Archive for August, 2005

Designing learning technology

Wednesday, August 31st, 2005

A few days ago a wise friend and an ex colleague of mine handed me an article on activity-centered design by Donald Norman. It is something everyone who ever have designed (or is planning to) anything, from a door handle to online learning platform, should read it through. Norman writes:

“The historical record contains numerous examples of successful devices that required people to adapt to and learn the devices. People were expected to acquire a good understanding of the activities to be performed and of the operation of the technology. None of this “tools adapt to the people”nonsense — people adapt to the tools.”

In a way this is nothing new for me. I enjoyed reading the article mainly because Norman is a one of the big names in design research and now he is writing something I have been preaching for some years in my own little social, academic and design circles. I am not claiming that I got these ideas before Norman. I am claiming that they have always been embedded in good design practice.

I really think that all projects done in my research group are good examples of activity-centred design. I will now focus a little more to the design of Fle3 learning environment, as it is the most well known tool made by us. In the beginning of the project we decided to design and develop a tool that supports progressive inquiry learning model (PI-model). We knew that PI-model is reformative model of learning. We also knew that there were very few schools or classrooms that were already operating even close to this model. So, why should we design a tool for an activity that hardly exists? The answer is: We need this tool because it may change the current activities – they way of teaching and learning in schools and universities. Norman writes:

“People do adapt to technology. It changes social and family structure. It changes our lives. Activity-Centered Design not only understands this, but might very well exploit it.”

if we were and are doing activity-centered design, how does it effect on Fle3? Many ways. I’ll try to explain.

When designing Fle3 we were naturally doing it with teachers, educators, pedagogical researcher and pupils. We use to make references to participatory design. We wanted to learn from the people who will be using the tool and we did – a lot. On the other hand we use to be very firm when it came to design decisions. The primary rule use to be: “if the feature proposed do not support progressive inquiry we are not going to implemented to the tool”. Here is the activity-centered design.

You may guess that we declined many proposals made by the teachers, pupils and researcher. Here are some examples of these: automated tracking of student’s activities, quiz tool, automated grade books, learning material repository, chat, 3D avatar world, video conference, MP3 player. We just couldn’t see how these tools wold support the activity of progressive inquiry.

Now the question is what is then the problem if there are features that do not support the activity but are otherwise nice to have? The challenge is that also the “nice to have tools” are guiding people’s activities and unfortunately our human’s time is finite. If we do quizzes, fly in a 3D world or listen to music we do not do progressive inquiry. Same time all the “nice to have features” aare making the tool more complicate to use for the actual purpose it is designed for. The tool will end-up to be to be a violin with an alarm clock nailed on it.

So what we are now looking for is that people will adapt to the technology designed by us. But we also hope that people start to redesign it. The decision of releasing Fle3 under GPL is critical. Without it the tool could never be an object of slow, evolutionary folk design – the most powerful design process.

High standards means less low-level standards

Monday, August 22nd, 2005

Already some time ago Washington post wrote about the Finnish educational system and Finland in general. It’s a worth of reading for those interested in different “system design” of education and learning [Footnote 1].

The article explains how the whole Finnish educational system – from pre-school to universities – is public and accessible for all. There are no fees in any level. The system is funded by progressive taxes.

The article praises how teachers – from pre-school to universities – are highly educated and appreciated in the Finnish society. Teachers also hold a lot of freedom to organise their own work. The article points out that in the early 1990’s “teachers and headmasters were given the authority to write curricula, choose textbooks and allocate resources. Apart from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests and final exams at the end of high school, Finnish kids take no standardized tests..”

The logic behind this is that when teachers and headmasters hold high standards there is less need for low-level standards. Let me explain.

In Finland, we trust our teachers’ skills, knowledge and interpretation on what makes a good school and learning environment, good study material, meaningful learning experience and a good student. We know that our teachers are reliable and fair. We also know that corruption is rare and not tolerated. All in all we know that teachers in our schools are of high standard.

Some people have told me that e-learning standards, such as LOM metadata, are just like standards used in construction industry: they make the construction engineers work easier and more efficient. [Footnote 2] Because there are standards, all the engineer need to do is to order the right walls, floors, tops, stairs, windows and doors from the suppliers and assemble houses out of them. Sounds good.

On the other hand what about if we could live in an environment that is all designed by architects? They also need standards, but they also hold the final decisions on how they will use them, not to use them at all and when to break them.

I think teachers in Finland are more architects than construction engineers of learning.

Footnote 1: The Washington post’s article is based on two journalists’ blogging trip to Finland earlier this summer. From their blog you get richer picture of the country. It’s not a paradise.

Footnote 2: I have a lot of respect on construction engineers. They do very important work, but most of them should not design spaces where people are living in, but rather do the job they are trained for.

We need a Freedom Press!

Sunday, August 7th, 2005

freedom press We need a Freedom Press!
Free operating system, free software and free content are all great for us who have direct access to computer technology. However a huge majority – actually several billion people – of the world do not. If we want that “every single person is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge” (Wikipedia Mission Statement) we need alternative distribution channels – something like a “Freedom Press”.

Many blogs are writing about the Freedom Toaster. With the Freedom Toaster – located in public space – visitors can make copies of open source software, for free on their own CDs. Freedom Toaster is made in South Africa and designed for African needs.

Many great FLOSS projects come at the moment from Africa. For instance the Free High School Science Textbook project is providing full study books on physics, chemistry and mathematics for Grades 10-12. What is remarkable is that this is not a plan or an idea, like most “free school book” projects around the world; the books are already online for anyone to download.

The National Curriculum on Wiki is another great FLOSS project that is coming from Africa. I like this, because information in a Wiki is dynamic and always under development. This is what curriculum should be. Curriculum should not be a static document that is made once for the next ten years. People should talk about it, fix, modify and improve it. South Africa seems to be leading the way to the Jimbo Wales prediction.

Despite of all these very good initiatives, free content does not help you much if you never get in touch with it. Most people do not, and never will, have a computer (either running propriety or FLOS software) and this is not likely to change soon.

What about having a Freedom Press – a similar kind of facility as the Freedom Toaster, but for printing out free content?

The Freedom Press should have a computer and a hard disk filled up with selected free content books and a printer unit. The content should be ready to print format (Latex, PDF). Both content and computer should be easy to maintain from distance. People could bring their own paper (or buy it from the spot) and print out content generated out from the Wikipedia,
and FHSST.

A local entrepreneur from a Tele-centre or a paper shop could run the Freedom Press, or it could be run by a local authority. People in far away villages could pool their money, make a trip to the closest Freedom Press, print out a collection and start a library back home.

Send me a picture if you’ll make a prototype of the Freedom Press. icon smile We need a Freedom Press!