Tag Archives: Education

Technology is a demanding lover


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.

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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.


		
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Purpose before tech or vice versa?

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.

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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.

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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:

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Learning through Making?

‘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.

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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.

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Wearable challenges

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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We’ll share more creations and wearable outputs at a later date.

What’s Maker Education?

‘Making’ is a very popular topic these days. There is plenty of information available on the web so I will just give a few pointers as a form of introduction.

Digital making is the process of creating a product or output. Although it is often associated with software programming, it can also involve modifying, adapting and personalising existing digital or physical tools to make something relatively new or original. According to its many advocates, it’s as much underpinned by technical skills as by the ability to work together, solve problems creatively, and think critically about technologies and what can be accomplished through them.

All of the above applies to digital ‘fabrication’ which, however, also has a distinctive emphasis on the increasing availability of ‘output devices’ such as laser and 3D printers which, although still rather expensive, are beginning to ‘democratise‘ sophisticated design practices. The notion of fabrication as an educational process originated in the US, with some high profile developments like the ‘FabLabs’ (Fabrication Laboratories). For some, fabrication represents the ‘superior’ form of making – especially in formal school settings – as fabricated objects easily become ornamental displays that turn classrooms in creative studios or science museums. By contrast, purely digital artefacts don’t have this power as they exist solely within the confines of a computer screen.

These ideas have been steadily gaining popularity over the last few years. Unsurprisingly, they have been become part of the global ‘STEM deficit’ narrative and have informed policies and programmes to foster ‘innovation skills’ and computational expertise, especially among ‘underrepresented’ groups such as young girls. The number of digital making/coding/fabrication initiatives is mindboggling with state departments, ministries, and large tech corporations the world over sponsoring campaigns, projects and competitions.  Some of these ironically missing the point and unwittingly touting the same gender stereotypes they set out to challenge – see the recent IBM campaign inviting women to #HackAHairDryer.

In some important ways, the movement is the ‘computational’ rehash of traditional tinkering and crafting practices, which have interesting histories of their own largely tied, again, to shifts in gender roles and the growth of disposable time for interest-driven activities. An equally important factor is now established recognition that important differences exist between technological literacy (a general set of skills and intellectual dispositions for all citizens) and technical competence (in-depth knowledge that professional engineers and scientists need to know to perform their work).

A recent review made an attempt to group the Maker Movement into three categories – which in fact overlap significantly but are a good way to start teasing out some interesting aspects for our own project: making as entrepreneurship and/or community creativity, making as STEM pipeline and workforce development, and making as inquiry-based educative practice. Some also praise maker culture as the sign of a growing interdisciplinary attitude to skills development, whereby STEAM (i.e. STEM with addition of Arts) seems to offer a more inclusive and less threatening framing for the development of educational curricula and ‘cool geek’ identities.

In the UK, the maker movement has been largely assimilated in the various ‘learning to code’ initiatives launched after significant changes in the ‘computing’ curriculum in English schools. Some thought provoking accounts of the entanglement of interests and forms of governance surrounding the computational turn in UK education are available.