Deep in the basement of Somerset House, by the River Thames in central London, is a series of rooms with desks, workshops and tools. In the air, the familiar smell of freshly sawn timber from a woodworking class. Mixed with just-dry paint. This is Makerversity.
It bills itself as providing “affordable space and tools, for those people who make a living through making”. I was lucky enough to get a tour last week. It’s a social enterprise that offers access to 3D printers, manufacturing machinery and workshops to start-up companies for whom cash is in short supply. In return for a rock-bottom price for a desk and access to the tools, each maker has to become part of a ‘faculty’, engaging with regular visits by schoolchildren. Tom Tobia, one of the co-creators of Makerversity was speaking at the latest of Pearson’s ‘Hot Breakfasts’ – a panel discussion held at Makerversity, which is supported by Pearson, MAKLAB and Somerset House itself. He says “Why can’t manufacturing be regarded as a sector that creates high-value jobs? This is about showing that creating tangible things is motivating. We give young people the chance to experiment and create. “
The debate spread to the idea of how the internet is changing the classroom of the future. Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, give anyone and everyone the chance to learn. They put the power of learning into the hands of the student; a power shift which can be unsettling for teachers, parents, and the educational establishment, according to the principal of Pamoja Education, Edward Lawless. He says this means teachers are no longer the ‘masters of content’. Instead they become “a mentor for learning, and a creator of learners.”
MOOCs are undoubtedly exciting, but we all know learning is difficult without motivation and support. Edward Lawless’s organisation is the first to use online learning to teach the International Baccalaureate, with 1400 students enrolled, in 340 schools around the world. He’s clear about the need for ‘site-based coordinators’, who provide additional support for students. Students may not be online at the same time as their teacher and classmates, who may be in different schools in different countries. But they have permanent access to that learning community and its resources, backed up by regular face-to-face meetings in their place of learning.
Two different visions of the future of learning, both using the disruptive, connective influence of the digital revolution as a force for positive change. How long before these visions of the future become mainstream? It starts with a reliable broadband connection in every school, something an educational adviser at the event pointed out was still not a reality.