No Timmy, we're not preparing you for a life of mindless drudgery! PD, via Wikimedia Commons.No Timmy, we’re not preparing you for a life of mindless drudgery! PD, via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s funny, how obsessed we are with qualifications these days. Kids go to school and are immediately thrust into a relentless machine of tests, league tables, and exams. They are ruthlessly judged on grades, yet both the knowledge and qualifications those grades represent so often boil down to relatively useless pieces of paper. It doesn’t even end for the poor youngsters when they leave school, for we are now in an age in which when on moving on from school a greater number of them than ever before are expected to go to university. They emerge three years later carrying a student debt and a freshly-printed degree certificate, only to find that all this education hasn’t really taught them the stuff they really need to do whatever job they land.

A gold standard of education is revealed as an expensive piece of paper with a networking opportunity if you are lucky. You need it to get the job, but in most cases the job overestimates the requirement for it. When a prospective employer ignores twenty years of industry experience to ask you what class of degree you got twenty years ago you begin to see the farcical nature of the situation.

In our hackspaces, we see plenty of people engaged in this educational treadmill. From high schoolers desperately seeking to learn something other than simply how to regurgitate the textbook, through university students seeking an environment closer to an industrial lab or workshop, to perhaps most interestingly those young people who have eschewed university and gone straight from school into their own startups.

The Hackspace As A Learning Environment

This book is a lifesaver in a lecture theatre, but not so much in a hackspace.This book is a lifesaver in a lecture theatre, but not so much in a hackspace.

All these people and many others come to our spaces to learn things. It’s not a replacement for an engineering degree, after all you won’t learn the concepts in [Stroud] alongside the 3D printer, but in a lot of cases what can be learned is equally as useful as anything you will learn in a lecture theatre. Through access to the facilities and probably more importantly the rest of the membership of a thriving hackspace, you can learn about manufacturing. Taking a hobby project, turning it into a prototype, where to go next when you want to turn it into a product, and even the mechanics of setting up your own startup.

Universities try to expose students to some of these things, but it’s sadly the case that they get lost in the noise as they also try to hammer all that maths or digital logic into their heads. Meanwhile at the hackspace these and many more useful skills are yours for the taking, and members proceed to heap their plates with this knowledge opportunity.

The trouble with picking up knowledge in a hackspace is that you don’t have anything to show for it afterwards. We’re back to the first paragraph above again: without a bit of paper accompanying it, a piece of knowledge is a devalued currency to a lot of people who unfortunately matter. It’s useful to talk about it when you get to that job interview, but your résumé won’t have it in the list of qualifications so when it has to get past the administrative staff who open the envelopes and make the first cut you’ll go straight in the round file. Put it in the work experience list and it won’t mean much to them.

Meaningful Bits Of Paper

So what’s to be done? As a hackspace director I can issue a bit of paper: “[Jane] has used our hackspace to design her electronic product, she has brought it through three rounds of prototypes making printed circuit boards and 3D printed enclosures, she waged a succesful Kickstarter campaign to launch it and built her own online shop to sell it afterwards, signed [Jenny List], Director”. But sadly my word doesn’t stand for much, and it wouldn’t be taken seriously if presented as a qualification.

If you were to ask me, I’d make a case for a centralized certification scheme for skills gained in our environment. If you can create a CAD model and 3D print it, or if you can design a PCB and reflow a batch of boards, you should be able to say so in a manner that will be recognized, or at least is verifiable. The snag is of course, how might a loosely affiliated network of independent and often cash-strapped hackspaces produce a certification scheme with the required traceability and rigor to be taken seriously as a qualification? It’s not an easy task at all, verifying a qualification in that environment.

Perhaps it might be achieved by reference to multiple sources, for example if someone learns to use a 3D printer with us then they could only apply for a certificate to say so when it is accompanied by evidence that they have demonstrated that skill to a couple of other hackspaces also participating in the scheme. Cumbersome and inconvenient in that it necessitates travel, but at least it would provide some rigor.

There are multiple functions a hackspace fulfills aside from the obvious one of being a workshop. Community, support group, knowledge base, and many more. Why shouldn’t “education hub” be added to that list? Does your space find itself in this role? How might the suggestion above about how it could be formalised be improved? Let us know in the comments.

[Jenny List] is a director of Oxford Hackspace when she is not writing for Hackaday.