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Guest Blog: “Adding to the Open Ecosystem: Open Source Hardware” by Beverley Gibbs

IMAGE: Courtesy Joshua Astley. To see what happens to this panda, come to our talk on 10th April 2.35pm, and visit Josh’s project page at


“Whatever good things we build end up building us” Jim Rohn, entrepreneur

I’m a practical kind of person. I like ideas, love them in fact, but always want to know how I can use them, implement them, how they can change what I do and how I do it, and how they can help me think differently. My first foray into the open ecosystem was from the perspectives of research funders and ‘open’ as a driver for responsible innovation.  Since then, as I have undertaken a teaching-specialist career, I’ve become more engaged with Open Education Resources and really thinking critically about what open education might mean in contemporary Higher Education, and particularly in engineering.  First and foremost, it makes me think critically about where the value is in an engineering education and what the role of foundational knowledge is in that.

A critical part of an engineering education is the development of practical and interpersonal skills necessary to create value. Traditionally, these have been less amenable to open interventions requiring physical equipment, materials and supervision. And yet, these ways of making have been integral to humankind for 2 million years and have persisted through industrial revolutions as artisan culture. More recently, this has become recognisable as the maker movement.

Since the millennium, two technologies have dovetailed to catalyse what has come to be called Open Source Hardware: digital access and smaller-scale, digitally enabled manufacturing such as 3D printing.  Open source design draws on open source software (software whose source code is released with the freedom for users to change and redistribute it), and open source hardware (pieces of technology and equipment released with design drawings, bills of materials, circuit designs made freely available online) to give users working technologies they can build, use, adapt, improve and re-share. This has been a significant expansion of the open ecosystem in recent years.

My colleague David Polson is leading the way on this at Sheffield, and I see a great deal of potential in Open Source Hardware in HE, and at #OER19 we will be sharing the joys and challenges we have experienced in trialling this kind of work in engineering education, and our reflections on opportunities for formal and informal education.  We will draw on experience (and hopefully bring some kit!) based on students building:

Beyond technical skills, open source hardware can help students think more creatively about the commercial, legal and social context of engineering practice. They can personalise their learning experience and see a whole realm of practitioners who lie beyond the walls of the University. In short, open source hardware is not just a technical catalyst but an opportunity for global citizenship.  There are collaborators around the world who can help students make their projects work, and who – in turn – students can learn to work alongside, directing their expertise towards. This doesn’t always come naturally, to the institution or to our students, and we will share barriers – some of which we have overcome and some we’re still working on. We’re excited to be coming to #OER19 and having the opportunity to reflect on our work to date. We’re particularly looking forward to learning from more experienced open practitioners and scholars to see what lessons can be learned from elsewhere in the open ecosystem and testing our views on what distinguishes the hardware world.

by Beverley Gibbs

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