PCWorld columnist Phil Shapiro begins a recent article on the Maker Movement by stating "As the unemployment crisis continues month after month, I’m tempted to climb to the roof of my house and yell at the top of my lungs, ‘The maker movement creates jobs.’" What he focuses on in this piece is a subset of the Maker Movement which involves computer programming and media production. He points out that circumstances akin to what you find in any Maker Movement inspired "hackerspace" are what led to the creation of the PC back in the 1970s. Shapiro goes on to discuss the types of work happening in these spaces – robotics, programming, computer repair, community-based video production, and 3D printing – all relying on a peer to peer learning model that strengthens community bonds while it educates.
In my own recent post on Education Unbound looking at the Maker Movement’s potential for education, I concluded that the general concept of students engaging in production with heavy machinery had many benefits, but also entailed significant risk that many schools and parents might not be willing to embrace. However, thinking about the hackerspace aspect of the Maker Movement inspires an entirely new way of thinking about how this grassroots idea could be an excellent fit for a game-based education model.
The Gamification Movement
Game-based learning (GBL) or gamification, as it is sometime known, represents a variety of theoretical ways for introducing games, game play, or game design into a school curriculum, most often through electronic video games. The primary benefits of GBL are that it is engaging, user-centered, authentic, inspires creativity, and promotes literacy in many different ways. When considering the Maker Movement and GBL the most natural alignment is to have students designing or making games.
Game design and production is an excellent academic endeavor because it has the potential to engage students in a wide variety of activities that can support the development of many valuable skills. Designing and developing a game requires planning and research, teamwork, technical skills, computer literacy, imagination, and creativity. A well-supported design project can help students develop all of these skills will simultaneously enhancing knowledge of any subject. The Maker Movement already supports interactions that would meet these objectives.
Gamifying the Maker Movement
To a large extent, those working in hackerspaces supported by the Maker Movement are already well on their way to creating games. In many instances they are using the tools, knowledge, and skills needed to develop games. Some of those working in these spaces are probably creating their own games as you read this. Making games is a natural extension of the movement.
There is a wealth of free or inexpensive tools already available for those interested in producing their own digital video games. From simple drag-and-drop interfaces like Microsoft’s Kodu platform to more sophisticated software like Game Maker, Phlogram, Multimedia Fusion, and Torque, or free 3D modeling programs like Sculptris, there are vast resources and support networks available for those interested in creating games. All someone needs is a computer, Internet connection, interest, and a support network – that’s where schools provide a great fit for gamifying the Maker Movement and Maker Movementifying education at the same time.
Supporting GBL with the Maker Movement
So what would an education-based hackerspace look like? How can education support the Maker Movement, particularly as it pertains to the creation of digital media and video games?
The first difference between hackerspaces and traditional classrooms is in the fundamental purpose underlying each. In a hackerspace the idea is to play, experiment, explore, pursue interests, and see where these things take you. There is no predetermined outcome or formal assessment. Education, in sharp contrast relies heavily on a formal order, planned progress, and standardized assessment of "success." Really, these two models could not be further apart on a pedagogical level. Bringing the two into alignment would ideally require a rethinking of what education is and should be. Providing students with a bunch of computers and cutting edge software and saying "knock yourselves out" probably isn’t going to hold a lot of water with administrators, parents, or politicians in the age of quantifiable skills and accountability.
That does not mean that it shouldn’t happen. Our education system needs to change, and a move to a technology-centric curricular model is one very real way in which we could improve the system. Incorporating the Maker Movement concept within that change would allow for an acceptance of the unstructured education model that a hackerspace is ideal at supporting. If we can switch to a education in which what, when, and how people learn are variables rather than constants, there is a real possibility for an integration of DIY-type learning into the school system.
In keeping with reality however, a more direct way to support the Maker Movement in education is to establish hackerspaces affiliated with schools that can be accessed by students either during school as part of classes or after school. During school access would require flexibility on the part of teachers – but this also lends itself to a more traditional, structured curricular approach. Students can be provided with the tools and given general guidance, but also be allowed to explore within those parameters. This is a model similar to the one employed at Quest to Learn, a game and game design-based charter school in New York.
The after school model looks a lot like the Chicago Digital Youth Network which was featured on PBS’ Digital Media:
In this model, children are provided with a wide array of tools and given the freedom to explore them in pursuit of their individual interests.
While a model that combines a school-based individualized pursuit of creative possibilities may not be in our immediate future, there is still hope that the Maker Movement and hackerspaces can be an inspiration for educational reformers to begin embracing the potential of GBL and DIY learning inside and outside of the classroom. According to Shapiro, Bill Gates and other billionaire innovators would be crazy not to get behind such an initiative. It would seem only logical in a capitalist, innovation-driven economy that entrepreneurs like Gates would want to take advantage of every possible avenue for expanding our pool of creative talented, experienced, innovative thinkers. Getting students producing games and digital media benefits them and has the potential to make a big difference to our ability to compete in the global economy.
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