learning methods during the project, made tweaks and changes along the way. Some planned and others less predicted; I’ll explain through later posts!
From the onset my intention has been to use the school-based time to explore what maker education means to the students by ‘doing and making’.
These sessions have been practical and group sizes of less than 10 students have also given more collaborative opportunities which weren’t planned right at the beginning; ideas generated beyond initial individual projects and paired activities and later developed through the wider group.
Students’ understanding of ‘Maker’?
It was apparent from day one that ‘Maker’ and ‘MakerEd’ weren’t regularly used phrases and recognised by the whole group to describe the challenges we were launching.
Rather ‘digital making’ and ‘making stuff with tech’ seemed to resonate more with them and for which generated discussions around how, why and what learning opportunities could be possible with this approach; and also, of course, if any were.
Project tools and Maker resources
In what could’ve been a whistle-stop experience through Maker with these students (spoiler alert – perhaps that’s inference of continuity beyond the project?), resources were selected to facilitate problem-solving, creativity, computing and STEM challenges in an informal way but with inspirational and aspirational opportunities and capabilities.
Of course adding the ‘A’ from STEM to STEAM gave way to a starter to investigate process, design and iteration using electric paint.
That ignited thoughts on learning through making ‘creative’ or ‘art’ circuits, playful electronics and exploring conductors. Interestingly, this also lent itself to exploring Maker placement across subjects and the students’ perceptions of which curricula areas it ‘fits’ with.
Perhaps notable for some students was the realisation that tinkering can mean getting it right second time around and even not completely perfect after many iterations.
Informal approaches like this have been fantastic chances to explore during the research time, with their teachers, to observe students ‘making stuff’ and talking about their learning experiences.
Other resources in the project toolbox are intended to support progression of ideas and learning through physical computing devices. Touchboard and Arduino boards are available for students’ making projects, as are Raspberry Pi.
At times we’ve explored inputs and outputs, using example projects with these devices, as a way to explore maker language and understanding of concepts to support learning if students were seeking clarification. It’s also given opportunities to discuss skills used through MakerEd from across the curriculum and subject programmes of study; for some knowledge about electronics had come from Science, Textiles, Computing or D&T.
What became apparent with this first cohort of students and their teachers was the intrigue, interest and inventive opportunities around making a project using wearable tech and so they selected the Codebug device to explore.
And that’s the route that these students have taken. Their challenge has centred around a purpose, relevant to their own interests, for a wearable technology device to be used as an accessory outside of school.
Designing and prototyping using different materials has seen various iterations and final decisions. And for me the first rethink in activity choice when I’d planned with their teacher and confirmed we’d allocate a topic to assist with themed creations. That soon changed!
From the second workshop, after my initial input and overview, the students started to plan in their own way and style.
That sometimes became practically building code on the computer in creating an algorithm or sketching ideas onto paper. Some also preferred to model using craft resources and see a metamorphosis of their ideas as a prototype transformed with more tinkering.
Applications and designs?
There have been a range from the group and for some students a continuum of design themes and outputs; sometimes very different to their original and intended outcome. Wearable technology as a decorative adornment piece, a communication tool on a bike or a pet’s collar and wearable retro gaming machines were just some of their early ideas.
We’ll share more creations and wearable outputs at a later date.