Coding is often proclaimed a key ’21 century skill’. Digital innovation is crucial for EU economies. And information technology (IT) specialists are in high demand. And yet, ensuring that citizens possess such key skills – to foster diverse participation in digital innovation and to tackle a persistent digital divide and gender-gap – is still a long way off for EU member states. To facilitate digital expertise and technological interests, we need to understand and examine where, why, and how they are acquired. Despite the ongoing professionalization of computer science education, the relevance and prevalence of informal practices for acquiring IT expertise has been frequently highlighted. Surprisingly, we know very little about exactly those informal practices of IT skills acquisition which take places in communal rather than institutional environments. My project therefore examined practices of IT learning within informal communities: it advances our understanding of how individuals learn for information technology (IT) expertise – such as coding and electronics skills – in hacker- and makerspaces as informal, communal environments. This policy brief summarises the results of my research and outlines its policy implications.
Hackerspaces and makerspaces are communities of technology enthusiasts, bringing together – as some members put it – ‘fellow geeks.’ As a collective, members usually rent a physical space: to share not only their enthusiasm about technology and (digital) DIY, but also access to workshops and workstations, electronics and machines like laser cutters or 3D-printers. Misleadingly, the terms ‘hacker’ and ‘hacking’ are predominantly associated with cybercrime. This is regrettable because hackerspaces are perfectly legal as well as resourceful, skilled communities. HACKIT counters this misconception by highlighting the educational value and innovation practices of hacker and maker communities, mainly based on research conducted in the United Kingdom.
Conclusions and policy recommendations
The project draws three main conclusions and proposes related policy recommendations:
1. Hacker- and makerspaces (HMS) are influential environments for experiential, informal and communally embedded learning concerning IT expertise and DIY skills
HMS merge a broad range of technical skills with craft expertise, ranging from coding and programming, digital art, electronics, e-textiles, and robotics to woodwork and welding (2022a,b). More generally, across these interests and related expertise, creativity and ingenuity are encouraged, fostered, and cultivated as ‘baseline’ skills. Hacker and maker communities engage in informal ‘learning-by-doing’: skills are acquired by pursuing specific (innovation) activities and may benefit from peer-to-peer support. That said, peers tend to expect that learners are self-driven too, and that they explore their own ideas rather than waiting for others to guide them. This also means, as elaborated on below, that these communities can be difficult as learning environments for individuals with little tech-skills or who do not feel welcome in exploring their own, specific interests.
As informal, communal institutions many hacker- and makerspaces struggle with obtaining sufficient funds to support their voluntary commitment. Many communities have difficulties ensuring steady access to their physical space as well as to up-to-date technology. As a consequence, they sometimes have little possibilities to engage in additional educational activities that could attract and benefit new and prospective members. The educational value of hackerspaces should be further acknowledged and facilitated through policy and community funding. Funding opportunities, on municipal and regional but also on national and international level, should support communities in developing their educational potential, for example by facilitating workshops’ accessibility also for tech newbies, and by supporting members in developing their didactic knowledge and sensibility for diversity issues (see also point 2). Funding should entail financial support, though some communities would also benefit from in-kind support aimed at ensuring reliable, long-term access to appropriate spaces and machines.
2. Learning-by-doing and IT expertise are potentially facilitated in HMS. However, this is not equally the case for all members.
Not everyone equally and automatically benefits from potential learning opportunities. Many hackerspaces struggle with issues related to communal homogeneity, being dominantly frequented by white, male members. Skilled women technologists, among others, sometimes consciously avoid hacker communities and frequent or found alternative communities (Richterich 2021, 2022a). Underrepresented groups, notably women, non-binary, genderqueer, and transgender members, have experienced discrimination and harassment. Hacker and maker communities are largely aware of these issues, but they tackle them to different extents and in different ways. In response, for example explicitly feminist hackerspaces and more inclusively oriented communities emerged. Such communities provide the learning opportunities associated with ‘conventional’ hacker/maker communities, while being more considerate towards the need to facilitate an inclusion of people that are otherwise marginalised in tech and science contexts. Some communities see the lack of diversity among members as a result of broader dynamics, notably the gender gap in technology and science education, and feel that it is hardly solvable on communal level. Thus, normative standpoints and commitment for actively fostering inclusion differ significantly across communities.
When considering support for hacker- and makerspaces, policy makers should also pay attention to – and encourage – communal efforts to diversify membership in terms of gender, race, class, and age. Funding schemes that incentivise communal efforts in attracting members from different backgrounds and support their inclusion and learning efforts are recommended. This may also include efforts supporting members in their awareness of diversity issues and related didactic knowledge.
3. Learning and innovation are interdependent in hacker- and makerspaces
While the project set out to study learning, it was impossible to take no account of innovation practices of hacker- and makerspaces. This was especially pertinent during the COVID-19 crisis. As members of hacker and makerspaces tend to be curious, they often explore technological trends and possibilities in creative ways. This also means that they innovate in their learning, and they learn when aiming to innovate. Often, these practices are driven by the aim to use ‘tech for good’. While many scholars will rightfully warn of committing follies of technological solutionism at this point, it should be taken into account that hacker and makerspaces can be important ‘first-responders’ providing small-scale manufacturing settings that become relevant in fast-moving, unpredictable crisis situations. An example for this is the healthcare equipment designed and manufactured by hacking communities in the UK and elsewhere, in response to the COVID-19 crisis (Richterich 2020a).
Policy makers should include hacker and maker communities more systematically as potential partners and benefactors in funding schemes relevant to tech innovation and technologically facilitated crisis response. In addition, relevant information should be directly distributed to communities – for example concerning manufacturing needs and requirements in emerging crisis situations. Investing in hacker and makerspaces pays off in ways that are difficult to predict. However, long-term investments support a local infrastructure that not only nurtures innovation and learning practices with economic benefits, but also maintains small-scale manufacturing settings and expertise hubs that can quickly respond to emergencies on a local and regional as well as, in collaboration, on an (inter-)national level (Richterich 2020a).
Richterich, A. (2020a). Critical making of DIY healthcare equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Health Sociology Review, 29(2): 158-167. https://doi.org/10.1080/14461242.2020.1784772.
Richterich, A. (2020b). On digital creativity and expertise in hacker- and makerspaces. The Hacker Cultures Podcast. https://podcasts.apple.com/nl/podcast/episode-3-annika-richterich-forget-about-the-learning/id1530421887?i=1000489971179.
Richterich, A. (2021). Work hard, fit in, and applaud her: Women developers blogging about their lived experiences. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 24(2), 342-359. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1367877920941026
Richterich, A. (2022a). Hackerspaces as technofeminist sites for experiential learning. Learning, Media and Technology, 47(1), 11-25. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439884.2021.2018604.
Richterich, A (2022b). “Forget about the learning”? Technology expertise and creativity as experiential habit in hacker-/makerspaces. Cogent Education, 9(1), 2034239. https://doi.org/10.1080/2331186X.2022.2034239
Picture credits: The header image is a drawing of South London Makerspace, by Tim Hunkin. It is used with permission. Many thanks Tim! To see more of Tim’s fantastic work, visit https://www.timhunkin.com.
The project has been funded as Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action by the European Commission.
Project title: ‘Hacking your way to IT expertise: What digital societies can (and need to) learn from informal learning in hackerspaces’
Grant no.: 790777
Timeline: September 2019-August 2021
For more information, contact the PI Dr Annika Richterich.