Archive for May, 2005

High-quality education: empowering learning in face-to-face situations

Tuesday, May 31st, 2005

In David Wiley’s blog there is lively discussion about education as empowering and helping people. To be honest I feel a little unarmed to continue this discussion (see the comment by Jim Ellsworth). icon smile High quality education: empowering learning in face to face situations

So, I rather try to reflect the issue through an example from the Finnish education policy discussion. Finally I’ll try to make some (artificial) connection to educational technology and FLOSS.

Today in the Helsingin Sanomat – the major Finnish newspaper – professor Matti Wiberg from the University of Turku, wrote about the University students’ growing demand for more help from teachers to plan and supervise their students’ studies. Professor Wiber pointed out that students are now trying to move their responsibility of making progress in their studies to their teachers. He writes that learning requires thinking and planning of your studies – this is what the academic freedom is all about.

Wiberg writes that there is plenty of support available, but to make it real it requires that students come and ask for help. Students may ask for help in the contact teaching, in lectures, in workshops or simply come and visit their teachers’ office during the office hours. According to him e-mail does not work very well in a tutoring situation. I agree with him. Wiberg concludes by writing that the existential decisions can’t be outsourced: these we must all make ourselves.

Like always, this discussion must be interpreted in its context. In Finland the university studies are “free” as in “free speech” and actually as in “free beer” too. Well, the “free lunch” is paid by the taxpayers, of which majority is willing to pay it.

In Finland the academic liberty and freedom of though means that as soon as you are accepted to one of the BA/MA programs – though the competition to get in is tough – you’ll gain the unrestricted right to take as many studies as you wish from different faculties or just hang around and think what you really want to do with your life. Or you may become a hacker and program your own operating system – if you wish. One may claim that partly because of the academic freedom, the median age for those obtaining MA degrees is relative high in Finland, close to 28 years. And yes, some people see that this is a (small) problem in Finnish society.

Right now the Finnish Parliament is once again considering should they somehow limit the freedom to study. Students are of course against this and have claimed that graduation is made difficult for them, as there is not enough tutoring. To make it simple: tax-payers are claiming that students are lazy, as they do not graduate, whereas students are claiming that they would graduate as soon as they could get enough help from their teachers to finish their studies. Same time they actually implicitly claim that their teachers are lazy or at least not doing their part of the job.

Here we have a situation where there are people (students) asking for help, and other people (teachers) who are willing and mostly, I hope, capable to help those who are asking for help. This should be the optimal situation. So, what makes this so complicate?

Asking for help is difficult. When you ask for help you must show the other where your weaknesses are. It is much easier if you are truly equal with the one you are asking for help and know that the helper will benefit from the interaction, as well. Equality means that both see themselves as partners with common aims.

Giving help is difficult. You must understand the whole complexity of the situation where the other is asking for help. It requires ability to interpret the context. You must be empathic and see yourself in the same situation. You must be able to see what the other really need. And again: you must be a partner with common aims.

If you read all the way here you might be wondering what is the connection of all this to technology and FLOSS.

My conclusion is that helping students to learn, when meaning empowering learning, requires human-to-human and face-to-face connection. I am pretty sure that the fast development of artificial intelligence will not, at least in my lifetime, reach the level needed to empower someone to think and learn.

This does not mean that there is no need for technology. We just need to design technology that respects the complexity of human life and learning. If we spend all our money to build up automated tutoring systems and force our students to use them, we will simply harm them – even if our aims are good.

The same money could be used to develop technology that will make the human-to-human face-to-face interaction more immersive, intuitive and easier to use. iChat AV, Skype, FlashMeeting and the old good mobile phone are all great starts, but I think there is still a lot of work to do in here. And where are all the free/open source alternatives?

If you want to have a chat, feel free to Skype me (Skype name: teemu.leinonen).

Social software may help students to stay on the golden middle road

Monday, May 23rd, 2005

The Swedish phrase says that one should always look for the golden middle road. The official Sweden puts it in their web site: “in the choice of two roads, we travel the third”. I love our neighbours!

A while ago I discussed with my brother about our students’ attitudes towards learning. My brother is a teacher of philosophy and psychology and I teach some courses in the MA program of the Media Lab in Helsinki. I also have done and still do once in a while some teacher training and workshops in different places. We both also have a formal education in pedagogy. This is to say, that what I write now on is not research results from any study, but some insight from practical experiences of two people working in the field of education. By using Fle3 vocabulary I could say that this is our “working theory”.

We have recognized that our students can be located to three dimensions related to their attitudes towards learning. We claim that learning may take place only between the extremes of these three dimensions. Another working theory is – if the first one is correct – that meaningful use of social software may help students to stay on the golden middle road, between the extremes of the dimensions.

The three dimensions of attitudes towards learning are: (1) Attitude towards myself as a learner (subject); (2) Attitude towards the knowledge under study (object); (3) Attitude towards the learning situation (instruments & community).

(1) Attitude towards myself as a learner (subject)

This dimensions is about how students see themselves as learners. Some of them think, that they already know everything they ever need. There is no reason to study because the course will not teach or give them anything.

attitude subject Social software may help students to stay on the golden middle road

On the other hand some student’s claim that they don’t know anything about the topics studied, and for this reason they can’t participate to the learning process. They don’t have anything to say.

(2) Attitude towards the knowledge under study (object)

The attitude towards the knowledge under study can vary between total dogmatism and scepticism. Student may search for single right answers and they claim, that it is all one needs to do to learn and know. For these people the most knowledgeable person is the one who remember by hear the largest part of the Bible, the Koran, Collected Works of Lenin, the Encyclopaedia Britannica (Wikipedia doesn’t work in here because it is not dogmatic, but relative and dynamic knowledge source) or some other source of information that is raised by some community to the position of being the dogma.

attitude object Social software may help students to stay on the golden middle road

Once again there is the other extreme: the rigid scepticism and relativism. These students claim that there is no reason to study because everything is changing all the time and nothing is permanent. These students are asking: why should we study, if what we study will tomorrow be anyway wrong or at least different?

(3) Attitude towards the learning situation (instruments & community)

The third dimension of attitude is related to the situation where the learning is taking place. Learnin may take place in classroom, online or in a small study group. Some students are very pedant and want to focus only on some specific theme in their studies. These students are those who are very good in something and for instance in a group-work they always want to do only those things they already master. They want to get better and better in their own narrow field. In Swedish (and Finnish, too) we have a name for these people. They are called “fackidiot” / fakki-idiootti (in Finnish). The Swedish world fack (facket fack, facken) means a box and a compartment. The word comes from the same Latin origin as the English word faculty.

attitude inst com Social software may help students to stay on the golden middle road

In the other end of this dimension is total overlook and ignorance of the specific topics in the studies. These students feel that there is no need to get into the details. They think that all that matter is the overall picture and that there are always special experts who will taker care of the details. In a group work situations these people try to be the leaders of the group without any real participation to the process or with practical tasks assigned to them.

And then few words about social software. I believe that use of social software (blogs, wikis and Fle3 kind of CSCL systems) may help students to have the right attitude that supports learning. With social software students may find it easier to stay on the golden middle road.

Firstly, the social software makes it very clear for all, that it is hard to be the most knowledgeable person in any field. The social software also shows that often the brightest people are very into learning more about their field than to show off how clever they are. On the other hand social software gives all the users voice to tell their interpretation of the topics under study. They almost scream: “speak up your opinion!” And people speak up. This way it is difficult to claim that you know nothing.

Secondly, in social software systems there are hardly dogmas. There are often rules related to the functioning of the community, but no idea that one should first agree on some set of facts before having the right to participate. A total scepticism doesn’t work either. When you build on top of other peoples thoughts you must trust on them. You must believe that what they are saying is based on something. This requires that you are critical and all the time evaluating other peoples thoughts relevance.

Thirdly, in social software systems the pedant specialists – or the fackidiots – of some narrow disciplines do not get a lot of points. If you are not able to explain the relevance of you work for other people it easily ends-up to be just useless tinkering. Like in music the technical virtuosity of one instrument is useless if it does not server the entire composition. But, like in all the other dimensions, there is the other extremity in this one, too. Also the people who are just overlooking are easily caught in social software systems. You can’t compose for a symphony orchestra if you do not know what tunes you get out of different instruments of the orchestra.

Is there anyone interested in to do some empirical study about these topics?

Learning objects – Is the King naked?

Thursday, May 19th, 2005

Do you remember the H C Andersen’s story about the Emperor’s New Suit?

The point of the story is that, if we strongly believe on something, and same time all those who are doubtful or non-believes are claimed to be “unfit for their office or unpardonably stupid”, the believe becomes real. To see the truth you need the child who will say in front of all “but he has nothing on at all” – the King is naked.

With learning technology I often have this feeling that I would like to cry out the famous words of the child in the story. Of course it is possible indeed that I am “unfit for my office and/or unpardonably stupid” icon smile Learning objects   Is the King naked? . Here is an example – you may justify me.

Learning objects. If you ask me, the concept it is totally empty and (almost) useless term. The IEEE Learning Object Metadata standard defines learning objects as “any entity, digital or non digital, that may be used for learning, education or teaching” (IEEE 2002). Please read the previous sentence at least twice and think what do they say! The definition states that learning object is a learning object – not more. Why?

Because any entity in the universe – digital or non-digital – can be used for learning, education and teaching. You choose the entities that will be used, depending on what and how you are going to learn or teach. If everything – from atoms to Airbus A380 – are learning objects, it ends-up to be just a new word for an object or an entity.

I know that many people are using the term “learning object” when they talk about pictures, graphics, simulations, piece of texts, video and audio clips that are specifically designed for learning purpose and can be combined together to build up larger learning material units. This all makes sense. But why should we call them “learning objects” and not just learning content, or pieces of learning content?

Another approach to learning object is to claim that it is an unity that contains the content plus metadata: description on how the content can be used in teaching, learning and education. Hmm… think about it. How much metadata description you can write about a single photograph of Eiffel-tower in the context of how it could be used in teaching, learning and education? I’ll try: “The picture can be used in primary, secondary and higher levels of education for teaching history and geography of France, Europe and the World, but also architecture, design, technology, social science …and so on and on”. Maybe my example is too simple. Let’s take another one.

Would it help you as a teacher if you could easily search and find simulations designed for teaching gravitation? Sure. But if this information (metadata) is written beside the simulation, is the combination then a “learning object”. For me it is still just (learning) content with a good description (metadata) – just like all content should be.

So, what is the use of the term “object” bringing to the discussion? Let me tell you (this is the secret!): It makes it sound more “scientific” almost like object-oriented programming, that actually is a great idea. And when it is more scientific, many R&D funding bodies – who hardly understand anything of it – are more willing to give you research funds. Been there, done that. icon sad Learning objects   Is the King naked?

Report: State of FLOSS and Future Opportunities

Thursday, May 12th, 2005

Last month I finished the first draft of a report based on the work I did previously on the Comenius Contact Seminar project. I thought there was still some valuable issues to look for in the interviews we did so here is a paper looking at them once again. As an exercise for myself, I tried to write it in more academic style.

The report is titled "State of FLOSS and Future Opportunities". I broadened the focus outside the area of FLOSS in education and looked at the scenarios we did from a different angle, trying to come up with a synthesis that reflects a kind of a mega trend, identifying FLOSS and Open Content as part of a much larger trend going under our society.

It’s a work in progress. Here is a public draft for comments, enjoy.

Arina, T. 2005. State of FLOSS and Future Opportunities [PDF] (402k)

Thanks to Timo Tervo from the University of Helsinki, Palmenia continuity centre for helping me to conduct the interviews. Thanks to all interviewees, Alan Levine, Teemu Leinonen, Stephen Downes, Antti Kauppi, George Siemens and Knut Yrvin.

Peace, flowers and Open Source.

Subjects, objects and outcomes of (e-)learning activity system

Thursday, May 12th, 2005

In his post “Thoughts on this and that” Graham Attwell quoted Jyri
Engeström’s post about “
Why some social network services work and others don’t — Or: the case for object-centered sociality

“the term ‘social networking’ makes little sense if we leave out the
objects that mediate the ties between people……social networks
consist of people who are connected by a shared object.”

Graham commented:

“Lets substitute the word e-learning for social networking. It gets us
close to the true nature of e-learning. And it raises some interesting
questions. Like – what is the object? Is the object the learning
materials or or it the learning application. Me – I go for the second. I
think learning materials are part of the subject of learning. Its the
application which mediates the ties between people (and so in my book
qualifies for the title of a learning object!).”

All ready from the early 1990’s I have been fascinated by

Yrjö Engeström’s
(yes he is realted to Jyri) work in the field
cultural-historical activity theory
and it’s applications to teaching and learning.
In have found Engeström’s writings in the era of Internet, social software and
hmm.. e-learning very useful.

Engeström’s writings are

pretty hard but rewarding reading
. Probably the most well known part of
his work is the triangular structure of

human activity system
. It is so simple model -
and maybe looks a litte bit like UML model – that even computer scientists,
especially human-computer interaction (HCI) people have found it useful. icon smile Subjects, objects and outcomes of (e )learning activity system

6bkuva3 Subjects, objects and outcomes of (e )learning activity system
The structure of human activity (Engeström, 1987, p. 78 from the page:

Now when we know that in the human activity systems there are subjects,
objects, instruments and of course outcomes we may start
to think what is what in (e)-learning. Under these there are the nodes:
rules, community and division of labor controlling what can
happens in the upper level. But let’s first focus only to the upper floor.

Graham wrote that he would vote the “learning application” to be the
object in the e-learning. I do not agree with him. I think in a learning activity system
the object should be something as abstract as “knowledge objects”
(problems, own hypothesis, theories, etc.) that are interpreted,
modified and mixed by the subject’s – the members of the learning
community that contains both more advanced subjects (teachers, tutors)
and less advanced subjects (students). The objects are under consideration of
the subjects.

The instruments used to work with the knowledge objects are (1)
methods of working (pedagogical models, group work techniques, study/research plans
etc.) and (2) tools (paper and pen, notebooks, books computers, etc.).
So, what are the outcomes of this kind of learning activity system? If
the system works well the outcomes are meaning, conceptual change,
problem solving skills, critical thinking – deep understanding of the
domains under study.

This specification has actually been implicitly (I know we should write
more about this!) behind the design of Fle3
- the pedagogical tool for collaborative learning – developed by my group.
(I hope you are not getting tired of my writings about it icon smile Subjects, objects and outcomes of (e )learning activity system

Anyway in this kind of learning activity system, Fle3 is the instrument,
students and teachers are the subjects and knowledge is the object.
But, I have noticed that the lower level nodes are making this kind activity system’s operations hard to work. Often Fle3 just do not fit to the existing human activity system.
Rules – the national curriculums and laws – do not support this
kind of activity systems in schools. The wider community – teachers,
parents (student, too) – are afraid that the schools will end-up to be
places of playing with “knowledge objects” and there is no more serious lessons and
discipline that will result as “real learning” = recalling of facts. Teachers are
skeptical if the students will learn anything when you give them the right to be the
subjects with a voice in the system. The request to become a subject alongside
your students is also major change in the division of the labor. And the selection
task of education becomes more complicate to carry out.

I personally think that most e-learning tool and “learning object”
developers have never thought who are the subjects, what are the
instruments and how and what the objects should be in the system
under design. For instance most of the learning management systems (LMS) are mainly
focusing on to strength the existing activity system with rigid lower
level nodes. Students are seen as the objects that are fed with
information provided by the subject – the teacher. To carry out the
feeding you need instruments, such as course syllabus, courseware and
quizzes to track their “progress”.

Technology is never value-free. Education is never value-free.
Educational technology is never value-free – in the second degree.

PS. If you are around in Helsinki you may tomorrow pop in the Media Lab’s
Demoday and have a face-to-face chat. The
Master of Art’s exhibition in the very same place where
the demo day takes will place is also worth of visiting. The pink festival trams from the center of the city gets you to the right place.