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Are Makerspaces this Generation’s Computer Lab?

Jeff Parker

I recently had the opportunity to speak at EdSpaces, a conference focused on designing, equipping and furnishing learning environments. While there, I heard another speaker, Dr. Robert Dillon, pose an interesting question:

“Are makerspaces this generation’s computer labs?”

Could makerspaces soon become extinct? My initial response as a maker was “No way!” But, after some consideration, I think this idea deserves a closer look.

School computer labs have a unique and interesting history. It began at a point of obscure “mainframes” on elite college campuses and slowly evolved to rooms in schools across the country lined with tables, large monitors and the now-archaic CPU towers. Computer lab time was scheduled and separate from traditional disciplines, something where “keyboarding” was taught (with the help of interactive guides like Mavis Beacon or something similar, no doubt) and basic computer literacy was learned.

But as computing became more and more ubiquitous, and hardware became more and more accessible, we could no longer confine computing to a single room. Nor could we keep it separate from the rest of our pursuits! Smartphones and inexpensive devices like Chromebooks have been catalysts for a sort of convergent evolution of computer labs into the classroom. Today, learners are using technologies throughout their day and are barely aware they are doing so. Computers and technology are used by students on the school bus, in all of their courses and in their leisure time. Technology has become part of the ether we exist in.

Could the same be said of making in 30 years? Will the idea of learning through building, constructing and tinkering hands-on become so common that it’s barely noticed?

And with those questions, a certain potential arises. Will making be a key piece in developing a real and deeper understanding of content? Will it become how we cement our learning? Will it become an integral part of learning?  Could making just be another way we learn?

Current events may hint at an answer. The Ohio Department of Education is about to roll out “Ohio’s Strategic Plan for Education”. It is a five-year plan to drive a transformation in P12 learning across the state. In addition to the traditional curriculums focused on “foundational learning and skills” (literacy, numeracy and technology) and “well-rounded content” (social studies, sciences, languages, health and the arts), the ODE is proposing two new learning domains: “leadership and reasoning,” and “social-emotional learning.”

The “leadership and reasoning” domain seeks to develop problem-solving, design thinking creativity and information analytics. While the “social-emotional learning” domain focuses on fostering self-awareness, personal management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making. It is important to note that Ohio considers these new domains as equally important as the old standbys, and therefore will be developing ways to effectively instruct and measure them. These themes likely sound familiar by other labels: 21st-century skills, soft skills, growth mindset, the 4 Cs, etc.

In my experience, making always fosters the development of these skills.

As we rightfully focus more on these expanded domains, perhaps in the not-too-distant future making will occur everywhere. Maybe those old makerspaces will become the repository for higher fidelity equipment, while the current tools and resources become accessible to every student for impromptu use and learning.

Instead of a test score, hopefully someday soon making will be a means to demonstrate mastery of traditional content areas.

“Are makerspaces this generation’s computer labs?” Let’s hope so. Better yet, let’s make it so!

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