teach, Work

The Maker Space is the new Computer Lab

The first time I worked in a K12 school was in 2001. Until then I had occupied a post that oversaw technology strategy and support for educational partnerships across the continental United States, Puerto Rico and South Africa. I had no idea what I was in for in 2001 when I started working in a K12 private school. The main reason for me being in that position was to build a solid network and digital services infrastructure the school lacked. And I did.

After tackling designing and installing core networking services, along with wireless network access throughout a 16-acre campus; deploying desktops and laptops purchased directly from a single provider; and outfitting the different buildings with mobile laptop carts, I set my eyes on the educational aspect of my job. It was time to look at use and the value-to-learning of technology.

Something that quickly stood out to me was the number of tasks teachers must tend to, simultaneously. I was an opportunity for improvement where technology could contribute positively to teaching and learning. Nearing the end of my first academic year, computer labs because the focus of my attention.

It made little sense to me that teachers had to stop what they were doing, get kids organized, and bring them into a different room to work with digital tools to create and/or reinforce what was happening in the classroom. Within the second year of my new-found career I started to dismantle computer labs across campus. The upper school was the only place where a computer lab was left standing – albeit fitted with appropriate hardware – for the Computer Science program.

Philosophically, as well, it made little sense that as the world was becoming more and more digital, the adults in the building decided it was best to keep digital tools locked in a separate room. This was a private school with enough funding to consider a different perspective.

Now I think about how “maker spaces” are the new computer lab. Most school administrators I’ve visited in the past 7 years have been quick to point out their new and amazing maker space. Any campus visit I’ve made has included a walk to and through their maker space. It is reminiscent of campus visits in the early 2000’s.

Let’s think about this for a minute. A maker space is where students come to to work with hand tools; to learn about building materials and practices; and to receive specialized guidance in design using mathematical/engineering/architectural concepts they must understand before tackling whatever world problem they have identified that needs solving. And there is the design-thinking design cycle to follow. These things should not be the domain of a specific space but readily available/possible in any classroom. Most early childhood classrooms I’ve visited do not have a time-table for discussion and a separate one for making, and yet another for physical education. Most of these things take place during the day, at intervals the teacher deems necessary, and often in the same classroom and/or learning space. Why is making, then, separated and placed in a special room of its own, and often set separate from the rest of the learning in the timetable?

To remedy this itch, I am trying a new model. I no longer build maker spaces. Rather, I like to think of the entire campus as a maker environment, and of our teachers and learners as a maker community. To support such a community, I’ve focused on equipping our buildings with mobile tools, so they are in or come to the classroom as needed as opposed to the other way around. Hand tools are not heavy or large. 3D printers can be placed in a cabinet on wheels and are wireless/USB accessible for use. Materials can come and go as needed. Most robotics/electronic kits can be collected in “kit” mode and delivered/left in classrooms for students to have ready access. Even laser cutters/etchers are small enough to moved around and used in a well-ventilated space for a period of time.

The key is in the support teachers have when using the various tools often identified as having to live in a maker space. Brave teachers rely on students’ curiosity to figure out how some resources work. Teachers needing more support should have someone to guide them through introduction and use of some resources. Modeling use, providing tutorials, posting guides near equipment, providing full classroom kits to live in the classroom are only some of the practices we are trying out in my latest drive to dismantle the idea that students can only make and construct things in one place on campus and only during the proper time-tabled period.