Archive for January, 2008

Handheld Learning Solution

Tuesday, January 15th, 2008

Sanako, a company providing language-learning technology, announced some days ago, that they are partnering with Nokia to provide a “learning solution” for Nokia’s N810 Internet tablet. Computer Business Review reports the partnership and writes something about Sanako’s and Nokia’s plans.

For a long time I have been asking Nokia – I have some friends in there – to consider offering and developing the Internet tablet products for educational markets. I would like to see students using it for knowledge building, for using open and free educational resources (Wikipedia, Wikibooks, Wikiversity, etc.) with it, and for blogging and writing their own wikis with an easy to carry, comfortable and user friendly (Linux) device.

Sanako is a language-learning company with background of producing language-learning lab equipments already during the times of reel-to-reel audio tape recorders. With its history as the Norwegian Tandberg’s (found in 1933) educational division, we may assume that they know something about educational technology and education technology market. During the year they have changed from audio hardware solutions to audio software solutions.

Even though Sanako has a long history in education technology, I am a bit worried about their know-how of pedagogically sound educational practice with computer tools. I am sure they are still great in language learning solutions, but it is a very special case and area of teaching and learning. The methods used in teaching foreign languages are not very useful in many other school subjects. Still, Sanako is today providing their solutions much more as a generic classroom solution than a specific tool for language learning.

For instance the solution that will run on the Nokia N810 is called “class management software”. In practice with the Sanako solution teacher may manage what pupils can see on their client device via server on the school network, transfer files for the whole class, a group or an individual student, have one-to-one chat/audio communications with students, take control of the student’s browser to make them all to view the same content, etc.

As you see, it really is a “teaching tool” with many features taken straight from the language learning labs, where the practice of teching is that everybody is having the same content (to listen) and then students will carry-out exercise of repeating, practicing their pronouncing, doing listen comprehensive exercise or equivalent. The software makes it possible for the teacher to manage this relatively challenging situation.

The actual software for the Nokia N810 is a version of Sanako’s PC/Windows client working with the Sanako’s server. It is Sanako’s first client for Linux. An interesting piece of information (from the CBR story) is the fact that the client is basically a browser with specific features that enables teacher to take control of students’ devices. Using browser to make this kind of client, is actually pretty interesting solution.

This is a start. Fine. So, what next?

Maybe we also should take a better look of the Mozilla based browser running on Maemo and design and modify a version of the browser for knowledge building, basically to be used with the Fle3/Fle5 server?

Would this make any sense? It would make sense for the Nokia N810 users in schools, and could be a good strategy to get new kind of teaching and learning practice to those schools using the device. On the other hand, Fle3/Fle5 is a web-based solutions and as a such works already on every Internet-browser – also on the Nokia’s Internet tablets.

So, maybe we can say that if the markets would work according to “what makes sense” all schools would already use Fle3/Fle5. But the markets are not always wise. For this reason it could be a good strategy to get on people’s palm and mind through other ways.

I am still dreaming that “knowledge building in your pocket” – something we were demonstrating already seven years ago – will one day become an everyday practice in schools.

Link via Hans – thank you!

Thank you OLPC – Maybe now we may start to talk about education again

Monday, January 14th, 2008

One Laptop per Child – the laptop project of the OLPC association, a North American non-profit has change the markets of low-cost mobile computers for educational sector. Even that in the OLPC there are such a multi-billion industry sponsors as the AMD, Google, Nortel, and Newscorp, the achievement of changing a whole market, or actually creating it, is absolutely remarkable.

In 2008 we will have the Intel’s Classmate ($250), Zonbu notebook ($279 + $14.95/month), Asus Eee laptop ($299-399), Nokia Internet Tablets ($150-$299), Nova NetPC “thin client” system (around $80/unit), and the OLPC’s XO laptop ($200).

This is great, and from a large part we may thank OLPC about this. However, there are other factors too.

For instance, in technology there are few new things that have made the low-cost educational mobile computers possible: Open Source software, especially Linux, Flash memory, USB, WiFi and more advantaged battery technology. OLPC didn’t invent them. They just came-up with the idea, that actually from these components you can build something that is useful in education.

In macro economy terms, the growth is taking place in the developing world. Every single technology company is thinking how they could get a piece from this growth. More and more people – billions of people – are gaining more consumer power, but they are still far away to have money to buy the technology common among the wealthy people. To sell something for the next 4-6 billion people, one must design tools that are made for them – in terms of costs and features. When the majority of technology companies has decided to simply wait when the people will have the consumer power needed to buy their existing products, OLPC decided to design an affordable technology. When the companies then understood that actually there could be a market for an affordable technology they simply jumped to the bandwagon.

So these were the technological and macro economical reason. What about learning? What about education?

The founder of the OLPC project, MIT Prof Nicholas Negroponte has kept on repeating the phrase “OLPC is an education project, not a laptop project”. This has been the main argument whenever someone has criticized or questioned something in the project. In some circles the phrase has become a joke. People know that a laptop project does not become an education project, even if a world famous professor of media technology is claiming so. Educators do education projects. Engineers do engineering projects.

Why I think the OLPC is a laptop project, and not an education project? Three reasons:

(1) The OLPC has shown total lack of understanding of education as a system.

Their original plan of selling the laptops in quantities of one million units per ministry of education show that they knew very little about the ways how the ministries around the world work: how they set priorities, how the budget is distributed, how schools are practically ran, and how educational reforms are made.

For instance, in most countries the ministries of education do not have a centralized power to acquire technology for all the schools. The power is distributed to school districts, to schools and in some cases even for individual headmasters and teachers. The ministries are simply giving the money to lower level in the system to make the decisions. The power is distributed to avoid corruption. I guess it is not a surprise that the most promising customers of the OLPC have been countries that are also one of the most corrupted in the world.

(2) The OPLC has a naive believe on computer technology (per se) as a silver bullet in education.

In education the aim is to develop human beings: responsible and spiritually mature people who are able to take care of each other and their environment, and the humankind and the globe as a whole. I am not claiming that computers could not be used for this purpose. They can and they should be. I don’t have many heroes, but one of them is Douglas Engelbart. He came up with the idea of network augmented human intelligence – to solve the world most urgent problems.

The OLPC, however, do not build on Engelbart, but on developmental psychology of Piaget, Pappert, and constructionist learning in math and science learning. In this approach, studying math, science and programming are in a similar position as Latin and Ancient Greek use to be in the classical European education. In a classical education studying ancient languages was thought to be the basics for all the other learning: logic, arts, practical sciences etc. Now the OLPC seems to believe that learning programming is the key to all other learning. Or at least that if we give laptops for all, some of the students will become great programmers and this will justifies the whole project.

No. From the perspective of becoming a responsible person, it actually could be better to learn to share your laptop with someone than owning your own. As silly as simply asking every child to have a laptop, so that they can program and play with it as much as they want, would be to ask every student to have a canvas and oil colors so that they could do as many landscape paintings as they would like to. Computers are good in education, but so are many other instruments from clay, paper and pen to hardware tools and musical instrument. They are all needed in schools. And to have them available for all it is in most cases reasonable to share them. Lets let everybody to find their own passion and lets not force everybody to play violin (or computer), even if this would mean that the chances to have the next Viktoria Mullova (or Linus Torvalds) will be smaller this way.

(3) The OLPC do not understand different cultures and traditions.

Some months ago I was in Mexico in a conference where both OLPC and the Intel Classmate where presented. I was giving a talk about designing people-centered learning environments. During the break a teacher came to talk with me. He said that he feels the idea of giving every child a laptop is very individualistic. He said that this is very much against the ways he and his students are use to think about school and the community. Because of this he was not willing to participate the whole OLC program, but was rather happy to use the three recycled PCs – own by nobody and everybody – in his classroom.

In the case of Finland, the best solution at the moment would probably be to have enough computers available in school buildings. How much is enough? So many that at any point, any of the students, could use a computer (the same should be done with hardware tools, oil colors, violins and other instruments). As computers are used more and more for this and that, it is possible that at some point it is a good idea to have a computer per every student (it is already happening). Still, I do not understand why “owning something” – like the OPLC has been claiming – would be a great empowerment for children. In general children do not own things. They do not own things because they do not work and earn money. This is the normal state of affairs in most parts of the world.

So. If OLPC got it all wrong – and obviously is very slow learner – what should we do related to the new affordable mobile computer technology, available today for schools?

We must start to talk about education, again. Or actually get back to do research and to continue the discussion of how to use computers in education. We don’t need to start from zero. A lot of work is already done. A lot of work is even done specifically related to the vision of having one computer per student. For instance the is a global network of researchers and research teams that aims to gain research-based understanding of learning when everybody can have and ca use a computer device.

Still, I want to say thank you OLPC. Article in the Economist put it nicely:

“…an inexpensive laptop seemed impossible until Mr Negroponte and the OLPC group placed a stake in the ground to build a $100 laptop—which in turn spurred the industry’s biggest players to create low-cost PCs. Mr Negroponte’s vision for a $100 laptop was not the right computer, only the right price. Like many pioneers, he laid a path for others to follow.”

No doubt, Negroponte is a great technology visionary. Now we need some educational visionaries. Thank you OLPC – you made your part of the job. Now we may again start to talk about education.

Wikiopisto – The Finnish Wikiversity

Monday, January 7th, 2008

Last night I made the front page for the Finnish Wikiversity site. The Finnish Wikiversity is called Wikiopisto.

I have been thinking about this for some time already. Now some friends in Finland wanted to start a reading club to read the The Wealth of Networks by Benkler, and asked me about the Wikiversity. So, it was a good excuse to start the project.

I tried to think different and made rather different structure for the Finnish Wikiversity if compared to other Wikiversities in other language.

The Finnish Wikiversity is now using the study and learning methods (Courses, Study circles, Reading groups etc.) as the primary categorization when other Wikiversities are using the “academic study” topics (Humanities, Physical Sciences etc.) to categorize their stuff. I hope the Finnish categorization will be more accessible for a small wikimedia community. People may simply use the Finnish Wikiversity to coordinate their study work with other people.

It is possible that the Wikiopisto – the Finnish Wikiversity – will not get a lot of attention at all. The Finnish Wikimedia community is naturally not very big as there are only 5.2. Million Finns. The fi.Wikipedia is the main project of the Finnish Wikimedians and with it the community have been very successful. The Finnihs Wikipedia has today about 150 000 articles and it is the 14 largest and most active Wikipedia in the world. Not bad.

In many other languages the Wikibooks has been closely associated with the Wikiversity. Originally the Wikiversity was started in the Wikibooks community and there has been a lot of controversial opinion on the roles, objectives and tasks of the two projects. I hope that in the Finnish Wikiversity we are able to avoid this.

In the first version of the Finnish Wikiversity I decided to make a clear distinction to the Finnish Wikibooks, called Wikikirjasto (straight translation: Wikilibrary).

In the Finnish Wikiversity (beta) the site is focusing on to create communities of people who are interested in arranging learning projects together. The site does not raise-up any aim of creating learning content on it, but rather encourages people to start learning projects and organize their activities of them in the wiki.

To do this I added to the front page a topic “study offering” and under it sub-topics of several types of learning projects. Then under those sub-topics I wrote descriptions of them and added links to some examples. People may now create pages with their learning projects under these topics. The types of “learning projects” described in the Finnish Wikiversity are:

1. Courses – Course means a learning project where several people study on some topic with clearly stated learning objectives and according to some pre-defined study program. In a course there is most often a facilitator or teacher who has designed the program and assignments, and also gives feedback and evaluate the participants performance in the course. Example of a course in the English Wikiversity:

2. Study circles – Study circle is a non-formal study method. In a study circle group come together to study some topic. Essential is the informality and collaborative learning. Usually study circle do not have a fixed program. It may continue as long as the participants find it necessary and meaningful. Example of a study circle in the English Wikiversity:

3. Reading groups (or Book discussion club) – Reading group works often very similar way as study circles. In a reading group, however, the objective is to read some book with other people. The reading group may read nonfiction or fiction literature. In the time of Internet the reading group may read some specific websites together. Similar way as in the study circle the participants get together to discuss about the book and to present their opinions on it. Example of a reading group in the English Wikiversity:

4. Self-study courses (no article in the en.wikipedia!) – Self-study course means learning material on some topic which one can study independently. Often self-study material is called tutorial or guidebook. Self-study course can include texts, images and animations, or/and audio and video clips. In addition to learning material self-study course may have interactive exercises or simulations and automated tests to evaluate your learning. Example of a self-study course in the Enlighs Wikiversity:

After this I also add the last topic with the title “Library of the Finnish Wikiversity” and wrote there that the Finnish Wikibooks is the library of the Finnish Wikiversity and one should consider if the project they are working on should actually better belong in there.

I know that in some point in the Finnish Wikiversity we need more categories with the academic study topics, too – if it grows. Some may even argue that the difference I am making is artificial without any practical consequences. I don’t think so.

The threshold to start a study circle or reading club about Harry Potter, Dostojevski or Network Economy is much lower than going to the “Faculty for Humanities”, “School of Language and Literature”, “Literary Studies Department” and start doing something in there.

It is possible that the Finnish Wikiversity will finally remind more “community college” than “university”. Then we may also ask which once we need more?

I hope that people will come and they will get it. Let’s see.