Archive for February, 2008

Patents and e-learning do not make a good match – what’s “Blackboard Inc. vs. Desire2Learn” gotta do with the EU?

Monday, February 25th, 2008

A few years back FLOSSE POSSE featured quite a few postings related to
the issue of software patents and e-learning (

Lately, the issue has been somewhat dormant, especially here in the EU.
Last week, though, the news broke out that a US jury delivered its
verdict on the case of Blackboard Inc. vs. Desire2Learn (both being
Learning Management Systems). It turns out that the jury sided with
Blackboard, who claimed that Desire2Learn, its biggest competitor in
the US market, infringed its patent. A judgement of $3.1 million was
made in favour of Blackboard. S.Downes has posted a follow-up of the
in the blogosphere.

What does that all mean for teachers,
learners, parents, researchers, decision-makers, e-learning
practitioners, developers and e-learning providers in the EU? We so
often hear about the insane US patent litigations, but what’s happening on our
own home turf?

Back in 2006, that was when we last discussed European “software
patents” (Computer Implemented Innovations), there was a movement of
e-learning practitioners (more than 500!) who signed the petition “Don’t
allow software patents to threaten technology enhanced learning in
”. It aimed “to alert European authorities and policy-makers
to the dangers of software patents, and particularly to the negative
impact they could have on e-learning that uses information and
communication technologies (ICT) to enhance education.” The petition
was drafted by a community of e-learning practitioners
after the first European Conference on Open Source for Education in the
Netherlands in Nov 2005.

Our point was that “Money spent on software patent and defending
against litigation would be better spent on development, education and
training”.  “The software patents present a clear danger for the
whole field of e-learning, not only for its open source community, but
for each developer and decision-maker who is responsible for delivering
better education with the support of ICTs.”

With the help of FFII we dug out a number of pending e-learning patents
in European Patent Office that we thought were not innovative, were
truly trivial and threatening e-learning. You can see some here.
Oh, and BTW, one of  them is the pending claim from Blackboard
Inc. “EP1192615:
Software Patent: Internet-based education support system and methods

“In Europe, there is unresolved controversy over software patents and
the inability to reach political consensus on the community patent,
EPLA, or other approaches to integrating the European patent system.”
says a site called
(forum initiated by FFII – the good
guys). President of FFII explains: “everyone agrees that patents can
have a big economic impact. Everyone agrees that getting the patent
system ‘right’ is essential to Europe’s growth and prosperity.”

Let’s keep our eyes and ears open not
to get ourselves into the troubles of a US-style patent system!

Just as a reminder, let’s repeat why:

Were the software patents granted, for the field of e-learning in
general, we consider the following disadvantages:

* A likely rise in the cost of applications to support learning and
underlying communication structures, operating systems and other
software, together with a reduction in the choice of available

* A negative effect on “in-house” and open source development of
educational applications. Many European educational authorities
(Ministries of Education, universities, regional educational
authorities, small and medium size enterprises) develop educational
platforms and applications for educational use. Money spent on software
patent and defending against litigation would be better spent on
development, education and training.

* The rollout of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) for educational
purposes would be jeopardised by the threat of software patents. They
could have a negative effect on some open source development, as it
could become impossible for some FOSS to exist. Furthermore, users may
become afraid to change to using FOSS because of fears regarding
possible costs or litigations due to software patents.

Read the “No e-learning patent” consultation text that we sent to the EC for more arguments.

EU info on Patentability of computer-implemented inventions

The users did it again: the future learning environment is here

Saturday, February 23rd, 2008

In our research group we have been now working with the idea of “future learning environments” for more than 10 years. By the way the FLE visuals with green grass, blue sky and some clouds was designed by a colleague, a great visual designer Asta Raami, three years before this one company started to use very similiar kind of picture in a desktop of their new OS. Anyway, in 1997 we wrote about future learning environments:

“Future learning environments is the loose general term for a learning process which differs from traditional teacher and didactic-based teaching.”

It’s interesting how little – actually not at all – our research agenda has changed in ten years. In a presentation dated 1998 (long time before Slideshare) we listed the objectives of the first future learning environment project:

(1) to research and develop the use of new media in the field of learning,

(2) to generate new and innovative learning methods and practices using new media,

(3) to develop internet accessible applications supporting learning and thinking,

(4) to produce web-based multimedia learning material concerned with New Media

(5) to develop the publishing process of network-based multimedia learning materials.

So, here we are still with the progressive inquiry and knowledge building – learning methods and practices (2); with the Fle3 and Fle5, MobilED, Papanek, UNESC YDC, etc. – internet accessible applications supporting learning and thinking (3); and LeMill – web based multimedia learning material and publishing process for network-based multimedia learning materials (4 and 5).

You may ask: “so, tell me why nothing has changed?” Well, nothing has changed in our research agenda but obviously we have produced thousands of lines of code, some research papers, books and booklets and have done hundreds of demos, presentations and talks.

You may still ask: “but nothing has changed in schools and other educational institutions?” You are right. Very little has changed. In the same presentation dated 1998 we pointed out our educational reformative ideas how learning should be:

* Learning should be learner-centered – In the learning process learners are active and responsible for the results.

* Learning should be authentic knowledge building. Learners work together with real world tasks and problem-based real life examples by building new knowledge on the basis of their previous knowledge.

* Learning should be constructing and producing knowledge. Learners work together in building new knowledge in collaborative way by exploiting each other’s knowledge. ( Jonassen 1995, Bereiter 1998 ).

You may now think – maybe not saying it aloud anymore: “Great ideas, but nothing has changed”.

Trust me – things has changed. For instance in the Finnish educational circles the idea or progressive inquiry learning is very widely discussed and known. The most important publication about it, written by collagues Kai Hakkarainen et. all. is an exam entry reading in number of Faculties of Education in Finland.. Today, when studying to become a teacher you will get familiar with the pedagogical ideas listed above. This was not the case 10 years ago. The same trend is taking place in other parts of Europe, as well.

It is true, however, that using new technology in the progressive inquiry or knowledge building is much more exceptional, than the norm. It is a pity as the technology could really help in it. The whole development of new technology is also closely related to the epistemological paradigm switch needed in schools. This will still take time. Maybe another 10 years, but it will happpen.

The big change, however, is taking place among the “users”, the students living in the digital world. Like in many other areas – in educational technology as well – the real innovators are the users who are making the technology to work for them.

A good example of this is one group of University students whose use of internet and the web in one university course I have been quietly observing. They are using Jaiku to share their notes from the lectures and wiki to write their learning diaries and essays which are part of the required study work. These students truly build knowledge together, engaged in progressive inquiry and share their findings with each other – with their laptops and mobile phones. With out the technology they could not do study this way.

Now we ask: “So, why are you are designing some specific tools for education when people are doing same things with the existing tools?”

This is very good question and I am not sure if I have an answer on it. But, I’ll try. The people using Jaikus and Wikis from their laptops and mobile phones in their study work are a group of early adapters and innovators. They are like the first people who started to carve on a stone to record things. From this there is still a long way to the school blackboards widely used in teaching and learning. Someone must invent the “blackboard” of the future. No, I do not think that the company with the same name have already done it.

Finally, to avoid misunderstanding, to make it sure you didn’t get it all wrong:

We are not developing new kind of blackboard. We are still doing experimental design of future learning environment.

This guy is smart

Wednesday, February 20th, 2008

I just read from an European news paper that the Presidents of United States of America can be categorized to two classes: to the total morons and to the wannabe womanizers.

This one guy who is actually all in all very difficult to categorize, is very hard to put to the first class. The issue of the second class is none of my business, actually neither is the first one as I do not have a vote, but still I think this guy is very smart!

I am already worried that he is too smart for the country. Maybe he should move to Europe and run for the new EU presidency in here? Well, hmm…no …. actually I already know that he is too smart and too non-corrupted for Europe.

“There’s a sense that education is a passive activity where you tip your head over and pour education in somebody’s ear, and that’s not how it works. So we’re going to have to work with parents – that’s why I like programs, one of the things I’ve championed, having nurses or social workers or teachers visiting at-risk parents the moment that child is born, and trying to see if we can help them from [ages] zero to three, developing just habits of reading to your child. Or if the parent doesn’t read, helping the parent to learn to read so they can read to their child, engaging them, talking to them, putting them in stimulating environments.”

If you are interested in education read forward, to see what Barack Obama just said in a live discussion about competition in educational system, special education, educational research and experiments, early childhood education, teacher training, culture of excellence inside schools, assessments, standard tests, cultural change, learning process and analyzing study results.

There is a video in the APs site. Because the video probably will not stay in there forever, I copied the transcript of the interview here. Thank you Whitney Tilson’s School Reform Blog.

Transcript of Sen. Obama’s answer to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal:

Question: “In your speech today, you said you wanted to make sure that every child gets the best possible education. Milwaukee’s public schools are similar to those of many other cities – they suffer many of the same problems of school systems in big cities. But Milwaukee has also been a pioneer in offering school choices, including a voucher system that many poor families like and the teachers’ union opposes. What do you think of Milwaukee’s school choice system and can it, and should it, be a model for the rest of the nation?”

Sen. Obama’s answer: “Well, I have to admit that I have been a strong champion of charter schools as a way of fostering competition within the public school system. I have been a skeptic of school vouchers because my view has been that you are not going to generate the supply of high-quality schools to meet the demand. Instead, what you’re going to get is a few schools that cream the kids that are easiest to teach and nobody’s really interested in the enormously difficult task of teaching the special ed kid or the extremely impoverished kid. And so you end up with further stratification within the schools in the inner city without any real net improvement. So I’ve been skeptical of the school voucher program.

When Milwaukee initiated the school voucher plan, I thought that at least there was an experiment that would allow us to use that as a test case. You have a control group, you ahve a test case and then you evaluate what happened.

I was stunned to find out from Gov. Doyle that there’s no assessment process after, what is it, 7, 8, 10 years. There are no studies to figure out whether or not it worked. If there was any argument for vouchers, it was ‘Alright, let’s see if this experiment works.’ and if it does, then whatever my preconceptions, my attitude is you do what works for the kids. It turns out we have no data to support the notion that kids are doing better in these voucher schools.

So here’s the upshot: I think the status quo is intolerable, whether it’s in Chicago or New York or LA or in Milwaukee. If you’ve got half the kids dropping out and only have 1 out of every 10 kids reading at grade level or going to college, then the system does not work. I don’t think that only money solves the problem. I do think money helps.

I think we have to have early childhood education. I think we have to pay our teachers more. I think we have to do a much better job of training teachers. I think colleges of education have to be accredited. I think how we match up master teachers with apprentice teachers as they’re first starting off, creating a critical mass that has a culture of excellence inside schools. Making sure our assessments are not built just around a single standardized test, but nevertheless are high and have buy-in from the teachers. Having principals who are excellent leaders…there are a whole host of things we can do, which will cost money.

I think we should foster competition within the public school system with charters and anything that works we should try to scale up and replicate. And, I think that we have to have a cultural change in education in inner-city communities and low-income communities across the country – not just inner city, but also rural, where parents and community and leaders who have a soapbox are emphasizing educational excellence. That’s something that we don’t do enough of.

There’s a sense that education is a passive activity where you tip your head over and pour education in somebody’s ear, and that’s not how it works. So we’re going to have to work with parents – that’s why I like programs, one of the things I’ve championed, having nurses or social workers or teachers visiting at-risk parents the moment that child is born, and trying to see if we can help them from [ages] zero to three, developing just habits of reading to your child. Or if the parent doesn’t read, helping the parent to learn to read so they can read to their child, engaging them, talking to them, putting them in stimulating environments.

None of these things are panaceas. They’re not going to solve every problem, but I think they can improve our outcomes.”

Question: “There is a longitudinal study underway on choice schools. If it is judged credible and the results are favorable to choice schools, would you be less of a skeptic?”

Sen. Obama’s answer: “That’s a loaded question. So what I don’t want to do is start saying, ‘Well, if the study shows that it works, I’m all for it’, because I’d want to find out is this a legitimate study in the sense that, in particular, the parents who took the affirmative step to take their kids out of an existing school and put them into a school of their choice – are those parents who tend to be more attentive or more aggressive parents and somehow… I’m assuming that any credible study would have to factor some of that stuff out.

Here’s what I’ll say: I will not allow my predispositions to stand in the way of making sure that our kids can learn. We’re losing several generations of kids and something has to be done.”

Update: I just found out one possible reason why Barack Obama may actually be too good for the people. Obama’s a Mac, Clinton’s a PC. Smarter and less-corrupted rarely wins. Unfortunately.

LeMill population reached 2000 members

Wednesday, February 13th, 2008

We all know that the European community is growing. What is probably some kind of news is the fact that also the European community of learning resources is steadily growing. The European community of learning resources is called LeMill.

Like in many other areas of life in Europe the growth is not created by the citizens of the welthy “old Europe” (France, Germany, UK, Netherlands, Sweden, Finland etc.) but by the new Europe: the Baltic countries and the Eastern European countries. Also in the LeMill these countries are the super powers.

Hans’ and Tarmo’s LeMill presentation for Czech teachers in Brno, Czech Republic on February 7th 2008.

I am probably one of the last people who would claim that big numbers matters. I am much more a person who likes to claim that “small is beautiful” and “not the quantity but the quality”. Here are, however, the LeMill numbers as they are today, or actually were on February 12 – when I gathered the data. They are still small numbers but important fact is that they are growing fast:

  • 2029 community members – check the number today from the end of the member cloud page
  • 176 groups
  • 4934 media pieces (audio and video clips and images)
  • 903 learning content resources, of which..
    • 514 web pages,
    • 225 exercises,
    • 211 references,
    • 141 presentations,
    • 23 progressive inquiry learning object templates (PILOT)
  • 78 descriptions of learning methods
  • 160 descriptions of learning tools

I am not sure actually how to interpret these numbers, except that it is obvious that the PILOT, something I consider to be a real pedagogical innovation and a contribution to the research of education technology does not get a lot hurrays from the users (teachers). It is also possible that we have failed to communicate the idea of the PILOT. Well, already the name – Progressive Inquiry Learning Object Templates – is some kind of research jargon. We must think a new name for this.

Anyway, to put the number in some scale we may compare them to other online communities build around the idea of providing open and free educational resources.

The Connexions – a project we have been following from the very beginning and also own a lot for them – states today in the site:

“5033 reusable modules woven into 313 collections”

I am not sure if we may or even should compare the numbers of Connexions to the number of LeMill, but at least for me it looks that the two systems are not that far away from each other:

  • Connexions: 5033 reusable modules and 313 collections
  • LeMill: 4934 media pieces and 1141 learning resources (content resources, methods and tools) – all naturally reusable

Wikiversity is great. I love it and actually I am pretty active in there. The English Wikiversity, the leading Wikiversity, tells their size, as follows:

“There are 47,246 total pages in the database. This includes “talk” pages, pages about Wikiversity, minimal “stub” pages, redirects, and others that probably don’t qualify as content pages. Excluding those, there are 6,292 pages that are probably legitimate content pages.”

So, lets compare Wikiversity and LeMill:

  • English Wikiversity’s 6292 pages (+ several thousand pages in other Wikiversities in other languages)
  • LeMill 1141 learning resources

Wikiversity – the English Wikiversity alone – is obviously much larger than the LeMill or the Connexions. Maybe, however, in here we may consider the question of quality against quantity. In LeMill we have a lot of “soil” (you may call it crap), but if you click the “Random topic” -link several times in the English Wikiversity hmm… you do not learn very much at all.

Anyway, I am very happy that we have the candid and progressive people in the Europe that have made LeMill what it is today. We are working hard to get teachers and educators around the world to join the LeMill community. In some places – like in Finland – teachers are very conservative people that are hard to convince. Sometimes this is a good feature – sometimes it is a bit too much.

Still, we are willing and happy to go again on LeTour to tell about LeMill. Please, invite us and we will come.

We know that 2000 members is not really anything to celebrate. When it is 20 000 I will buy you all a drink …hmm… no no, no! I will not! You see, I am not very good with the numbers.

Democratic Technology for Learning – the IKEA Way

Saturday, February 2nd, 2008

A week ago we moved to Mountain View, California ((No I do not work for Google) for six months. Like all modern migrant workers, the forth day we made a trip to the local IKEA – the little Sweden you may find nowadays almost everywhere. Even that our amazing friends have borrowed us the most essential stuff, we wanted to get something colorful to break the america-bourgeoisie-apartment-beige look and feel. The Stanford Mall was having some colorful cushions with price tags between USD 50 – 200. So, no thank you. Where is the IKEA?

In IKEA they have these signs explaining their design philosophy. They call it “Democratic Design”. In a nutshell their design philosophy is: Good Design. Smart Solutions. Low Price.

It’s not easy to define “good design” if we look things that are related to “taste”. You like red, I like blue and that’s it. There are, however, many universal features that are common to good design. To be called “good design” the product should be at least accessible, usable, safe, durable, and reparable. Smart solution means that the product fulfills some human needs and fits to the people’s existing situation and environment. It is functional. Finally, the low price means, hmm.. low price.

IKEA definition of democracy is obviously non-conventional. They do not talk about democratic decision-making process. They do not have design by committee, but actually some very clever designers. For IKEA democracy means access: everyone’s right to have – in IKEA’s words:

“beautiful life at home without giving up the rest what makes life worth.”

How would technology for learning be, if it would be primary representing Good Design, Smart Solution and Low Price?

Good Design: accessible, usable, safe, durable and reparable. In design accessibility does not necessary mean that all special groups are able to use the product – though it is something one should keep in mind. In design accessibility meant that the product is suitable and available for the people it is designed for. For instance, the children’s bed should not be too high for a child to climpt in it her self. Also the most crucial and important technology for learning should be accessible. In a case of software one may say that it should run on all the different operating system. In the time of web browsers, network and mobile computing we may conclude that it should run on a web browser on any devices from mobile phones and iPhones to desktop computers. The product should also itself communicate its affordances. The form of the product should tell for what one can use it. From a good chair you see how one can sit in and from a good piece of technology for learning you immediately get the idea for what kind of learning activities it is good for. The product should be safe, not only for the people who are using it but also for the people who originally made it, will assembly it, re-cycle it or fix it. Can you do this safely with proprietary technology? No. For this reason the technology for learning should be transparent and open. In the case of software it should be open source.

Smart Solutions: fulfilling some human need and fitting in people’s existing environment. A chair is designed for sitting, but the same need could be met with a mattress or cushion. For me living here only for six months the large floor cushions are smarter solutions than armchairs. In the case of technology for learning the devices and software should fit to the already existing educational ecosystem. It should not try to replace it. If there are already schools, classes and groups aiming to study together, the technology should enhance these entities existing (good) practices. The smart solution may also slowly change the behavior of the people. With the floor cushions that are actually rather uncomfortable, I must constantly- right now – move and search for a good position to write. I am pretty sure that this is better for my back than sitting in a static position on a chair. A smart technology for learning should similar way fit to the existing system but enhance and change it to be better than before. It should be functional in the situation it is designed for.

Low Price. How about low price of technology for learning? Yes. Free. Open Source.

Modifying the IKEA’s vision:

Beautiful learning wherever it takes place, without giving up the rest what makes life worth.