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What Is Digital Making?

What is Digital Making? Discover how this affects young people.
© Nesta 2015

What is ‘digital making’, and how is this emerging field affecting young people?

This piece is written by Oliver Quinlan, Senior Research Manager at The Raspberry Pi Foundation. He previously worked for Nesta, where he produced the Young Digital Makers report exploring the emerging field of digital making for young people in the UK.

“Digital skills, digital literacies, digital creativity — there are many terms used by different people in different ways in this area. Since 2012, Nesta and others have been emphasising digital making as distinct from simply using digital devices. From programming entirely on a computer to designing and 3D-printing physical objects, digital making represents a diverse range of activities. It doesn’t include checking your email or browsing a website (clearly digital, but not making). It isn’t the array of making activities young people take part in without technology.

Nesta’s Digital Makers Fund focused on learning through making an end product in such a way that young people learn about the underlying technologies they use and how they work. We supported organisations that encourage young people to ‘look under the hood’ of technology while they are making. Other groups refer to digital making more broadly. They would include activities such as producing your own electronic music or editing a video. These activities may not involve understanding how the fundamental technology works, but do involve manipulating it using existing tools in creative ways.

There is debate and discussion over the array of activities that come under the broad umbrella term of ‘digital making’. We feel it is helpful for organisations to clearly describe what they mean by the term, but it may be less productive to try to distill it into a universal definition.

As tools advance, some tasks become more possible without needing to manipulate the underlying technology, whilst the possibilities that can be achieved with technical skills expand. Some young people may come to digital making through an initially creative and less technology-focused avenue, such as music-making. As their ambitions for their finished products grow, they may begin programming their own instruments or effects and delving into the technology to achieve the ends they have in mind. To limit the definition of digital making runs the risk of shutting out such avenues, and also the possibility that making activities will shift between different levels of creativity and different levels of technical skill. We could conceptualise digital making projects as relating to two axes; one for the level of creativity and one for the level of technical understanding and skill required.

All digital-making projects will sit somewhere on these axes. Any project may have different elements or phases that sit in different parts of the diagram. Some children will be motivated by the sense of achievement that technical skills give them; others, coming from the other direction, will be enticed by the creative possibilities of using existing tools. What is important is that there are multiple entry points for different groups of young people and that there is a potential for moving into different areas. Even activities low on both axes, representing minimally creative and minimally technical projects, can play a role in introducing young people to the possibilities of digital making in a way that has a low barrier to entry and could build confidence.

Although we think it is useful to consider these distinctions, for this work we took a broad look at digital making. We recognise that the term is used to represent a continuum of skills and understanding. As Sefton–Green and Brown’s recent research into learning journeys in digital creativity demonstrated, the pathways young people take are often nuanced, sometimes messy, and always individual, just like the most authentic learning. For the purposes of our surveys of young people, parents and carers, and teachers, we defined digital making as learning about technology through making with it. However, we also asked them about interests and activities that might be seen as more broadly digitally creative, many of which were very popular. In selecting which organisations to talk to, we sought those who self–identified as being involved in digital making, without strictly judging whether their activities fitted our preconceptions. This growing field is defining itself, so we sought to understand what kinds of activities those self–identifying with digital making provide.

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© Nesta 2015
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