Makerspaces and Online Education

makerspaces“Makerspaces” was one of the more than 50 technologies considered for the most recent Horizon Report for Higher Education, and while it didn’t make the cut for this year’s list of emerging technologies, I think it’s one to watch.

Other education and technology authorities, like The Digital Shift and Edutopia are following the topic, and related presentations are appearing on conference schedules, including this month’s SXSWedu.

The use of digital tools and web-based collaboration platforms expand the reach of the Maker Movement, taking “learning by doing” to a new level. Also known as “hackerspaces” and “learning commons,” maker learning environments have a lot to offer online and blended students.

What is a makerspace?

Defining the term isn’t easy, and for good reason. As each space evolves, usually in a physical location, it meets the needs of its users in different and creative ways. Take a look at a few descriptions of makerspaces and the Maker Movement:

  • “Community centers with tools … combining manufacturing equipment, community, and education for the purposes of enabling community members to design, prototype, and create” in ways they would not be able to accomplish working individually. –
  • “Reimagining the objects we own … reusing and repairing objects, rather than discarding them to buy more.” – P2P Foundation
  • “Where people gather to share resources and knowledge, work on projects, network, and build. … Makerspaces are zones of self-directed learning.” – EDUCAUSE
  • “The adoption of more hands-on, creative activities, inside and outside of class.” – edSurge
  • “Makerspaces … offer the tools and learning experiences needed to help people carry out their ideas.” – New Media Consortium
  • “The emphasis is on creating with technology.” – American Library Association Tech Source

It’s not hard to imagine the potential benefits. Georgia Tech’s Innovation Studio and North Carolina State University’s Makerspace are just two examples of how the maker approach has been implemented in higher education.

What happens in a makerspace?

Learners are actively involved in project-based learning, problem solving, learning from failure, critical thinking, experiential learning, collaborative learning, inquiry-based learning, participatory learning, open educational resources, and more. Through the use of 3D printers, video and audio equipment, laser cutters, and a host of other tools and materials, students work together in lab settings to design and build projects for a wide array of course and individual projects.

It probably comes as no surprise to hear that the science, technology, engineering, and math fields seem to be leading the way with makerspace activity, but there are applications for students and instructors in other subjects, too, ranging from English to art.

Ideas for Online Teaching and Learning

The idea of building a web-based learning community isn’t new, but how can students get these hands-on, collaborative opportunities when they study online? “Making” can result in physical objects as well as digital ones. Here are a few ideas to spark your own maker learning initiative:

  • Create a “makers” assignment. The SmartBlog on Education suggests that open educational resources can be a good place to start planning creative course projects. The Digital Public Library of America‘s App Library, App Developers tools, and Hacking Projects submissions encourage the public to explore, create, and share online using the DPLA network of archives.
  • Rethink course and curriculum design. How might an online makerspace connect students enrolled in different sections of an online course, or online and on-campus learners in an academic program? Looking at project-based courses from a makers perspective could change the culture of the environment – how members collaborate, the assignments they complete with digital tools, and a focus on mastery and iterative drafts.
  • Promote service learning. If you are working as an advisor or liaison to a student group or club, think about the opportunities for students to get involved with existing makerspaces in their local communities. Many groups rely on volunteers. Find out if there are scheduled events or projects during spring break or over the summer. Students could also propose well-defined and coordinated makers projects for independent study credit.
  • Encourage career exploration. Working on relevant projects with community members outside of class, can provide opportunities to work on real-world projects gaining experience and expanding networks. There may be possibilities here for business and entrepreneurial students. Educator Ted Carran compares makerspaces to those humble places where great innovations (like the personal computer) often begin: “Think of a makerspace as a garage where you can meet your future partners.”
  • Connect with the library. Academic, public, and digital libraries are getting involved in the movement by enhancing digital media labs, acquiring equipment, and coordinating projects. A 2013 survey conducted by researchers at Miami University found that 41% of responding librarians were working in facilities with established makerspaces; 36% had future plans for these types of resources. The Libraries and Maker Culture: A Resource Guide links to multiple academic and public library examples.
  • Find physical locations. Meeting with coordinators of on-site makerspaces may be beneficial for students and instructors. Students studying education, business, or social science topics could conduct interviews with leaders as part of a class assignment. Instructors may find inspiration for their courses. If your school doesn’t yet sponsor a makerspace, search the online directories provided by, The Maker Map, and Makezine.
  • Explore existing resources. Getting Smart compiled a list of free (and some fee-based) mobile apps focused on creating and making. Geared toward K-12 students, many could be adapted for use at the college level (e.g., coding, game makers, multimedia apps.) Mozilla’s Webmaker community shares project ideas, tools, and teacher guides centered on content creation and web literacy.
  • Look for professional development opportunities. Events specifically designed for educators are part of the programming at Maker Kids, a non-profit organization in Toronto. These sessions provide hands-on experience with tools and ideas for incorporating the approach in your classes. Register for workshops in your local area.
  • Join other maker-educators. How about a makerspace about makerspaces? P2P University is offering a six-week, open online course called Learning Creative Learning. Through webinars, discussion, and hands-on activities, participants explore “key aspects of the MIT Media Lab approach to learning: Projects, Peers, Passion, and Play.”

Stay up-to-date with the latest information on this emerging use of technology in education via social media tools. Follow the Maker Education Initiative, and MAKE Magazine on Twitter, and search for related hashtags: #maker, #MakerLearning, and #MakerMovement.

What are your thoughts about makerspaces and the maker movement in education? Tell us how you are incorporating related strategies with your students and in your own continued learning. And share your questions about taking the movement online.

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Source: Inside Online Learning Blog