Reflection On Maker-centred Learning In An Undergraduate Elective Course
Reflections on Practice
Kenneth LIM, Hon Jia KOH, Ahmed Hazyl HILMY, Ming De YUEN, and Joel J L NG
Office of Education Research, National Institute of Education (NIE), Singapore
Name: Dr Kenneth LIM Yang Teck
Address: Office of Education Research, National Institute of Education (NIE), 1 Nanyang Walk, Singapore 637616
Lim, K. Y. T., Koh, H. J., A. H. Hilmy, Yuen, M. D. & Ng, J. J. L (2021). A reflection on maker-centred learning in an undergraduate elective course. Asian Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 11(1). 22-29.
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This paper provides a reflection on the designing and enacting of an inclusive curriculum for a diverse group of students using a maker-centred learning approach, where students are empowered to have greater autonomy in the decision-making process and given accessibility to prototyping tools in their learning process for an undergraduate general elective course. Based on the student feedback, the finding suggests that students’ interest in learning was fostered when they were given greater autonomy in their learning. We recommend giving students more autonomy in choosing their project focus and exercising greater flexibility during the enactment of the curriculum, where students’ voices and decisions are considered.
Keywords: Maker culture, learner agency, the Internet of Things, STEM curriculum
Maker-centred learning (Clapp et al., 2016) is widely considered to be an emerging approach characterised by its “do-it-yourself” (DIY) culture, knowledge-sharing communities and accessibility to spaces and tools for making. With this backdrop, the course featured in this Reflection was conceptualised to gain a greater insight into the affordances and challenges of running a maker-centred learning instead of a typical lectured-based one. The design of the course’s learning environment is underpinned by characteristics of maker-centred learning where students can move around freely and there is no clear physical demarcation of space for figures of authority to facilitate knowledge sharing. A typical lesson is shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Depiction of a typical lesson during a maker-centred course.
The course was offered as a general elective and saw an enrolment of undergraduate students from different academic disciplines. They were taken through a scaffolded curriculum which introduced them to the Internet of Things (IoT) as well as the foundational principles of open-source hardware, software, networking, and coding. As this course is offered in a teacher-education institute and also intended to expose students to aspects of teacher training, a foundation in curriculum design from the perspective of the team’s work in Disciplinary Intuitions (Lim, 2015) was given.
The course introduces the concept of IoT and students had to demonstrate their appreciation of IoT in their curriculum design assignment and hands-on project. In addition, the classroom where the course was conducted was intentionally designed and equipped with IoT-related equipment to facilitate course-related learning with regular hands-on activities.
Students were assessed based on both individual- and group-based criteria. For individual tasks, they had to write a report on a topic of their choice. For group-based tasks, each group had to come up with an IoT-related project of their choice. Although the minimum requirement for the project was to show the conceptual use of open-source sensors networked in such a way so as to gather data to support the student-led inquiry design, the students often went on to produce physical prototypes for their projects. Students were provided kits of open-source hardware and the required sensors for their projects.
As they built their physical prototypes, students were encouraged to do coding for the components. Along the way, they received guidance and supplementary help from the course facilitators. It is important to note that the emphasis of the course was not on coding competency, but on the design and utilisation of the contextual settings, especially in terms of aligning the technological affordances with the course learning goals.
Lessons learned from the study
During the enactment of the curriculum, the students could choose the focus for their projects. Elements characterising the maker-centred approach, such as ensuring diversity in students’ interests and student ownership in the form of collaborative designed projects, were observed. A student shared his experience of participating in the course, and his comments are indicative that these elements were present:
Another student shared similar sentiments regarding his experience of participating in the course:
From the comments given, it suggests that students’ interest and ownership play a part in fostering learning.
In one of the projects, which involves using open-source sensors to measure the temperature and noise level of potential study locations on campus to help students find suitable study spaces, the group members had diverse ideas and interests in the beginning. However, they were able to come to a consensus on the project after exploring various possibilities and consulting the course facilitators. Even though they were not familiar with technical aspects of the project, such as coding, the collective interest and social relationships cultivated spurred the group on to completing the project. They went through a few iterations of the prototype design, using sensors for variables such as light, humidity, motion and sound.
Figure 2. Different project groups present iterations of their prototype design to their peers.
Figure 3. A student explains his group’s prototype design to the rest of the class.
The open and adaptive nature of the course gave students a greater sense of ownership towards their work, particularly since they had the opportunity to conceptualise and do iterations of their collaboratively designed projects. This was reflected in the different application of projects, the roles and responsibilities assigned to group members in the project, and the different tools and resources they used. For example, the choice of projects and resources used were often related to students’ personal experiences or issues close to their hearts, such as concerns regarding food wastage which led to one student deciding to do a food science project; and another deciding to do a sensor-trigger fan ventilation project stemming from their interest in energy conservation. Other examples include students showing initiative when it came to taking various roles and responsibilities in their projects, from gathering resources, leading or mediating discussions, identifying problems, gathering the technical requirements, coding, preparing for and leading the presentations.
Evaluation of the curriculum was done by administering the form “Student Feedback on Teaching” issued by the Institute. The positive student feedback the teaching team received on the course gave the team some assurance that the course might be moving in a positive direction. Comments such as “I truly enjoyed what I have learnt in class”, and “I would like to thank you for conducting this course, I have definitely learnt something different and new through the lessons” were typical of the feedback received. This was reflected further in comments such as this one:
These preceding sentiments are akin to those reported in similar studies. For example, Fields and King (2014) have described how “college age and adult women changed the way they viewed themselves as well as how they took up new practices that integrated computational media with existing interests through connected learning in the craft technologies course” (p. 7).
Diversity of disciplinary backgrounds as a strength of the course
The diversity of disciplinary backgrounds among students was a little surprising as the course involved coding and we had expected it to be more appealing to students from an engineering background. This diversity was both a strength and a challenge when it came to conducting the course. This is especially so given the traditionally silo-ed nature of the way learning is structured in formal systems of education, particularly at the post-secondary level. One of the ways to deal with this diversity was to have more course facilitators equipped with different skillsets and from diverse disciplinary backgrounds. Typically, the course would have three course facilitators, one guest speaker and one PhD/student intern. Another way of dealing with diversity and making it more inclusive was that we empowered students to take the lead in being a domain knowledge ‘expert’, an opportunity to be a source of knowledge which other students, including the facilitators can tap into. A student shared his experience of the course in the following way:
This was echoed by another student who shared her experience in the following way:
A key learning point is that the diversity of disciplinary backgrounds could be considered a strength for a robust maker-centred curriculum. However, it was also a challenge to enact a course which caters to students with diverse disciplines and interests. In our enactment, there were three course facilitators, with a 1:4 facilitator-to-student ratio. The strength or expertise of the facilitators were different too. For example, one focused on the technical aspects such as coding, another focused on IoT content, and the third facilitator focused on the pedagogical aspect. We suggest a rethinking of course design, the facilitator-to-student ratio, and the composition of facilitators and skillsets will be important when enacting a maker-centred curriculum.
The iterative nature of a maker-centred learning approach
The maker-centred learning approach has its fair share of challenges. From the course facilitators’ perspective, there are bound to be shortcomings in effectively meeting all the students’ diverse interests. The course might also appear unstructured at times, as part for the course could change along the way according to emerging learning needs and opportunities. For the former, leveraging on a myriad of resources, expertise and tools both within and beyond the classroom is essential. For the latter, it would be useful to conduct early dialogue with students regarding the nature of the course and more importantly, identify students’ interests and learning needs at an early stage of the course.
Although implicit, the continuous adaptation of the lessons during the course implies the need to implement a high degree of formative assessment. This could be made more explicit by the facilitators. For example, students could share and discuss their work on a more frequent basis throughout the course, and both the course facilitators and students could take up the role of the assessors.
This paper provides a reflection on conducting a maker-centred curriculum for a general undergraduate elective on the affordances of learning the Internet of Things. While students who took the elective gave positive feedback about its conduct and curriculum, with some expressing their wish to continue participating should any extension activities be planned, challenges still remain, such as the facilitator-to-student ratio and assessment of learning. Student-initiated projects arising from the course suggested that students’ interest could play an important role not just in the diversity of projects pursued, but also in the depth of consideration of the application of the project.
The authors would like to thank the staff of the Centre for Innovation in Learning (IN-Learning) at the National Institute of Education for their support in the conducting of the course described in this paper.
Clapp, E. P., Ross, J., Ryan, J. O., & Tishman, S. (2016). Maker-centred learning: Empowering young people to shape their worlds. John Wiley & Sons.
Fields, D. A., & King, W. L. (2014). So, I think I'm a programmer now: developing connected learning for adults in a university craft technologies course. In J. L. Polman, E. A. Kyza, D. K. O'Neill, I. Tabak, W. R. Penuel, A. S. Jurow, & L. D'Amico (Eds.). (2014). Learning and Becoming in Practice: The International Conference of the Learning Sciences (ICLS) (Vol. 1, pp. 927-936).
Lim, K. Y. T. (Ed.). (2015). Disciplinary Intuitions and the design of learning environments. Springer.
About the Corresponding Author
Kenneth LIM Yang Teck is a Lecturer (Research Scientist) at the Office of Education Research, National Institute of Education (NIE). His teaching and research interests include adolescent spatial cognition, disciplinary intuitions, learning environment design, Makerspaces, and the Six Learnings curriculum framework. He has shared his education research on various publications, including the British Journal of Educational Technology, the International Journal of Electrical Engineering & Education, and the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research.
Kenneth can be reached at email@example.com.