Maker Spaces and Virtual Learning: Ed Tech Leader Q&A

By Alyson Klein — February 18, 2020 5 min read
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Education technology leaders are increasingly called upon to help prepare students for the future workforce. And for Chris Smallen, the chief technology officer of the Lenoir City School District, not far from Knoxville, Tenn., that means helping the district create maker spaces for students of different ages and offering a virtual learning program that allows high-achievers to get core credits out of the way so that they can concerntrate on advanced placement courses.

Education Week chatted with Smallen about his work.

Tell me a little bit about what you’ve done on maker spaces. How do you differentiate for different age levels?

The district has a maker space at each of its three schools—elementary (which goes from kindergarten to 3rd grade), middle, and high school. Each of the spaces emphasizes different skills. At the elementary level, the maker space, housed in the school library, includes green screening, simple robotics, simple coding, plus some “very tangible” objects like Legos and kinetic sand, just to “get students to engage in design thinking,” Smallen said. Time in the maker space is often awarded to classes and students for good and on-task behavior, making it a classroom-management boon.

At the middle school level, students are exposed to more sophisticated tools, including higher-level robotics, 3D printers, lazer cutters, and modular electronics. Those are “things you would typically see coming out of high school engineering environment,” Smallen said. “We’re conquering it in middle school.” Middle school kids helped design an assisitive-technology for students with disabilities, for instance. “Our kids are seeing that bigger picture of here’s how I can help in my community,” he said.

Engineering volunteers—many of whom live in a nearby retirement village—come out at least once a week to help students use the equipment and place engineering lessons in a real world context. Local manufacturing engineers drop by once a month, also to provide some assistance and perspective.

At the high school level, students have access to audio-visual rooms where they can make their own podcasts, or practice with a teleprompter. There are also t-shirt presses, a sewing machine, and a 3D printer. The high school level maker space is also staffed by students working at the school’s technology “help desk”, which helps to fix student Chromebooks and other devices. The help desk also provides support to local independent businesses, including helping with their social media accounts. But much of the engineering focus in the middle school maker space switches to engineering classes at the high school level.

What’s the overall goal of your maker space and engineering program?

“We really want to not limit students. We know that students are preparing for careers that haven’t even been developed yet. We really want to offer lots of different options, and especially from my standpoint, a lot of creative options out there. That’s why we want to introduce kids very early in their academic career to things like coding, engineering, design thinking. When we talk with our businesses and industry, and I go on a lot of visits to our local manufacturing plants, we want to be able to evolve as well.

How has virtual learning enabled you to expand your course selection?

The district started off with 32 credits the first semester the program was offered, to about 15 students. But it was a big hit. Last spring, about 278 credits were offered, to about 150 students, Smallen said. Right now, the school is offering close to 20 classes online, including some Advanced Placement offerings, such as biology and art history.

“What we were found was that we had some very motivated kids,” Smallen said, who wanted to take AP classes, participate in the band or honors chorus, and be part of the district’s STEM academy. It wasn’t for them to fit their required courses around all that activity. The district started allowing them to take some of these required courses for graduation online, for a $100 for a full semester course, or $75 for a half semester course. The classes are led by the district’s teachers, who get extra pay for their work, about $100 per student.

The program now also serves many students who are part of the area’s sizeable homeschool population, as well as homebound students who may not be able to come to school because of an anxiety disorder or a physical problem, in addition to regular district students.

What are the big challenges in offering so many virtual courses?

“We started out offering everything for free. And that really starting eating into our budget. And now we are having to charge kids. And then trying to do grow and do so in a way that we feel comfortable and we’re not growing so fast that we make mistakes along the way. I really have tried to do this very slowly,” he said.

The district has learned what kinds of kids will be most successful in online courses, typically those who have 2.8 GPA or better, and have a parent or guardian at home who can monitor their efforts. The district has even allowed middle school kids to take high school level courses online, if they show they are ready for the work. “I actually had a 6th grader who completed Spanish One and Spanish Two last year and made an A,” he said.

Are there any downsides to offering so many virtual courses?

“No because we’ve really found that most kids need flexibility. And most colleges and universities are offering online programs now. We think that’s gonna kind of become the norm moving forward. Our students, having had those experiences at the middle and high school level, it will benefit them moving into their college years. They’ll know what it takes to be self-motivated. If you’re thrown into that and you’ve never been a part of that world, it’s really easy to get distracted by the television. We’re really trying to build responsibility into this program and what it takes to be successful in managing yourself and being disciplined.”

This interview is part of a series of Q&As with education technology district leaders. Got a story to tell about your district? Want to participate? Email

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.