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Hacking your way to IT expertise: What digital societies can (and need to) learn from informal learning in hackerspaces

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - HACKIT (Hacking your way to IT expertise: What digital societies can (and need to) learn from informal learning in hackerspaces)

Reporting period: 2019-09-01 to 2021-08-31

Hackerspaces and makerspaces are communities of technology enthusiasts, bringing together – as some members put it – ‘fellow geeks.’ As a group, members usually rent a physical space to share not only their enthusiasm about technology and (digital) crafts, but also access to workshops and workstations, electronics and machines like laser cutters or 3D-printers. Misleadingly, the terms ‘hacker’ and ‘hacking’ are predominantly associated with cybercrime. This is regrettable because hackerspaces are perfectly legal homes to socially responsible, resourceful, skilled communities. HACKIT therefore counters common misconceptions concerning ‘hacking’ by emphasising the educational, social value and the ingenuity of practices taking place at hacker and maker communities. The principal investigator Dr Annika Richterich set out to advance our understanding of how individuals acquire information technology (IT) expertise and engage in innovation in informal, communal environments. IT skills, such as coding, are crucial for economic growth in the European Union (EU). But shortages of IT professionals are still faced across all EU countries, with women being especially underrepresented in IT professions. These issues impede the competitiveness of the European IT sector and prompt questions about its inclusiveness. To develop effective, inclusive educational policies and initiatives addressing this IT skills shortage and gender gap, we need answers to pressing questions: Why, where, how, and by whom are IT skills trained? The relevance of informal and voluntary learning for IT professions is important in this context. Yet, empirical, particularly observational research on IT learning in informal environments is largely missing. HACKIT has helped to tackle this research gap, by conducting a digital ethnography of hacker- and makerspaces (HMS), with a focus on communities in the UK.
The project consisted of five main phases, i.e. work packages (WP). First, it started with initial desk research and preparation of the interviews (WP1). A main output was the development and pre-test of the interview guide. After the third month, the interview phase was initiated, and the principal investigator then conducted interviews with members of hacker- and makerspaces and visited communities for initial fieldwork (WP2). As an ethnographer, she also joined a community as a member herself. This phase was continued until month 14 of the project and overlapped with the writing of papers. Due to COVID-19, interviews and field research could only be conducted in person during the first 4 months of WP2. Most interviews were therefore conducted using video instead. During WP3, the principal investigator instead participated in (online) activities and events hosted by hacker and makerspaces. This included maker workshops and hacker conferences. In WP4, the researcher interpretatively analysed the gathered material. Based on her analysis, she wrote four articles: two have been published in 2020, (see https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1367877920941026 and https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14461242.2020.1784772) one is forthcoming in autumn 2021 and one is under review. In addition to the research papers and participation at international refereed conferences, the researcher has disseminated her research results via a podcast: you can listen to the episode “Forget about the learning” as part of the conference podcast “Hacker Cultures”. On her blog anniric.net and on her Twitter profile https://twitter.com/anniric you can find updates on HACKIT, including a detailed policy report, and the PI’s research more generally.
The project highlights four interrelated conclusions. These complement and expand the current state of the art of research on hacking, (digital) making, and IT skills acquisition, while being significantly relevant to policy making and economic activities concerning the IT sector.

1. Hacker- and makerspaces (HMS) are influential environments for experiential, informal and communally embedded learning concerning IT expertise and craft skills
Hacker and maker communities engage in informal ‘learning-by-doing’: skills are acquired by pursuing projects and/or (innovation) activities, usually benefiting from communal peer-to-peer support. HMS merge a broad range of technical skills with DIY craft expertise, ranging from coding and programming, digital art, electronics, e-textiles, and robotics to woodwork and welding. Members are curiosity-driven in their exploration of technology and related projects, which makes their learning at the same time more effective and more enjoyable. More generally, creativity and ingenuity, self-initiative and proactive learning are encouraged and cultivated.

2. While learning and IT expertise are potentially facilitated in HMS, this is not equally the case for all members.
Hackerspaces offer opportunities for self-driven learning and an explorative, curiosity-driven engagement with technology. They are knowledge and skills hubs that can facilitate experiential modes of learning, in turn fostering civic creativity and innovation. Yet, in some communities not everyone equally and automatically benefits from potential learning opportunities. Some hackerspaces struggle with issues related to communal homogeneity, being dominantly frequented by white, male members. Skilled women technologists, among others, sometimes consciously avoid hacker communities and frequent or found alternative communities (see https://doi.org/10.1177/1367877920941026). Hacker and maker communities are largely aware of these issues, but they tackle them to different extents and in different ways. In response, for example, explicitly feminist hackerspaces and more inclusively oriented communities have emerged. Such communities provide the learning opportunities associated with ‘conventional’ hacker/maker communities, while being more considerate towards the need to facilitate an inclusion of people who are otherwise marginalised in tech and science contexts.

3. Learning and innovation are interdependent in hacker- and makerspaces
While the project set out to study learning, it was impossible to take no account of innovation in HMS. This was especially pertinent during the COVID-19 crisis. As members of hacker and makerspaces tend to be curious and problem-oriented, they often explore technological trends and possibilities in creative ways. This also means that they innovate in their learning, and they learn when they innovate.

4. Investing in and funding hacker-/makerspaces pays off in ways that are hard to predict − though have shown to be beneficial to broader societal interests.
Investing in hacker and makerspaces pays off in ways that are difficult to predict. However, much-needed long-term investments would support a local infrastructure that not only nurtures innovation and learning practices with economic benefits, but also maintains small-scale manufacturing settings and expertise hubs that can quickly respond to emergencies on a local and regional as well as, in collaboration, on an (inter-)national level (see https://doi.org/10.1080/14461242.2020.1784772).

These points are detailed further in the PI’s policy report (see https://anniric.net/2021/09/28/policy-report).
Makerspace drawing by Tim Hunkin, used with permission. https://www.timhunkin.com/