This article was first published on O’Reilly Radar on May 15, 2012

Create, disassemble, repurpose! DIY-ers relentlessly void warranties and crack manufacturers’ cases, showing us what is possible when people decide that they, not the vendors, truly own the technology they have purchased. “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it,” the Make Owner’s Manifesto tells us.

This DIY ethic is now seeping into one of the most locked-down social institutions in existence: education. Educators, parents, technologists, students, and others have begun looking at the components, subassemblies, assemblies and specifications of excellent education and are finding ways to improve, reimagine, and reinvent learning at every level. They are inspired by a multiplicity of sources, from neuroscience to gaming, to knock down the barriers to learning that exist for so many young people. In every way, they are looking at the components of teaching and learning, and finding ways to re-create them to be more efficient; more effective; and, critically, more modular.

The disassembly of traditional educational products and processes into modular pieces invites students and educators to mash up apps and lessons and processes in ways that are more appealing, enjoyable, or effective for a particular learner or group. This puts us on the path to personalized learning. It weakens the requirement for students to learn together in lockstep, covering the same material at the same pace at the same time by listening to lectures in the same room and turning in the same homework on the same morning. It invites tinkering with different ways to break apart building blocks and put them back together while creating room for new building blocks to fit into those emerging structures.

What do these building blocks look like? They include content that gives everyone with an Internet connection access to free lessons on just about any topic from the Khan academy to MIT Open courseware and lots more. There are videos and simulations such as those created by University of Colorado’s PHET that show processes and concepts that are difficult to visualize. We see platforms like Edmodo that let students and educators communicate with each other any place any time via the Internet. There are augmented reality applications and immersive interfaces for learning. There are a host of apps and software that let students learn new concepts and drill important skills in ways that are more engaging than worksheets and textbooks.

The tools and technologies that are cherry-picked online or handcrafted by educators and learners enable more choices, more freedom, more personalization and more ownership than ever was possible with one teacher, 30 kids, and old-school print resources. We are beginning to see what is possible when learners, not institutions, own the education that is going to define their lives.

Improving schooling

Schoolers recombine the components of education to make schools better. They seek to increase opportunities for all students to be well prepared for college and careers that will allow them to participate economically on a level playing field in a global market.

Schoolers are applying new tools to traditional goals to crack open the case on the traditional schoolhouse. With laptops, tablets, and cell phones, students no longer wait to be spoon-fed information, but reach out beyond the walls of the classroom for images, information, and insights at the moment the question arises for them. Social learning sprawls beyond two-hour “group work” to anytime, anyplace collaborations using tools like Google Docs, Edmodo, text messaging, and even Facebook. Via Skype and video streaming, experts can visit classrooms and engage in meaningful talks with students both as individuals and in groups. Schools are using “blended learning” (combining online learning with brick-and-mortar schools) to let students work at their own pace and study topics that interest them beyond the classes they can afford to offer. Students across the globe connect with each other, learn how other cultures see them, and are bemused by the misperceptions.

We see flipped classrooms where students listen to lectures via podcast at home, leaving more face-to-face class time for deeper exploration, critical thinking work, and discussion. We see at-risk students moving from low achievement and aspirations in math to completing AP courses and heading for college once they start using mobile devices for peer mentoring and developing learning communities. We see young people eager to spend more time on math, thanks to engaging apps and competitive leader boards. Most importantly, we see students gaining a sense of agency in their own learning — education is less something that is done to them, and more something they own.

Re-specifying education

Edupunks take educational building blocks and repurpose them in ways ranging from the mundane to the nearly unrecognizable. Not content with improving schooling, the movement is deeply infused with a DIY ethic that questions the purpose of education and the legitimacy of institutional definitions. In effect, they place the right and responsibility of defining educational goals and approaches on learners and their communities, and put the disassembled building blocks of educational technology to personal use.

We see Edupunk teens and young adults creating their own majors; creating new jobs and careers; learning through travel, work, apprenticeship; and getting traditional college schooling online without incurring massive college debt. The Edupunk’s Guide to a DIY Credential asks young people to create their own learning plan, keeping in mind that “‘I want a college degree’ is not a goal, because it’s not an end in itself.”

We see Edupunk alternatives to traditional, costly college credentialing, including online universities, Udacity and University of the People. We see Edupunk parents creating alternatives to coercive education, such as Unschooling, where children learn through play, participation in work and household responsibilities, and other life experiences, hoping that their children will learn not only the basic skills needed to be effective in their lives and communities, but also retain their joy, creativity, and initiative.

We see Edupunk technologists and innovators finding ways to replace institutionally defined, expensive learning tools and materials with modular, free and open alternatives, such as Open Education Resources, Moodle, CK12, and many more. We also see free tech, such as the curation software from Pathbrite, that lets us show off our accomplishments much more richly with portfolios than with grades.

Making to learn and learning to make

Makers participate in a DIY community that embraces “technology on their own time.” At Maker Faire, we can see projects that call for the knowledge, talent, and skill of a 21st-century Renaissance person. We also become immersed in an eclectic community of modern innovators who take joy in the hard work of creation and in sharing not only completed projects and achievements, but their knowledge, ideas, and tricks of the trade.

When we talk about making and learning, we usually do so from two perspectives: “making to learn” and “learning to make.” “Making to learn” refers to the phenomenon that real learning is an inevitable side effect of making. In this context, the learning serves the maker’s own true purposes (as opposed to simply winning good grades). That means that the learning is deep and meaningful, and stays with the maker.

Much of this learning turns out to be the kind that is valued in schooling, such as electronics, programming, and other skills and knowledge that are valuable to the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Even more of this learning turns out to be the kind that is valuable in life, such as the perseverance to achieve ambitious goals, even in the face of obstacles; the technical fluency to use modern resources such as Instructables, YouTube, blogs, and other online sources; and the collaboration skills required for participating in communities that are local and face-to-face as well as those that are global and virtual.

“Learning to make” refers to the intentionality with which makers pursue the skills and knowledge they need for their projects. Makers learn their trades through traditional and non-traditional means. They may take a welding class at a local maker space, take a programming class at a community college, get advice from other makers at a local Dorkbot meetup, or figure things out through trial and error. Makers become expert learners.

Importantly, at a time when we are struggling nationally with a fundamentally flawed system to test and grade children to make sure they are learning, the maker community shows us another viable and proven approach. As with authentic communities of practice or learning communities, makers respect contribution and work at all levels of proficiency and innovation. The standard of excellence is set by an emergent, distributed consensus where makers individually and collectively recognize great work when they see it and use the example of others to raise the bar for their own work. Ron Berger explains how setting the bar for quality work in a classroom works very similarly in his book, “An Ethic of Excellence.”

Sharing the experience at Maker Faire

This year’s Maker Faire is coming up this weekend and is an unparalleled opportunity to experience the DIY ethic as it applies to young people first hand. Families with kids ranging from toddlers to teens will make rockets, learn how to solder, sew, and make all kinds of interesting projects. Young Makers will show off the ambitious projects they have developed over the past year. EdSurge and the Charter School Growth Fund will host a DIY Learning Pavilion where some of the building blocks of DIY learning will be exhibited as well as examples of how they are repurposed by schoolers, Edupunks, and makers alike. This year, visitors will be participating in DIY learning as they engage with makers and participate in making their own projects all over the Faire as well as building a collective learning portfolio with Pathbrite.

In a pretty fundamental way, DIY is intrinsically about owning your learning as well as your hardware. No wonder there is a growing movement to open it up, void the warranty, and tinker. What will you make of it?