Our Makerspace is, as with many schools, located in the room which used to house a computer lab. The transition from pull-out lab-based computing to immersive 1:1 environments has left a variety of spaces available to be used in creative ways. Schools looking to offer Maker and tinker-oriented programs (including robotics or other tech-based activities) can make a natural transition of that space by adding maker tech, and it even makes some logistical sense– these are rooms which are often designed to offer easy access to power and network outlets, and may have lockable storage for peripherals or laptops which can be repurposed for tools and supplies. But in the rush to revise the computer lab, have we recreated “The Computer Lab?” At the Independent Schools Educators’ Network dinner at ISTE 2014, I spent some time chatting with Kelsey Vrooman of the Urban School and Bill Selak, now at Hillbrook, about this very question.
I believe that the most important reason for 1:1 computing in schools is context: students using computers in Language Arts creates a context of use for the computer which places it within that discipline. The message of this style of use is clear: you have a variety of tools that you use to discover, experience and demonstrate the discipline of Language Arts– your computing device is one of them. The computer lab model decontextualized technology use by creating an abstract space, time and skill set for computing use, and we have abandoned that model because it no longer fits with our view of technology an integrated, immersive, just-in-time resource.
The goal of adding a Makerspace is either implicitly or explicitly expressive of some of the same desires and goals of 1:1 computing– “soft” skills or ideals such as creativity, collaboration, problem-solving and authentic work, or concrete curricular goals such as STE(A)M or 21st Century Computing/Technology Skills. As we asked with 1:1 computing, we should ask the same ideological questions about the location or environment of a Makerspace: pull-out, or push-in? Standalone, or immersive? Remote, or classroom-based?
Seymour Papert described the computer lab through the lens of systems and schools in “The Children’s Machine” by calling the lab a school’s attempt to control and homogenize a resource that it didn’t know how to adopt. The lab, he argues, is a construct borne of the school system’s need to clearly delineate expectations, input/output and “expertise” (in the form of a responsible teacher). Many of his observations about the “unknown” nature of tinkering-based learning hold just as true for the Makerspace as they do for computing. To be sure, there are logistical concerns which lead to a separate Maker space (just as, in the pre-mobile days, it wasn’t reasonable to put 1:1 device ratios in a classroom using only desktops): a Laser cutter has to be installed with specific air circulation needs, for example, and isn’t going to be rolled into a class on a period-by-period basis. That doesn’t mean, however, that many of the elements of the Makerspace can’t be mobile: materials, tools, (and more importantly:) skill sets and challenges can be pushed in to classes and contextualized just as we are now doing with 1:1.
We have reached a compromise on our campus of the personalization and contextualization of 1:1 computing for most needs, with specialized resource centers of computers for unique needs beyond that which a personal device may cover. Our publications classroom has specialized software and additional computing power for photo and image processing. The same goes for an art classroom. When Middle School students, armed with iPads, embarked on a MinecraftEDU project, we supported them with a collection of classroom laptops to run that software. The challenge in building our Makerspaces is to strike the same balance: what are Maker activities which require a specialized and purpose-built space, and which deserve to be pushed-in and integrated into class contexts?