Erica Halverson

Meet Erica Halverson

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CIRCL perspectives offer a window into the different worlds of various stakeholders in the cyberlearning community — what drives their work, what they need to be successful, and what they think the community should be doing. Share your perspective.

Erica Halverson

Erica Halverson is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the School of Education.


How did you get started in cyberlearning?

My background is in the arts and learning. I got my PhD in Learning Sciences, but my disciplinary focus had been applying insights and questions in the learning sciences to a range of art making disciplines. My original art form was live theatre, but through my involvement in a MacArthur Foundation Grant I had the opportunity to study digital media art production, which is how I became interested in technology. Young people who produce live theater understand, cognitively and socioculturally, how to create representations of self. I’ve tried to apply that process towards other forms of learning in the arts. Subsequently, I got the opportunity to translate that into digital art and look at affordances of digital art making (filmmaking, radio) with a focus on the representational tools that digital art making affords.

Kim Sheridan, my co-PI on our CIRCL Cyberlearning grants, is also an arts and learning sciences person. It’s a small community; Kim is one of six or so other people I know who thinks about this. About five years ago, when I hadn’t yet heard of makerspaces, she explained to me how this emerging phenomenon takes the DIY ethos and transfers it into a learning environment. It looks very much like the communities of practice that we studied and understood in the context of artmaking. We thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we could take our shared perspective from the arts as learning and apply that to the way we might think about these emerging learning environments? So Kim and I wrote one of the first NSF grants to study how people learn through making and in makerspaces. We did some of the first ethnographic work looking at what makerspaces look like as learning environments, what range of learning arrangements are possible, who participates, and what these participants do when they are there. We also looked at how we characterize what is possible– both in terms of the practice of making and a research agenda around making.

With your years of maker experience, what else can you share about the Maker movement and Cyberlearning?

In the beginning of our research, there was a lot of “lumping stuff” together. We just said, “We’re studying the maker movement!” But what Kim and I found in our early investigations was that everything you can say about maker spaces as learning environments was not necessarily the same as what you can say about making as a set of activities. We found that there are three unique components to consider in the Maker Movement: making as a set of activities, makerspaces as learning environments, and makers as identities of participation. You can have making activities as a way to engage learners in a range of disciplinary practices that don’t necessarily have to go down in a makerspace. I think a lot of the enthusiasm for translating making into schools is much more about making as learning activities. However, we still need to explore these questions: What are those activities? How are they valuable in and of themselves? And how might they be valuable as jumping off points to the things that folks in other disciplines care about, most notably STEM related fields?

The next question is: How do we take these learning activities and learning practices and fit them to the ways we already structure schooling and teaching and the goals that we have for learners in traditional environments? The research on makerspaces tends to be more about re-envisioning learning environments, with less of a focus on learning activities themselves.

The third piece is around the makers, and their identities as learners and doers, and what that means for making activities and for makerspaces. There’s been a lot of talk around political agendas about equity and making that’s not necessarily directly related to activities or to the spaces as learning environments. How can we conceptualize what a maker identity is? Who gets to make, what counts as making, and how do we value a range of maker identities, so that more young people who might have agency and feel successful in those spaces can have agency and feel successful in other kinds of learning spaces?

So that was some of the foundational research that we did. At the beginning, we didn’t get into the nitty gritty, such as: What does a good activity look like? How do you measure learning? What kinds of tools do you need in a space? Instead, we focused on what is this thing (makerspace) and how we study it.

From there, we did a series of design experiments in partnership with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, which has one of the finest makerspaces in a museum in the country. One of the questions we looked at was: How do the outcomes looks different if students use a maker kit versus exploring an open-ended challenge? Through these design experiments, we learned that the students who used kits were more successful at making stuff that works. The students who worked on open ended explorations didn’t always have a design that worked, but they had more control, agency, and ownership of what they’ve learned.

One of the most important insights to note is that digital art making should not be a “one and done” proposition, but rather a process of ideation, iteration, and critique. A great example of this is MIT’s Build in Progress, a platform that gives the students a way to solidify their learning by explaining, making it a deeper understanding. It offers a diverse way to share the process of creating. It also affords other people to give feedback and expands the network of makers.

Are you struggling with anything?

One of the things I am wondering about is: Could it be possible to reframe instruction to be a distributive act? What if the teacher didn’t have to be the expert on everything? This could help broaden the range of teachers and tools. This takes the pressure off the teacher by bringing in things like instructional videos, manuals, expert students, and experts in other fields.

The second piece that comes to mind is: How do we fit this whole maker movement into schools without “killing it”? This momentum of making is extremely exciting and we have the chance to re-envision what learners and learning environments look like. Without understanding the learning behind making, I worry that we will try to put “Maker” in a box, with too many constraints. I’ve found that students who have greater freedom in making are more inspired and dedicated to their learning process.

What should the cyberlearning community be doing?

It’s all about broadening participation. CIRCL should continue to support a PI mentorship program which connects researchers from institutions familiar with the NSF cyberlearning process of funding with other researchers from smaller institutions. I know I really appreciated and learned a lot from my experience of being a mentor for CIRCL. We should connect teachers with researchers and to bring teachers in on research projects. Wouldn’t it be cool to have a platform where teachers could see what researchers are working on and connect with them? This would create a support network to help researchers translate their work to reach more audiences.

I would also like to see more outlets and support for non-academic, informal innovation. Where can this happen? How about having making be a part of core library services? The Madison Public Library opened a makerspace a few years ago that is a model of how libraries can transform themselves into centers for informal innovation. Cyberlearning is a pathway to funding these ventures, since much of what fuels innovation is making connections like what M.I.T. has done with Build in Progress.

That’s an interesting question. In the beginning, I didn’t jump directly into cyberlearning, as I am mainly interested in helping students who learn differently — students who have learning disabilities, ADHD, or are on the autism spectrum. I want to use whatever tools and technological resources that are available or that we can develop that will best help ensure that the students I work with will learn, enjoy learning, and be motivated and engaged in learning process.