Maker Movement Mania

Alternative Learning Is Transplanting Traditional Education for Makers

PSFK Labs iQ Content Partner
students listening to lecture

Alternative curricula are expanding the collective know-how of the maker community and providing valuable insights for inventors at any stage of their project.

According to, the four signs of being called to the Catholic priesthood are: Belief, Wonderment, Generosity & Service and Leadership. Whichever (or all) that a young man experiences, it promises a long, focused road through seminary and training to don the collar.

Makers, too, often talk of feeling called to their craft. Not content to build careers on the vocations of their parents (or the military), many are digging into their passion and making life changes to live closer to the kernel of their inspiration.

This emphasis on heeding their inner voices has given rise to a range of niche educational programs that, like seminary, offer makers key knowledge and insights specific to their craft. These ‘skills incubators’ are bringing makers together in collaborative, peer-to-peer settings where hackers and like-minded DIY-types can acquire what they need to take their visions to the next level.

brad hargreaves

One such program is General Assembly (GA), a global network of learning centers spread from Atlanta to Hong Kong, San Francisco to Sydney. We spoke with one of GA’s founding partners, Brad Hargreaves, to talk about the trend towards niche, maker-directed education and GA’s place in the mix.

Hargreaves emphasized that it’s hard to pick out specific trends in his industry, given the high rate of innovation and the speed with which things are changing. But he underscored the essential nature of what they and others are doing.

“We believe that being empowered to pursue work you love is incredibly important not just to the maker movement but to society as a whole and ensuring a more free and just society going forward,” said Hargreaves. To that end, GA aims to equip makers with the skills to dive deeply into an exciting new idea or career direction.


Topics of study at GA range from technology and design, to business and marketing, but there are certain fundamentals woven through the GA model. The first is the specificity of individual programs. Whether they are multi-week courses, one-day workshops or a series of online videos, each is designed to give participants precisely what they need, when they need it.

“We focus on what we call ROI-based education, which means that everything someone takes at General Assembly should have a pretty immediate return,” explained Hargreaves. “Even one of our 12-week, full-time programs is comparatively inexpensive to something like a college degree or a graduate school program.”

Makers don’t come to General Assembly to dream — they come to do, which necessitates curriculum that empowers and activates.

That said, too much specificity can lead a student astray, says Hargreaves. He uses the division between hardware and software as an example.

“We’re in a world where the hardware and the software layers are somewhat inseparable,” he said. “There’s software on top of almost anything these days. Understanding solely the hardware layer, without the appreciation of the software layer, I think will limit some of the abilities of the maker.”

students gathering

Programs at GA are also designed to cultivate the ‘soft skills’ that go along with the kind of work that many makers may ultimately tackle — especially in the realm of digital development. One key skill is collaboration.

“Projects are not done individually at organizations of any size or stage anymore,” said Hargreaves. “Our students graduate understanding not just how to work in groups, but how to leverage the skills that they’ve learned in the classroom while they’re working in a group of their peers.”

Since many people seek out GA for the skills to build a career out of their creative passion, Hargreaves says that new courses are designed with employers in mind.

“The first step whenever we have interest in building a new program is to go out and talk to 50 employers across our markets at different stages from startups to agencies to Fortune 500 companies and understand what their needs are,” he said.

And while GA is helping fill gaps in the marketplace, it is also leveraging fundamental maker philosophies to change the nature of work itself. Hargreaves says that many large organizations partner with GA not just for the sake of doing it, but because they want to make their organizations more innovative and build that culture of entrepreneurship and vigilant innovation.

NY startup community

That maker sensibility, says Hargreaves, is nurtured through programs like those at GA, but there’s a lot more work to be done.

“The barrier to making, by most definitions, is still high,” he said. For its part, GA is trying to increase the accessibility of maker culture beyond Silicon Valley and beyond simply those who started programming when they were 12.

Says Hargreaves, “A big, big piece is, I believe, increasing acceptability to traditionally underrepresented groups in technology as a whole, such as women, minorities, and veterans. There are so many creative people and so many great minds out there that aren’t being engaged right now.”

The Catholic church often cites Matthew 22:14 when addressing young men who would become priests: “Many are called, but few are chosen”. To the growing, global community of makers, skills incubators like General Assembly say: Many are called, and all are teachable.

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