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Screenshot Of Open Lab Canvas Remote Training Course.

Open Lab @ Canvas: Incorporating online training and remote learning into a makerspace’s hands-on culture

Makerspaces, conceptually, are built around communal, hands-on experiences where individuals learn by doing while learning from each other. How do you continue to teach transferable skills about design, making, and emerging technology when your learners don’t have access to your space, your resources, or your technologies in person? How to teach hands-on techniques such as lab courses online or remotely has long been a question of interest in the online education community.

Open Lab is a makerspace team within the University Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Pittsburgh. Our mission is to provide the support and resources necessary for anyone in the Pitt community to incorporate emerging technologies into their teaching, while providing a supportive environment for members of the Pitt community to engage in exploratory learning through making.

When our campus transitioned to remote learning in spring of 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, our team took the opportunity to create online learning modules so that students, faculty, and staff at the University of Pittsburgh could continue to learn the skills associated with making, even though they didn’t have access to our makerspaces. Combining the knowledge of our student staff – who normally perform the bulk of the face-to-face training – with the guidance of our staff instructional designer, we designed online learning modules on Canvas using backward design to ensure alignment of the modules with our desired learning objectives. These modules focus on skills necessary to use equipment or software commonly used in our makerspaces. For example, we have modules on Adobe Illustrator basics, on using Illustrator to create designs for the laser cutter and engraver, and on using the laser cutter and engraver safely and effectively. As these modules are asynchronous, learners can access them at any time or place convenient for them, and receive immediate feedback on their mastery of the objectives as assessed through auto-graded quizzes.

Once our staff was allowed to access our makerspace again, we were able to provide Pitt’s students, faculty, and staff access to making even though they were not yet back on campus. A learner could complete the relevant online modules and then submit their design to our team, and we would produce their object – using a 3D printer, laser cutter and engraver, or vinyl cutter – for contactless pickup. This set of online modules allowed us to maintain our focus on developing transferable skills in our users despite our users not having hands-on access to our equipment.

Now that we are all back on campus, we continue to use our online modules. In fall of 2021, we asked users to complete their training online before coming in to use our equipment, allowing us to give everyone a little more personal space in our small makerspaces. After assessing the feelings of our student staff and users about this implementation, we are now beginning to transition to a hybrid model: required online pre-training followed by the option of training either in-person or using an online module at the user’s preferred time and place. Everyone has different learning preferences, and for some, we predict that this continued option of learning in private before coming in and using equipment they’ve never encountered before will take some of the stress out of the situation.

Sera Thornton, PhD, Learning Scientist and Teaching Consultant

Aaron Graham, Manager, Open Lab 

Will Hinson, Emerging Technology Specialist

With thanks to our entire student staff, current and past, for their many contributions to this project!

For more information:

Open Lab website

Open Lab @ Canvas (your access will be limited if you do not have a Pitt account)

Contact us at

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