Open Source 3D Printing as a Means of Learning in Two High Schools in Greece
Full reference: Kostakis, V., Niaros, V. & Giotitsas, C. (Forthcoming). Open source 3d printing as a means of learning: An educational experiment in two high schools in Greece. To be published.
This research project attempts to examine to what extent the technological capabilities of open source 3D printing could serve as a means of learning and communication. The learning theory of constructionism is used as a theoretical framework in creating an experimental educational scenario focused on 3D design and printing. In this paper, we document our experience and discuss our findings from a three-month project run in two high schools in Ioannina, Greece. 33 students were tasked to collaboratively design and produce, with the aid of an open source 3D printer and a 3D design platform, creative artifacts. Most of these artifacts carry messages in the Braille language. Our next goal, which defined this project's context, is to send the products to blind children inaugurating a novel way of communication and collaboration amongst blind and non-blind students. Our experience, so far, is positive arguing that 3D printing and design can electrify various literacies and creative capacities of children in accordance with the spirit of the interconnected, information-based world.
Echoing Papert (1993, p. 216), this research project does not, and cannot, single-handedly invent mega-change but seeks to participate in its emergence. The case studies of the first phase were realistically modest in scale and were offered not “as exact pictures of the future but rather as an intimation of the rich potential that the future might hold” (Papert 1993, p. 6). Through this three-month educational experiment we attempted to shed light on the effects 3D printing could have as a learning tool, helping students to become literate, i.e., to think differently than they did previously and, thus, see the world differently (Freire, 2000, 2005; Papert, 1993).
This was not a process without challenges. First of all, there are differences at the level of technological literacy among students. Despite the fact that most possess basic skills in ICT, some are more “engaged” than others, creating an uneven field in the classroom. To tackle such a challenge the teacher needs to distribute his focus accordingly so that all students achieve the same level of understanding and knowledge gained. This was further evident in our case study, since the equipment used exceeds that of standard ICT classes. It demanded first the familiarization of the teachers with the 3D printer and extra caution in the explanation of key concepts and principles, so that all students could proceed without falling behind. In addition, allowing the students to create an artifact with very few restrictions, resulted in a wide variety of objects that made it challenging to provide proper consultation on the various obstacles that occasionally appeared. However, through dialog and experimentation, but also information available on the Internet, these obstacles were overcome. Further, the cost of such equipment (3D printer) currently limits the possibility of acquiring several units for the convenience of students. Even in our case where an open source 3D printer was used, whose cost is significantly lower than the proprietary ones, the schools found it difficult to apprehend one. Also, technical issues demand further familiarization of the teachers with the hardware and their keeping up with advances in technology. These advances will eventually allow for cheaper, faster and more accurate 3D printers to find their way into schools.
Our overall experience was certainly positive arguing that 3D printing and design can electrify various literacies and creative capacities of children in accordance with the spirit of the networked, interconnected, information-based world. We have seen that students, who were otherwise indifferent (according to them and their teachers) about their project class, when given proper stimulation and the necessary tools can choose what to learn themselves through exploration. Thus, addressing our initial question, modern ICT can help in creating a lively environment in a classroom where, as in our case, students may truly engage in the whole process by materializing an artifact out of a mere idea. Then proudly share their results with others while they acquire knowledge instead of dry information out of textbooks. Of course, more research needs to be done in different frameworks and contexts than ours focusing not only on open source 3D printing but also on other open source hardware such as the Arduino micro-controllers. And there are three main reasons for that: first, open hardware is cheap and hi-tech; second, it is open and, thus, can be easily studied and modified to serve certain educational purposes; and third, it is a product that celebrates the power of human cooperation. In addition, as already stated in this article, the communicational aspect of 3D printing (especially in the context of the blind and non-blind) along with the global, Commons-oriented information production (for example, the ability to design globally but produce locally) will be one of our next research pathways. We would be happy to see other efforts in that or even alternative directions, sharing, however, the goal to educate children so they can creatively face a future that we may never see.