Anne Balsamo: Videos and Frameworks for “Tinkering” in a Digital Age


1.30.09 | The Maker’s Movement, the return of “handicrafts,” tinkering—these are some of the most fascinating cultural practices making the news recently.  In early 2008, an article in the New York Times described the Bay Area Maker’s Faire as a gathering of “folks from all walks of life who blend science, technology, craft and art to make things both goofy and grand.”  In November 2008, the Los Angeles Times published a piece about the rise of “craft-making” among young artisans, noting that the burgeoning growth of “craft websites have fostered a global network based on cooperation rather than competition.”  Even as these cultural practices gather steam to take form as new cultural movements—DIY, for example—they also point out an important under-theorized consideration in discussions about the relationship between digital media and learning: the role of the hand and of the body in the process of learning and making culture.

My interest in the corporeal (body-based) dimension of digitally mediated learning was an early inspiration for the grant proposal I submitted to the MacArthur Foundation to explore the development of the technological imagination as a 21st century literacy.  Tinkering, I argued, is an important set of practices for developing the technological imagination.  As I became more familiar with the other projects in the Digital Media and Learning Initiative, I focused my attention the role of “tinkering” in museums and libraries.  While the broader aim of the grant is to discuss the specific role that museums and libraries can perform within distributed networked learning environments, one set of possibilities that we are investigating focuses on the development of creative making spaces and tinkering protocols within these cultural institutions.  The argument, in brief, is that as specialized “nodes” within networked distributed learning environments, museums (especially science/technology centers) and community based libraries offer specific “learning affordances” that are not (currently) offered by formal schools or institutional learning programs.  The “learning affordances” made possible by museums and libraries include 1) the possibility of creating physical spaces for face-to-face social interactions that are based in communal “tinkering” practices, 2) the possibility of providing a community-level physical space for the development of embodied learning relationships between members of different generations (youth and adults); and 3) the possibility of serving as the context where digital creative practices (graphics production, video-making, etc.) are connected to the production of physical objects (i.e., through the acts of tinkering with various materials). 

In late October 2008, as one of the research activities supported by the MacArthur funding, I convened a meeting on the topic of “Tinkering as a Mode of Knowledge Production in a Digital Age.”  The purpose of this meeting was to bring together people from different cultural institutions (museums, libraries, university research centers) and from different sites of informal education (community arts programs, galleries, technology centers) to initiate a cross-domain discussion about the concept of “tinkering” as a paradigm for knowledge construction.  I began the meeting by presenting an overview of the aims of the Digital Media and Learning initiative in order to situate the discussion of tinkering within a context of learning in a digital age.  There were several questions I asked the group to consider in their discussions throughout the meeting:

1) Why is tinkering and “hand-making” important at this historical juncture?
2) What are the key sensibilities of a tinkerer?
3) How is an interest in tinkering stimulated or provoked?
4) What new tinkering practices are emerging in contemporary culture, especially in light of the rise of makers’ culture?
5) What is the relationship between tinkering and knowledge formation?
6) What research has already been done on tinkering as a mode of learning?  What research might be needed to understand it better?
7) How should we rethink the notion of tinkering in light of digital media?

In addition to my research team who are part of the Tangible Culture Investigation Project I run at University of Southern California, twenty-eight people participated in the day and half meeting.  The participants were specially invited because they each have experience and insight into these questions.  Several participants were asked to make presentations to the group on their research or programs.  For example:

Mitch Resnick presented a talk on the topic of “designing for tinkering” in which he described the work of his Lifelong Kindergarten research group at the MIT Media Lab.  Resnick and his research team recently developed a new programming environment called “Scratch,” which makes it easier for kids to create their own animated stories, video games, and interactive art.  He presented the design rationale that guided the creation of Scratch as a robust tinkering environment that would encourage youth and other users to develop the social habits of collaborative co-creation of digital experiences.

Sean Dockray and Fiona Whitten, the co-founders of Telic Arts Exchange in LA, presented their “Public School” project that links people who have a specific learning interest with other people who have the willingness and expertise to address that learning interest.  To do this act of community learning matchmaking, Telic supports a social networking application called The Public School that in effect provides a model of community-driven participatory education.

Every participant had important insights to contribute to the discussions.  Staff at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching interviewed five participants to record their thoughts on tinkering, public education, creativity and technology.  (In a recent Spotlight post, Foundation President Anthony Bryk and Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation President Arthur Levine describe the role of both organizations in convening meetings on the topic of Digital Media and Learning.)

John Seely Brown provided a nuanced description of the relationship of tinkering to creativity and learning.

Alison Clark, from the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, described her project called HITT:  Hip Hop Information Technology Tour—which is a project to create a mobile learning lab that engages African American youth in the production of music and sound.

Jaime Cortez, an arts educator based in San Francisco, discusses the real political impact of various technology initiatives that focus on under-served populations.

One of the two most gifted science/technology informal education designers in the country, Mike Petrich described the rationale behind the Exploratorium’s Learning Studio that brings artists, scientists, and educators together to collaborate on playful learning activities.

Eric Siegel is the director of education and community programs at the New York Hall of Science in Queens, New York.  He emphasizes the role of people and the involvement of peer instructors in inspiring museum visitors to engage in new technology activities.

A fuller discussion of the meeting, its conversations, and suggested research efforts will be included in a forthcoming MacArthur report that will include a section on “Tinkering as a Mode of Knowledge Production in a Digital Age.”




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