More and more people are talking about the power of digital making, but what is this new area for educators?
Originally published in Issue 2 of Hello World: The computing and digital making magazine for educators. Available free at helloworld.cc (Shared under Creative Commons CC BY NC SA).
Across the world, educators and policy makers are getting excited about the potential of digital technology for young people. The school subject ‘Information Technology’ is being transformed in many countries to include in depth technical understanding of programming and computer science. Understanding how computers work is really important, as is getting some experience of applying this using programming. However, there is more to the power of digital technology than programming on screen, or considering the concepts that make computers work. There is also creating things that solve a problem or explore a passion. There is making things that fit into the physical world and delight people who use them. There is integrating the skills from programming and computer science with those from other areas. This is where the concept of digital making comes in.
It’s a term used by different people for different skills. Digital making can refer to the making of any product using digital technology. This can include programming games and applications, but also producing music, manipulating photos or creating visual art. For some people, making anything digital constitutes digital making. Others use this term to focus on the more technical end of digital skills, having to involve programming or electronics. However, it’s important to remember is that people can start off using relatively little technical skills and move towards learning them as their ambitions grow.
People are often keen to find a concrete definition of what the term means. However, there is a danger that this can shut down the creativity we see in the field of digital making education. Ambiguity can be problematic, but in Doug Belshaw’s exploration of digital literacies he has explored the idea that ambiguity of terms that are new and emerging can be positive.
‘Creative Ambiguity is brought about when an intangible idea, process or way of thinking is defined in an imprecise way. It is a delicately-balanced conceptual space in which the very nature of the ambiguity leads to creative outputs.’ – Doug Belshaw
He explains how ideas and terms move through types of ambiguity from their initial suggestion until they become a ‘dead metaphor’, meaningless through over-use. Although we tend to see concepts that are very specifically defined as the most useful, those which are developing allow people to interact with them in ways that create new meanings, new activities and new possibilities. Once definitions are solidified we will likely see certain activities, quite possibly the more creative and less technical ones that get people started, excluded from the area of digital making. This potentially reduces the opportunities for some people.
Mixing of skills
Digital making often includes a blend of technical and creative skills, which can interact in complex ways. Technical skills can relate to programming, to electronics, and to physical fabrication. Creative skills can relate to problem solving approaches in these areas but also to the aesthetics of the end product and the experience a user will have with it. Both these types of skills have their own levels of challenge. I explored this in the ‘Young Digital Makers’ report for Nesta, creating a diagram of these skills on two axes.
Different digital making projects will sit in different places on this matrix. It may be that many projects that beginners undertake are higher on the creative access than the technical. Often, technical skills will increase as people learn new skills and their ambitions for projects increase alongside the skills they have to realise them.
A digital maker might themselves move around this matrix in terms of the skills they are using and developing at different stages of the project. At first they may be in a highly creative mode, considering the outcomes they want to reach and designing a solution that could reach these. Then they might move into a more technical mode as they begin making and have to problem solve the practical tasks that need to be implemented to bring the project into being. Sometimes these technical elements will make use of approaches they well understand, but at other times they will have to bring a creative lens to look at how they might achieve certain outcomes using skills they don’t yet have and need to develop, or to see the less obvious connections between their aims and the techniques they know and understand.
Teaching digital makers
For educators, what is often important is understanding the kinds of skills makers are using at any one time and what the level of challenge is given their current skills and understanding. The role of educators is, after all, to help people to learn. Identifying where learners are at and what they could do next to ensure they are learning as well as making is an important approach, especially when open ended and passion driven projects are involved.
You can read more on these ideas in ‘Young digital makers’ published by Nesta at http://www.nesta.org.uk/publications/young-digital-makers.
Also published on Medium.