Skilling and learning through digital DIY

In this blog post, we’d like to show our preliminary reflections on the opportunity provided by the analysis of the current trend of digital fabrication-based DIY – or simply of digital DIY – for a better understanding of the acquisition and development of key competences for the next century citizens and workers.

The intellectual capital of citizens is envisaged as the driving force for the 21st century (Sahin, 2009), during which a global paradigm shift is affecting frames of reference about the ways of life, work, and society, and how they are viewed and organised. Advanced economies, innovative industries and firms and high-growth jobs require more skilled and empowered workers with the ability to respond flexibly to complex problems, communicate effectively, manage information, work in teams and produce new knowledge.

The acquisition of different forms of knowledge and skills is needed for people to thrive as tomorrow's leaders, workers, and citizens in a constantly changing world and never-ending learning process. To cope with the demands of this century, people need to know more than core subjects and to develop such skills as thinking critically, applying knowledge to new situations, analysing information, comprehending new ideas, communicating, collaborating, solving problems, making decisions (Sahin, 2009). In particular, creativity and the ability to produce ideas, knowledge and innovations are key players as they represent the intangible substrate for innovation (Kozbelt et al. 2010). However their management requires the development of specific techniques and educational programmes.

Such key competences have been widely defined and work programmes have been activated to promote their application among the educational and work fields, such as the Lifelong Learning programme edited by the European Commission (2006/962/EC) and the 21st century skills promoted by the ‘Partnership for the 21st century skills’ and the National Research Council across the United States.

Since the last decades of the 20th century, research in learning processes has suggested the importance of making and doing as a means to foster the acquisition of these skills, in particular the Constructionism-based theories which build learning on creativity, tinkering, exploring, building, and presentation (Papert, 1980). Making encourages a deep engagement with content, critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration while sparking curiosity. As a consequence it is agreed that making fosters lifelong learning by encouraging learning by doing (Peppler and Bender, 2013).

Digital DIY is here envisaged as a creative practice, which may engage a wider audience in the development of these skills, thus increasing their self-confidence and empowerment. Our analysis frames digital DIY as a social practice constituted by tangible resources, motivational aspects and (especially creative) competences, the interaction of which enables the development of a collaboration-based phenomenon of social innovation. A number of researchers and educational leaders see the potential to engage young people in personally compelling, creative investigations of the material and social world in the digital DIY (Vossoughi and Bevans, 2014).

Therefore, observing and understanding the dynamics of making-based activities could shed more light on how creativity unfolds and skills are acquired.

The contemporary making attitude is considered creative, innovative, inventive, collaborative, resourceful and empowering. Makers and digital DIYers play with technology to learn about it, to figure out how things are made, how to fix them, or how to use them in a whole new way. They are non-linear thinkers, curious inventors and problem-solvers.

The socio-technical change taking place has dramatically contributed to reshape (at least some streams of) DIY towards a phenomenon of social innovation, moving from a more traditional individualistic practice to a collaborative one for positive impact on society.

We believe that the exploration of the digital DIY phenomenon may generate beneficial insights for the facilitation of the acquisition and development of the key competences. However, these opportunities are still debated in literature. In fact, the spreading of digital fabrication raises arguments on its potentially skilling or even deskilling effect on people (Hielscher and Smith, 2014). "On the one hand, these technologies are said to encourage passive consumers to engage in creative making process in their spare time without having to pick up years of craft learning – reskilling, whilst on the other, they are said to automate making processes previously requiring craft skill – deskilling." (Ree, 2011:34)

However, little research has addresses such debate through empirical investigation and direct observation. In the next steps of our research we aim at a better understanding the skilling potential of the digital DIY practice, starting from the clearer definition of the key competences involved in this practice and the observation of the dynamics linking the different elements which may foster their acquisition and development.


Giuseppe Salvia and the Polimi team



EU Commission (2006) Recommendation of the European Parliament and of the Council of 18 December 2006 on key competences for life- long learning, (2006/962/EC) LexUriServ/site/en/oj/2006/l_394 /l_39420061230en00100018.pdf

Hielscher, S., & Smith, A. (2014). Community-based digital fabrication workshops: A review of the research literature (No. 08). SPRU Working Paper Series.

Kozbelt, A., Beghetto, R. A., & Runco, M. A. (2010). Theories of creativity. In Kaufman, J. C., & Sternberg, R. J. (Eds.). (2010). The Cambridge handbook of creativity. Cambridge University Press, 20-47.

Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, Computers, And Powerful Ideas. New York: Basic Books.

Peppler, K., & Bender, S. (2013). Maker movement spreads innovation one project at a time. Phi Delta Kappan, 95(3), 6.

Ree, R. (2011). 3D Printing : Convergences , Frictions , Fluidity. University of Toronto: Master thesis.

Sahin, M. C. (2009). Instructional design principles for 21 st century learning skills, 1(1), 1464–1468.

Vossoughi, S., & Bevan, B. (2014). Making and Tinkering : A Review of the Literature.