After some great responses to the hackerspace and formal education discussion at the monthly Dublin GTUG meet up I would like to make a few comments on the topic.
I don't want to be controversial but I do have to be a bit critical of the event for the very reason Seán mentions: A panel in which 4 out of 5 participants (plus the host) are clearly on one side, and the reamining participant doesn't take sides, can not generate much discussion. On top of that, if you frame it within a local group meetup, where at least a 90% of the people are also going to be on the hackerspace side... well, what can I say?
And don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed the session and I think some very good points were brought up but it would be very interesting to hear some arguments from the other side. Not only from an academic point of view, but running a hackerspace within a college (as it seems to be one of the suggestions) carries a lot of administrative issues such as access to the space, who pays for stuff and how that affects group dynamics (seems like at least the Dublin hackerspace guys prefer to stay away from external funding), who is responsible and liable in the case of anything bad happening, and so on. There are a bunch of issues that we missed out on because there was no one there to expose them.
A point that was fairly commented on was assessment, which is (in my opinion) the hardest topic in education, and (again in my opinion) the one that should be the focus of all potential integration of hackerspaces and formal education.
I am all for innovative and creative educational experiences but SADLY students are still evaluated in isolation and in an environment where collaboration is considered cheating.
This needs changing but hackerspaces only provide for the first part of the equation and assessment is not even an issue. Or is it?
I'd say that there is always assessment in all kind of social interactions. You are obviously not going to be awarded a degree in your hackerspace but there are other kinds of peer review and recognition patterns going on. More active members will become part of the organisation, running courses and leading events, or getting praise and recognition for the pieces they hack together. That peer recognition is obviously enough to motivate involvement with the community so could we use that as a basis for more formal assessment? I would like to hear the thoughts of academics on this (although I might not like what I hear back!).
The panel mentioned ditching standardised tests in favour of a viva after 4 years undergrad, bringing the post-graduate model into undergrad. I'd be happy with that too.
I would also like to comment on a couple of points about formal education that I felt (personal opinion) that were not all that fair. We've all seen Sir Ken Robinson's TED talks and RSA video many times and know that education is rotten but universities can also be places for innovation and fun stuff; you can see it around any postgrad lab where people are given the freedom to work on what they are more interested in. It was mentioned that students coming from a hackerspace background can do really creative projects so it is unfair to say that that does not happen.
Another comment from the host I would like to point out is that he mentioned his disappointment after entering a university classroom not long ago and seeing a waterfall model in a whiteboard (or a similar situation).
I'd say there is nothing wrong with studying waterfall this day and age. The real problem would be if the topic ended there and no other alternatives were discussed. I bring up this because I think in our field (talking about software development) we don't pay enough attention to the past and we are therefore bound to repeat the same mistakes. This is why classic books such as The Mythical Man-Month or The Psychology of Computer Programming remain very much current, even though they were written many years before about half of the audience at the discussion where even born!
Another fair point made by the panel was the big gap between education and the workplace, which funnily enough is my research topic. I still don't have a solution for that, but as soon as I get it sorted you'll be the first ones to know... yeah, that's supposed to be a joke. A bad one. I know.
So as Seán mentions there are a lot of unaswered questions and I would like to bring up another one here: If we are all in the hackerspace side... why are we all still getting degrees?
All panellist have degrees, are working towards one (or more), or expecting to get enough points to get into one.
John Looney mentioned that Google hires people with no degrees (about a 10% of current staff if I heard correctly?) so why are we still going through the pain of getting one?
(Lecturer) Mark described the process as something like yearly semaphores that are used to sort people into groups and keep them entertained for a while. Is the social pressure worth all that pain?
It was very funny to hear one of the guys from 091 Labs in Galway commenting on the Irish mums effect, that can affect how courses can be considered good or bad.
And talking about mums, wouldn't it be nice that instead of being proud of their kid's degrees they'd be proud of their kids spending all evenings at the local hackerspace? Can we make that happen?
As a personal note, I would like to add that I completely disagree with the comments about free education filling up lecture theatres with people that somehow do not deserve being there.
I would hope we could focus on challenging those fake social needs that equate having a degree with being 'someone'. In that case only people with a real interest would go to college, regardless of their parents (or themselves) having the money (or not) to pay for fees.
Utopian? yes, and almost as unachievable as teaching kids IT skills (Coder Dojo, computer club house, Camara), getting people to build stuff (TOG, 091labs Nexus, Milklabs), or creating great software and communities through volunteer work (Apache Foundation, GNU OS, P2PU, Open Wonderland).