The Danger of 1:1 3D Printing
The idea of ubiquitous personal FabLabs floats around #makered circles as a half-joke. It cracked up everyone in an impromptu hangout yesterday, partly because it seems so outlandish while we’e often struggling for a single Makerspace or CNC tool on campus. The 1:1 language also frames FabLabs* tools and MakerCulture in familiar terms and suggests that we can plan for the future. First a single lab, then blend #makered experiences into content curriculum, spread it across grade levels, provide classroom level tools…
Forgive us. Without careful minding we slip back into our bad old habits, pushing new tools through the same process that failed the last ones.
1:1 3D printing is going to happen sooner than we think, but it won’t look like a scaled up version of 2014. To think that ubiquitous access to FabLab tools will, by necessity, come along with ubiquitous FabLabs and MakerCulture, shows either optimism or a deep failure of imagination. Far more likely is that the forces that make these technologies ubiquitous will strip off many (if not most) of what excites us as learners and educators.
When Seymour Papert wrote Mindstorms, placing a single computer in a classroom was revolutionary and prohibitively expensive. I’ve worked in 1:1 K-12 environments going back over a decade, and not one of them has realized 10% of the Papert’s transformative vision.**
We have a 1:1 environment full of computing devices because Moore’s Law drove the devices to be better, faster, cheaper. Sadly there was no similar driving force to improve the educational environments in which we placed those devices. We say our schools have “1:1 computing,” but we offer nothing comparable to skills, agency and power implied by that term when used in 19X5. At any point in those decades, if you pinned down a group of technologists and asked them to envision a 1:1 environment of 2015, their predictions and extrapolations would have yielded a radically different vision. We always imagine that students will become increasingly more capable along with their devices. Instead, we’ve seen a decade of steady march where students, teachers and classrooms are doing less with more. Over 30 years, we’ve proven that traditional K-12 structure can squash the life out of even the most transformational thinking tool. Go team!
When we imagine a 1:1 FabLab environment, we can’t just picture a universe full of deep workbenches and tinkering students. These tools, or more specifically the products of these tools, will reach ubiquity as the software becomes simplified while the hardware gets better and faster. We should also imagine a possible 1:1 FabLab future that looks like a merger between Amazon Prime and cheaper Shapeways, completely removing tool access from the equation. The learning experience that we expect to see a K-12 Fablab student today, the experience we unconsciously project into our 1:1 FabLab future, might not have room to develop in that environment.
I’m skirting around a treacherous argument here, one that insists things need to be difficult to be worthwhile. I know that sentiment, rooted in privilege and defensive elitism, and I’m doing my best to stay clear. I spent an hour fighting with Eagle earlier today, and I’m certainly ready for a “for dummies” version of board layout software that sidesteps important complexity and nuance. I don’t want the 1:1 FabLab kids to have to build each printer from a kit, or wrestle with the same slicer headaches that my kids see now. I want cheaper, better, simpler tools, and I want more of them in more classrooms. All of this FabLab stuff can be, will be, way easier than it is right now. That’s awesome.
But when we revise these tools, when we write that software, ubiquity can’t serve as our primary goal. A FabLab future should be an environment where each student’s skills, imagination and creativity shapes their learning. We pushed for 1:1 computing and wound up with a world where students ride “bicycle for the mind” in endless, soulless spin class. We read Mindstorms (didn’t you?) and settled for Prezi.
The Maker movement and the FabLab tools, we have another opportunity to provide students with tools that empower them to build the new Gears*** of their own learning. When we can make those principles and that culture ubiquitous, then we’ll have a 1:1 initiative worth cheerleading.
*I use FabLab here as a umbrella term for the “noteworthy” CNC tools covered in the inventory.
*** More Papert