Makerspaces and Learning Places: Challenging the Status Quo

By Helen Keegan,


Makerspaces are part of a broader cultural trend around DIY culture where tinkering, creating and collaboration take place in informal cross-disciplinary spaces. Makerspaces (also known as ‘hackspaces’) are underpinned by constructivist pedagogies, as participants are able to learn together through hands-on experimentation. There is something inherently playful about the makerspace: the lack of formality and the celebration of ‘mess’, tinkering, and experimenting. While such spaces have always been a feature of arts-based education, the tech-led maker-culture infused hackspaces of recent times have tended to be fringe communities: subcultures characterized by a DIY ethos and setting themselves apart from the mainstream.


But “the times they are a-changing”. Such spaces and approaches are increasingly being fetishised and co-opted into formal learning settings beyond the art studio. (Notables such as MIT MediaLab, of course, have always used cross-disciplinary spaces for experimentation and innovation.) Alongside the growth of makerspace-type practices that have emerged from tech/arts communities, many practitioners in higher education are also embracing ‘design thinking’. The ‘design sprint’ is seen as an efficient and agile approach, particularly for 21st-century skills development, for which innovation and entrepreneurial thinking are highly prized. Design sprints are also gaining traction as a tool for administrators and educators to carry out intensive curriculum and course design in a time-poor, heavily bureaucratized environment.


There’s an inherent contradiction between the solutionism of efficiency practices such as Google-influenced design sprints, in which innovation, iteration, and rapid prototyping are seen as the key to productivity, versus the scholarly tradition that is steeped in depth, rigour, and careful, considered critique, which are usually characteristics of intellectualism and scholarship. This is a significant cultural shift: education for enlightenment (then) versus education for employment (now).


The neoliberal university is businesslike in every way. The general shift towards flexible and collaborative working is reflected by the design of (learning and working) spaces. Both corporate environments and educational institutions are becoming more playful in their design. Brightly coloured, movable furniture and hot-desking in open-play customisable spaces are close relations to the stereotypical and much-maligned Silicon Valley start-ups and tech companies with their fixies, ball pools, and frogurt on tap.


Although undoubtedly informed by research into learning-space design, the modern university campus is also a reflection of the consumer culture in higher education, in which students are paying a hefty price for their university experience. In the race to attract customers (a.k.a. students), campuses are coalescing into a new homogenous style: open-plan, hot-desking, flexible, mobile, customisable, and collaborative spaces. Yesterday’s innovation is today’s status quo.


So what’s the effect of these shiny new campus buildings with their swanky taps and funky workspaces? As the influence of a tech industry predicated on innovation and disruption bleeds into HEIs (I’m a case-in-point, being a ‘Principal Innovation Lead’ in the ‘Disruptive Media Learning Lab’), there are contradictions between radical methods and funky spaces and a consumer culture where quality-assurance processes and standardisation are designed to mitigate risk, and university rankings lead to risk-aversion. Innovation, however, is to take risks.


Like it or not, most learners are driven by assessment. Fee-paying students don’t want to have their education disrupted. They’re paying X amount a year, and they want to get a good degree and gainful employment.


From my perspective, I don’t want my students to be slaves to the system. I want them to be self-directed, to move beyond assessment, to feel comfortable with not knowing the outcome, and to have transformative experiences that go beyond the educational logic of aims/objectives/outcomes. I want them to rediscover a love of learning and of making, tinkering, and participating beyond the Taylorised beauty of the university campus. For me, a successful university experience will result in a quantum leap in the sense of self, resilience, agency, and the confidence to challenge the status quo.


So to what extent do the physical spaces of formal education institutions condition learners into ways of being, of operating effectively within the system? Is it really the conductivity of the space to getting a good degree that’s important, or what the space inspires in us? Should the physical university remain rigid in its structure (movable furniture notwithstanding), or is there a place for alternative spaces for learning, spaces that are ephemeral, unique, and less corporate?


These questions are not new; in fact, alternative spaces for learning have been explored by progressive educators for decades. Notable examples include the free-flowing community of Black Mountain College in the 30s-50s, through to today’s The New School (NY); from Montessori to Reggio Emillia to Steiner-Waldorf schooling; examples of ‘alternative’ spaces abound, albeit with their fair share of controversies. It is interesting to note the rise in home schooling in the UK as a direct result of the rigid curricula and standardised testing regimes in schools, while some employees of Google, Apple, and Yahoo are sending their children to a Waldorf school – where there is no tech in sight.


Imagination, creativity, exploring, tinkering, making, experimenting, risking, breaking, Makerspaces, Fablabs … while maker culture has rightly been criticised for valuing making at the expense of analysis, critique, and NOT being a maker, there is still much to be gained from embracing these hands-on, freeform practices. These shouldn’t be confined to early years schooling or DIY subcultures. These are practices that don’t necessarily lend themselves to measurement, categorisation, and ranking – but it doesn’t mean we should let them slip by the wayside in higher education.


So, this is why, in 2017 I’ll be experimenting with mobile learning spaces. Primarily in a big yellow American school bus, complemented by a pop-up space; this will be an experiment in connected courses. We’ll be visiting campuses in the UK, parking up, and seeing what happens. Think Merry Pranksters-meets-Fablab. We’re reimagining learning into a hybrid space that is part open course, part design sprint, part makerspace. This is about reconnecting HE and its contexts, reconnecting students and their broader communities. We want to see what happens when we create OERs, along with a structure that can be anything from a two-hour workshop to a six-week course. It’s relatively informal, highly collaborative, probably messy, and we don’t know if it’s going to work.


At the OEB Midsummit, I’ll be keen to learn more about other people’s experiences and experiments in hybrid offerings that are neither campus nor course. I’ll also be able to report back on our first Big Yellow Bus tour – heck, I might even bring it along

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