How to build digital literacy into your makerspace

Digital literacy in the makerspace

As well as being a haven of access (be in knowledge, internet, fiction, research) libraries play a vital role in supporting digital literacy in their communities.

But, as technology evolves, so do the demands of digital literacy. Makerspaces provide a great, engaging way to help users gain confidence in engaging with new and emerging technologies that ensures their digital literacy knowledge is not restricted to time-limited skills acquisition (how to use MS Office, how to use a particular software package or web application.) – putting the focus on learning digital literacy not just digital skills.

First though, what do we mean when we talk about digital literacy?

My favourite definitions of digital literacy are the more outcome-based, fluid ones. Like this from IFLA that states ’to be digitally literate means one can use technology to its fullest effect – efficiently, effectively and ethically – to meet information needs in personal, civic and professional lives’. (IFLA Statement on Digital Literacy] (18 August 2017)

Makerspaces provide plenty of access to technology, but not always the right balance on enabling users to approach these resources in a way that emphasises participation and places digital technology in a broader societal context.

Just because it’s shiny and new, doesn’t mean it gets a free pass – we need to be encouraging debate and questions about access, about data and about what new tools and resources mean in the broader scheme of things.

There are ways you can encourage more reflection, more problem-solving and more critical engagement in your makerspace and maker programming and here are some suggestions.

A knowledge-sharing & discovery space

Makerspaces can be great, collaborative learning spaces. At the heart of this is the distinction between providing instructionism vs constructionism (putting the focus on learning rather than teaching, an approach outlined by Seymour Papert in the speech transcribed here).

When doing workshops, ask yourself whether you are aiming to impart a particular skills acquisition (e.g. I want to learn how to use a 3D printer) or helping people use tools and resources available to create something that’s meaningful to them.

If ‘digital literacy’ means the “the ability to succeed in encounters with the electronic infrastructures and tools that make possible the world of the twenty-first century”1, then we need to be encouraging and enabling people of all ages to engage with the full range of platforms, tools and devices that are now available to us too. And this now extends far beyond the laptop to include all kinds of ‘smart’, connected and mobile devices and formats. And some that are yet to be invented.

An open and accessible space

Makerspaces should be about access to technology you can (and should!) touch.

Make the technology visible, digital tools can be incorporated or reflected in physical spaces. Use screens (the touchier the better) and displays, signage and touchpoints liberally.

Even if you don’t have a permanent makerspace, try to schedule in open exploration sessions where people can try out digital tools and engage with technology that they may not have access to otherwise. This helps promote the makerspace as a place for co-learning and cooperative learning.

Microbit kits available for loan (aka the The Library Initiative, run by the Micro:bit Educational Foundation and the Kirklees Library Service) is a good example of making makerspace resources accessible to all users, even when they’re not in the library.

An open and transparent space

Data has an important part to play in digital literacy so making data open, and available to users is another way to embed digital literacy in your makerspace.

This can be through data-focused hack days or by building data into your makerspace itself. Also documentation about the makerspace and information for members should be open, available and (where possible) remixable.

Another way to encourage openness and experimentation with data and information is to share project ideas and future plans publicly- why not display things like your terms of service or membership rules creatively? And do you provide easy ways for users to connect with each other as well as with staff?

A space for asking questions

It’s important that makerspaces allow for (or, better still, actively encourage) critical as well as creative engagement with the ever-evolving tools of technology available.

I’ve written previously about the potential of the Raspberry Pi as a tool for safe experimentation and how this can help with digital privacy and security skills learning – as a cheap and restorable computer, the fear of breaking it or doing something irreparable is removed.

But we should also be encouraging the critical discussion of new technologies, of terms of services, of communication tools. If people need to create an account for Scratch or Tinkercad or any other software that you use, make this a point of discussion. Why are they asking my age? What terms of service am I agreeing to here? What are they going to do with my data? And, if I don’t like it, what’s the alternative?

Another thing to consider is how your users communicate with you. How can they leave feedback, communicate with you and communicate amongst themselves? How do we talk to users about the social and communication technologies that they engage with on a daily basis while supporting their agency in making these decisions?

We’re lucky to be in an era of many, great alternatives, particularly in the world of learning and computer education. Give your users as much choice as possible about what information they share and what tools they use.

Support staff to support users

The most important resource of any makerspace is the staff (no,not the 3D printer). The best way you can ensure that makerspace members get the support they need to become active, creative and engaged digital citizens is by enabling your staff to develop the skills and have the protected time to support them.

In order to deliver quality, multifaceted digital literacy learning support, staff need the support to develop their own proficiency and fluency with technology.This requires new approaches to professional development that prioritise exploration and experimentation.

An ongoing conversation

Just like the digital literacy requirements don’t stay still, neither will the ways we support it. This is an area that we will continue to debate, discuss and develop but hopefully this overview provides some ideas and food for thought for embedding digital literacy into your makerspace programming.

  1. Martin, A. (2005). DigEuLit – A European Framework for Digital Literacy: a Progress Report. Journal of ELiteracy. 2.