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GeneralAssemb.ly – Hackerspace of Tomorrow

ARE HACKERSPACES THE THE FUTURE OF ALTERNATIVE LEARNING

Having spent the majority of my life in Southern California, Hackerspaces and Makerspaces are few and far between. At least from my perspective. Despite being a native not just to the area but to many subcultural groups, specifically techie oriented and arts and culture groups most activities existed in our own personal garages. Since moving to New York in December and having been introduced to these fantastic ventures, a few things have come into perspective for me.

Recently after researching many and visiting several different spaces in both Manhattan and Brooklyn I had come across a facility that looks less like a traditional Hackerspace/Makerspace and more like what the future manifestation of these institutions.

I started going through their offerings online:

-Behavioral Economics for Startups

-Introduction to the NYC Startup Community

-Intro to Programming for Non-Programmers

-How to Be a Creator on Tumblr (This is actually a FREE online Livestream course)

Finally, on Tuesday night, I entered the GeneralAssemb.ly Flatiron Campus at 902 Broadway.

GeneralAssemb.ly is almost less of a traditional DIY style Hackerspace and more like a more organized semi-syndicated chain of alternative education institutions and career resource centers. Slightly more commercial in its style and appearance but very much in line with the tradition of a 3rdWard or AlphaOneLabs in terms of cost and the tongue and cheek ‘in it for the LULZ’ attitude that seems to be the foundation of these places. An example of this was when the course professor sent out a post to the class with a link to downloadable e-books on various IT subjects with the note “I’m not really sure if this is legal or not yet, but download them while you can.” The link was an easily navigable website with hundreds of books on everything from software coding efficiency theory to some of the MAKE series books on Arduino and Kinect.

I had decided to jump in big. I have been looking for an intensive structured course that would help me to dive back into computer programming and orient me with the modern developments and platforms that are out there. Many of their classes are similar to what you would find in a Hackerspace; between $25-300 dollars, ranging from an afternoon seminar or workshop, to a weekend long or twice a week-month long course. GeneralAssemb.ly having the money and infrastructure which appears to be driven much by the tech startup community, also teaches some extended educational ventures such as 8 and 16 week long deep dive, multi-topic courses. Having now dabbled in the Hackerspace world I wanted to dive in big, make a commitment that would give me enough structure so as to remain motivated. I signed up on the form for a 16 week, twice a week, 3 hour a day course that covers Front-End and Back-End development for web and mobile. A comprehensive learning immersion that would cover a nice chunk of the alphabet soup of web development: HTML, CSS, JAVASCRIPT, AJAX, PHP and RUBY/RAILS. After filling out the form I had realized I was simply ‘applying’ for the course. This was puzzling. I then saw the price, which was a whopping $5000 dollars. Now, the value in terms of potential employment and education could be much higher than that, and if I am frugal over the next few months I would be able to afford it… maybe. Either way, it didn’t land me at a confirmation page. Instead I got an email confirmation telling me that someone from GeneralAssemb.ly would be in touch with me.

About two days later I received a phone call from a young woman who wanted to ask me some questions and make sure that the class was a right fit for me. Which was a positive experience for me, as it gave me the impression that the principles that this institution operates on is based on its service to its students, not just to collect high tuition fees. After going through the motions, she then asked me how I’d like to structure a payment plan on the tuition. Bonus Points for GA! So basically I was able to attain a long-term professional high tech master training experience being facilitated by the same professionals operating major tech companies, and made to work within my budget? On the face GA seems like its a commercial enterprise, a high tech Learning Annex of sorts, but their alternative approach to everything from making sure I personally am not wasting my money or time on a class not right for me all the way to making sure I can pay it down however is most affordable for me, really gives it the sort of fundamentals of the DIY Hackerspace.

On Tuesday, I showed up with my laptop, went upstairs and on the tables there were shopping bags at each seat that read “It doesn’t hurt to look.”

These apparently were left over GA ‘shwag’ from their last job fair. I’m thinking to myself “Job fair?” How cool right? Inside was a folder, with some basic information, a course syllabus and the coolest ‘goodie’ in the ‘goodie bag.’ It was three Coupons to be used for almost any of their regular classes. Which led me to believe despite having the appearance and front end of a commercial for-profit trade/vocational school, GA really was making the building of a community a major priority.

With the election over, and all the talk about what a 2nd term agenda is going to look like for the Obama administration, I can’t help thinking about my GA experience and all of the articles, talking heads, political speeches and books I’ve taken notice of this past two years in regards to the importance of growing alternative educational and vocational skills in the American workforce.

I have had a pretty firm belief in the Hackerspace concept as an early blueprint that is paving the way for a needed alternative to traditional post-secondary college education. The other day on the news I heard Ed Rendell, former Governor of Pennsylvania on MSNBC talk about how this country needs some welders, some high tech workers and not all of these jobs require a full liberal arts education. Not everyone can afford it and frankly not everyone wants it. I am in no way demeaning the value of a traditional University but the potential for Hackerspaces and Makerspaces to support the Chris Anderson version of the ‘Maker Revolution’ could potentially lift the United States as well as the rest of the world in a new era of economic and technological progress. It takes the nonsense political argument of “Makers vs. Takers” heard during the election on its head.

A few weeks ago I got to attend a two day graduate masterclass here at the New School called “Critical Internet Cultures” with the Institute of Network Culture’s Geert Lovink. Something he had said stuck with me, which was “Avoid at all costs the supermarket model of the traditional arts education.” Some may think this is controversial but I understood it completely. I think that the foundational community elements and principles guiding such institutions as Hackerspaces and Makerspaces, as well as grown-up versions of them such as GeneralAssemb.ly is a dynamic force that is going to help shape education and the workforce and in the coming decades.

When you deep dive and unpack all the elements of GA and the way the place is run it can be as simply stated as a Hackerspace that has grown up a bit. The evolution of low-cost, low-investment tinkering in an environment that can simultaneously provide the ability to discover a passion and pursue a craft based on that is invaluable to the local community and the global economy as a whole. I hope to see it grow.




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