Archive for June, 2008

UNICEF Solar Powered Digital School in a Box

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

Friends at the UNCIEF NYHQ, who have been developing also the MobilED audio wiki, just announced a prototype of solar powered communication hub than can be used to provide communications, education, connectivity and emergency support in places lacking electricity, Internet, telephone, radio and other connections. I think this is a great idea.

sketch2 UNICEF Solar Powered Digital School in a Box

The communication hub is a suite case size luggage one can take to areas of emergency to set-up a temporary school and communication center. The suite case contains (James Bond-like) equipment for emergency and educational communications.

In a way, the solar powered communication hub is also an extension of UNICEF’s great “school in a box” initiative. School in a box is a kit of school supplies and materials such as exercise books, pencils, eraser and scissors for a teacher and up to 80 students (taught in double shift classes of 40). Each year UNICEF sends millions of these kits for teachers and children affected by emergencies whether natural disasters or man made. The school in a box is UNICEF’s standard response in emergencies.

The communication hub runs for 38 hours solar power array.

The core of the unit is a PC hardware running Linux with various network connections. With access to satellite (e.g. Worldspace) and mobile networks one can pull content, such as educational materials and news.

sketch1 UNICEF Solar Powered Digital School in a Box

The kit comes with a projector and speakers for watching and listening educational content, and a webcam and microphone, for instance, to register children in disaster situations, and to communicate the situation in the site for the rest of the world.

With Linux-based radio-station software one can create radio programs and transmit them for the people with the FM transmitter (5 km), also coming with the kit.

The unit comes with “ultimate network connectivity” (something I have asked from the school laptop providers), including 50km WiFi range, GSM, GPRS and thuraya network connections. Different units can also share data (with the WiFi) and they can be used for making telephone calls between the kits.

In addition to these features I would definitely include to the kit a simple printer. The printer could be used to print school work sheets and reading materials and with it UNICEF could provide people with a piece of paper (ID) showing that they have been registered by UNICEF. In a case of emergency a simple piece of paper may save your life.

The design of the kit will be released under creative commons and the software used is open source.

How the distribution and use of the units will then take place?

2 UNICEF Solar Powered Digital School in a Box

In a case of emergency UNICEF is locating field workers in the actual place, to help children affected by the disaster. The idea is that they will travel to the place with the kit and will help the local people to set-up the school. The digital communication hubs will then be part of the emergency infrastructure, build to relief the people effected. This way it can be compared to attempts to provide clean water, food and shelter.

I believe that this kind of communication hub may have a huge impact to the situation of the people living in the middle of emergencies. For children and young people the best possible relief is to get back to the world of learning as soon as possible. It will also be a relief for the parents. I hope the digital school in a box and the communication hub can do exactly this.

Comparing Schools in Finland and in the United States

Friday, June 20th, 2008

The title is silly, but well… this is a blog anyway.

Comparing schools in Finland and in US is bit like comparing carrot to all the fruits. Carrots are good, but there are many great fruits, too. We also know that some fruits are just non-eatable, even poisonous. Anyway, in the following I will make some comparisons, which shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

To write about this was partly inspired by the Wall Street Journal article, What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart?. Stephen Down, from whom I got the link, wrote already the main point:

“Smarter? Hardly. Just better educated”.

Right, the average in Finland is higher than the average in some other countries.

Some weeks ago I was visiting a school in Palo Alto, California. I was having the chance to observe some sessions of a science class running a study project on nanoscale science. The project was part of the nanosense project developing “curriculum units to help high school students understand science concepts that account for nanoscale phenomena”. So, in practice in those lessons, I was in, they were testing one unit designed in the project.

The school was a good public school. The science classroom was like science classes everywhere where there are resources to have laboratory space and equipment. Most high schools in Finland have these facilities, and so does most schools I have visit in number of countries. I may summarise that there aren’t many differences in the facilities.

The teachers, in the school I was visiting, were obviously highly educated, smart and reasonable people: all qualities that make a great educator. Also, the instructional and pedagogical strategies used in the class were similar to those used in Finland. Students were doing study work with a connections to real life, and this way anchoring the science in their own everyday experiences. I would say that in the pedagogy there isn’t any great differences, either, except that this kind of project-based learning is probably even more common in the US than in Finnish schools.

Where I see differences is the more general “school culture”. The Wall Street Journal article was also pointing out these differences. These issues are very little related to anything that is taking place inside classrooms. They are much more, well cultura, structural and organizational. These are things that are probably making the Finnish schools and the American schools different. I’ll try to list here some concrete examples.

In Finland, at least in some high schools, teachers of different study subject are working together to have integrated project where students are studying some large topic from several perspectives. This is not common, but I think (and hope) that it is a growing trend in Finnish high schools. Teachers in the school in California told that collaboration with teachers of other subjects would be great but hard to arrange. The curriculum and lesson plans seem to be so tight that there is very little space to plan and implement things differently. Even in the class I was visiting they were testing a “unit”, something that could be then maybe replicated in other schools. Why is this? Is this some kind of attempt to have Taylorism in schools?

In Finland students have a lot of freedom of expression. The youth culture is rather integrated to the curriculum than isolated from is. This kind of openness brings the topics current in youth cultures under consideration among adults, too. A funny example of this comes from some years back when we were organizing European conference in a high school in Järvenpää, Finland. One of the ideas in the conference was to bring the participants in a middle of a school in a normal school day. The pupils didn’t know (and obviously didn’t care) that there were visitors. All the lessons took place just like in a normal day when the actual conference took place in the auditorium of the school. When I then arrived to the lobby of the school (it is a beautiful, new school building with a large round lobby in the middle) at 9:30 AM with a group of educational researchers around Europe there was a rock band in the middle playing Soundgarden’s – Black Hole Sun. It was not a show organized for us. The pupils playing in the band were actually in their music class. Some of my Italian collagues were a bit afraid to follow me.

In Finland students also work with rather large “units”, like “History of American Rock Music” (not really, but they could).

Like everywhere, also in Finland teachers are naturally preparing their students to the national exams, know as the abitur exam. The beauty of the exam is that it is actually asking students to write relatively long essays. The exams take 4-8 days (6 hours per day) depending on how many exams in what study subjects you’ll take. To make your students to write good essays you better teach and study the topics on holistic way. Here is an example of essay question in the science exam (just translated it from a document available online – all the old exam questions are online):

“How cells are producing enzymes? In your essay explain the structure of enzymes, their tasks and function in the cells”.

Another example of a question from history and social science exam:

“Here is an image of William Roberts’ painting of women during the World War II. Analyze the role of women during the World War II by using the image as a starting point. Analyze the War’s influence on women’s role and status in a society in the Western world. You may write your essay also from the perspective of the history of Finland.”

The idea behind the Finnish high school exams is simple, and actually based on very classical (American) management “truth”: you get what you measure. If you measure route learning and route memory that’s what teachers will teach in schools. If you’ll stress understanding the big picture, general knowledge and higher-level concepts, that is what the people in the system will try to do.

There is another simple “management truth” we may use when thinking about education. I think I heard this the first time in context of architecture. It goes like this. When a customer is asking for more, better, faster and cheaper, the architects’ standard answer is: there are three factors of which you may choose only two. These are “good”, “fast”, and “cheap”. So your building can be either:

  • Good and finnished fast, but this becomes expensive
  • Good and cheap but will take very long to build
  • Cheap and made fast, but not very good

In Finland the educational system, as it is today, was build slowly. It is still strongly relying on the work of Uno Cygnaeus ( 1810-1888 ) who was influenced by the early European “constructivist” Pestalozzi ( 1746–1827 ) and Froebel ( 1782 –1852 ). The idea that children learn the best when they areactive and build things was not really invented by John Dewey or Piaget – they only were able to present the idea in a language of positivist science, when the earlier thinkers thought themselves as “pedagogues” or educational philosophers.

On top of the good, cheap or fast factors there is still one factor we “customers” must take very seriously. The questions is: How is the architect offering the service? Is he any good?

Workshop to brainstorm an or a Flikr for learning purposes

Wednesday, June 18th, 2008

Tagging, social bookmarking, Digging, Twittering and the seemingly never-ending list of social network sites offer a great resource of inspiration to dream about for people who work with education and technologies. We offer a workshop where you can do just that!

SIRTEL’08 stands for Social Information Retrieval for Technology Enhanced Learning. This workshop will take place now for the second time (in ECTEL08 ), and we modified the call to accommodate more “serious fun”, instead of only focusing on academic papers of on-going work.

This year we especially invite System demos, Hands-on proposals and Pecha Kucha talks! Hands-on proposals, for example, can be just a 1-pager to describe how your idea of something like would work for learning purposes. Or what would be the Flickr of learning resources? Then, in the workshop, you will be able to lead a short brainstorming session on this. We hope that this kind of exercise will make us all think what can Social Information Retrieval offer for educational context, and how can it help learners to learn better.

Check out:

* the whole SIRTEL’08 call

* Here is a little background write-up for last year’s session.

* Papers and discussion out come from SIRTEL’07.


- Submission: June 29

- Results Notification: August 3

- Camera Ready Submission: August 31, 2008

- Workshop date: September 17, 2008

- Main conference dates: September 18-19, 2008


Wikiversity graduation party!

Wednesday, June 11th, 2008

380px Roseland Christian School 1910 Graduating Class Wikiversity graduation party!

In March, April and May, I have bee facilitating with Hans Põldoja an experimental study project and course on a Wikiversity. The Composing free and open online educational resources course is now finished. It is time to celebrate!

With Hans, we just checked our database of our notes and provided for the participants some “pass”, “fail” or “complementary work required” statements. The statements are now in the participants page.

March 3rd, the day starting the course, there were 72 registered participants. According to our book keeping 15 participants made all the assignments during the 10 weeks project. 5 participants should still do some complementary work to make it passed. The 20 participants who did (or almost did) complete the whole course should be really proud of their work. Congratulations!

Some of the assignments were found by some participants relatively demanding and our estimation of 4-6 hours of study work per week was probably underestimation. We do not have exact numbers on this but I think the actual workload was something like double.

Probably the greatest results and satisfaction for me comes from the fact that some people are already working on to organize the course again. Also Estonians are working on to localize the course and do it in their own Wikiversity in Estonian.

I am using some materials from the experiment in one research paper I am working on. I hope it will a bit open the idea of Wikiversity for “academics”, too. I think for many – including myself – the “wiki-way” of teaching and learning may at first look almost dangerous, or at least hard to handle.

My experience is that it is not necessary that different, at all. In a Wikiversity course you may have people who are motivated to study (you may call them students – I prefer calling them participants in the case or Wikiversity), readings, assignments, class discussions, evaluation and feedback. Most likely you will also face complains, demands and plagiarism. We are, anyway, human, even on a wiki.

I think the best way to get a hint of the course and how it was organized is to read the course blog of the facilitators written by Hans and me. From the archives of the blog you will find our comments and notes that were written during the process. In the sidebar of the blog there are also links to all the 20 participants that made it (or almost made it). Having a look of their blogs will give you an idea of the course from their perspective.

PC is not a good educator

Friday, June 6th, 2008

The SLATE Magazine reports the study, The Effect of Computer Use on Child Outcomes (study report, PDF), looking at the program of the Government of Romania where low-income families were given vouchers to purchase PCs.

From some part, I agree with the interpretations presented in the study. My final conclusions would anyway be somehow different. Here are some quotations from the conclusions of the study:

“We find that children who won a voucher spent significantly less time watching television and doing homework. Moreover, the effect on homework appears to have had real consequences for school performance. We find evidence indicating that children who won a voucher had lower school grades. Parents reported that these children had a significantly lower expectation of going to college. Finally, we also find suggestive evidence that winning a voucher is associated with negative behavioral outcomes.”

“These findings indicate that providing home computers to low-income children in Romania led them to experience worse outcomes.”

“…our analysis brings out the important role of parents in shaping the impact of home computer use on child and adolescent outcomes. We find that in families where mothers stay at home and where parents have rules regarding computer use, the negative effects of winning a voucher are greatly reduced. Thus, our findings suggest caution regarding the broader impact of home computers on child outcomes. They also raise questions about the usefulness of recent large-scale efforts to increase computer access for disadvantaged children around the world without paying sufficient attention to how parental oversight affects a child’s computer use.”

I agree with the conclusion that using computers efficiently for educational purposes children needs adults. Actually, children can not constructively achieve any higher-level cognitive skills just on their own, or with peer-support.

I wouldn’t, however, ask for “parental oversight” or promote “mothers at home” to achieve the badly needed adult guidance. There are other options, too. I wonder if the researchers have ever heard about teachers – those professional educators who work with children?

One simple solution to guarantee adult supervision is simply to keep the computers (laptops) inside schools, use them mainly in there and let children to take them at home only when there is study work to be done with them.

My conclusions: Everybody planning to dump PCs/laptops to the hands of the children should probably step back and think about teachers.

The questions is: how teachers will be capable to supervise the use of computers in education.

Finally, I think the OLPCs XO with the Sugar is probably the best educational PC in the market. Not because it would be great, but because it is least disturbing technology.

Sugar is not a tool for playing computer games or for watching Britney videos from Youtube. The Sugar is actually full of pretty serious educational stuff, although lacking tools for collaborative knowledge building. These tools can be there one day.

Following this, I am shocked – if it is true what is widely reported – that many Ministries of Education around the world have asked to have Windows in the XO, and have said that they will have them only when they run Windows.

I can’t help to think that this is a result of two things in the ministries: (1) lack of education and (2) corruption. It’s a sad world.