Guest post: Hackerspaces for connected learning

Hackerspaces are open-access workshops and volunteeristic organizations for collaborating on creative and technical projects. Over four hundred exist worldwide as blended (online/offline) contexts for social and connected learning. Over the last year I’ve been spending time in them, interviewing their members and keeping up with online discussions. Most recently I’ve been called on to think about how to put these lessons to work at the Annenberg Innovation Lab.  Here I’d like to offer a few reflections on implications of hackerspaces for thinking about collectivity and creativity in a digital age.

1. Hackerspaces Require Embodied Interaction

Perhaps to state the obvious, hackerspaces are defined by both online interactions and space they create for working on projects. This stands in contrast to how hackers are often investigated as an online-only category. As Gabriella Coleman reflects in her explication of hacker conferences such as DefCon, the literature “fails to substantially address… the existence and growing importance of face-to-face interactions among these geeks, hackers and developers” (Coleman, 2010, p. 48). This is unfair to hackers, painting them as stereotypical geeks that do not come together in shared rituals and learn from each other. I would similarly counter by saying that place and digital tools as symbiotic and non-exclusionary, and hackerspaces cannot be reduced to virtuality. The more we learn about learning in blended contexts, the more the online and offline seem symbiotic. For example, the PLAY (participatory learning and you) project works as an educational “toolkit” to connect community members and teachers to students in classrooms through participatory culture, not to replace classrooms.

Hackerspaces are a kind of “third place” (Oldenburg, 1997) outside of the home and work where individuals can come together. They also involve adults in continued learning, which is an angle I often seen neglected in favor of a focus on youth. Both youth and adult learning are necessary. They are not necessarily an ideal type of organization, however. Looking to hackerspaces as paragons of efficiency is not the best perspective. Learning is messy business. Hackerspace projects are often not going to change the world and often fail. There is plenty of interpersonal conflict. This is what makes them such lively spaces, but also organizations that are continually learning and redefining themselves through communication in what Taylor and Van Every called the “emergent organization” (Taylor & Van Every, 2000).

2. Hacking is tinkering

The term “hacking” has been much disputed, resulting in an array of definitions including the portamento “hacktivism” and the more criminally-inclined “cracker.” The roots of the term “hack” can be traced back to the MIT model railroad club, where it was used to refer to a creative or effective fix for a problem. But in the current day the term “hacking” increasingly politically charged and not useful to discuss meaningful learning that takes place in these spaces. I prefer tinkering, a term that, implies appropriation of technologies for unintended uses and also captures a playful character that is present in hacking but ultimately overshadowed by aspersions of criminality.

The pedagogy of hacking can be seen as a cross between technological appropriation and “tinkering,” – a kind of creative misuse. Doug Thomas (2002) described Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman’s Yippie movement as a predecessor of contemporary hacker culture because its “primary missing became the distribution of information” (p. 16) used to understand systems. Thus, tinkering may have little to do with computers at all, but access to information and a physical space to employ it by conducting meaningful work and learning by doing. Jordan (2008) describes this as a fringe type of hacker, but I would argue that tinkering is at the core of what we consider hacking to be: the understanding of a closed system by sanctioned and unsanctioned means.

The hacker ethic promotes pushing boundaries of established systems as a right and necessity, as mirrored in its own online discussions and printed magazines. The mantra “if you can’t open it, you don’t own it” is often repeated by hackerspace members. Nostalgic tales of western ingenuity also prevail in my interviews of hackerspace members, pitted against overseas producers that are often also deeply involved in practices of tinkering and appropriation. For example, the Chinese practice of shanzai, or reverse-engineering of goods, is heavily embedded in a tinkering context that is profoundly different from its western counterpart.

3. Hackerspaces as Creative Glue

The more we learn about being creative, the less it seems like a solo enterprise (Ogle, 2007; Sawyer, 2006). Rather, to employ David Gauntlett’s concept of creativity as a kind of meso-level “social glue” (2011, p. 217), the pleasures of making are both a motivation for and result of coming together. He described the maker movement as engendering connectivity in three ways. First, it encourages new relationships with materials and ideas in pursuit of projects. Second, it involves connecting to peers and socialization with like-minded others in a community. Finally, it encourages connecting and sharing information to the outside world.  Communication scholars are often very serious about “connecting,” and those using network analysis have proposed that our relationships are predictive. For example, Granovetter’s concept of “weak ties” is often used to describe the importance of loose friendships online, for instance in propagation of innovations. Yet, I would argue that network analysis frequently misses the cultural and embodied context of interactions that Gauntlett describes.

4. Toward Connected Learning

Henry Jenkins advocated for a move from “do it yourself” to “do it together,” which better captures “collective enterprises within networked publics” (Knobel, 2010, p. 233). Like “affinity spaces” (Gee, 2005) and “communities of practice” (Wenger, 2002), hackerspaces have low barriers to entry, operate through social learning, and encourage informal mentorship. However, unlike communities of practice, they are self-governing and are defined more by their collective rather than community practices. A reconciliation of these two terms is outside the scope of a blog post, but briefly, I believe that hackerspaces are supportive of their members, but they are more accurately viewed as blended online/offline collectives that are always in the process of organizing rather than communities.

Mimi Ito’s concept of connected learning (DML Central, 2012) is helpful here to describe the importance of hackerspaces. According to Ito and her team, different online and offline learning contexts are symbiotic, producing a network for learning. The three design principles of connected learning are: production-centered, open networks, and shared purpose. Applying these principles to hackerspaces, a person cannot be a member without participating, even if it is peripheral, such as by acting as an assistant or watching. Similarly, open networks are a given, with hackerspaces operating as a kind of nexus for various school, work, and recreational networks. By providing a space and receptive collective, hackerspaces connect individuals to tools and ideas that have a material impact. In interviews members often referred to this extra push as the 20% that you can’t do alone. Hackerspaces encourage individual autonomy and efficacy rather than push a preconceived agenda.

It should also be noted that hackerspaces are similar to several other movements, such as fablabs and shared work spaces. In the educational arena, the computer clubhouse effort (Kafai, Peppler, & Chapman, 2009) employed constructionist theory to connect K12 students in underserved communities to create “a supportive space for its members to design, build, and share their projects and ideas” (p. 4). The founders sought to go beyond mere questions of access to help guide youth and provide valuable skills they use toward their personal goals. In the current day, advocates such as Mitch Altman are trying to bring the hackerspace experience to K12 education, and spaces such as the Mt Elliott makerspace are based in increasingly diverse communities. The close imbrication of alternative spaces and digital tools for learning in everyday life still seems an open question.


Photo by Flickr user laRuth. Some rights reserved under a Creative Commons BY 2.0 licence.

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