Archive for September, 2009

Fle4 and LeMill 6742

Monday, September 28th, 2009

I am very happy to write this post – for my own records and for you.

I have a pleasure to report some new design research results from my research group. Designing experimental learning environments and tools for them, is anyway the topic I am excited about.

Fle4 is here.
Future Learning Environment is the project we started in 97-98 to develop new leaning methods and web-based tools that could “support learner and group centered work that concentrates on creating and developing expressions of knowledge (i.e. knowledge artefacts)”. The last software result from this project was the Fle3 (have a look of the Wikipedia entry), designed to support “study groups to implement knowledge building, creative problem solving and scientific method in an inquiry learning process, for example the progressive inquiry method.

Now we have Fle4 – that is actually a WordPress plugin. It’s not “Future Learning Environment” but a knowledge building tool for blogs.

LeMill community is soon over 7000 teachers.
LeMill is our experimental web community for finding, authoring and sharing open educational resources. We haven’t made a lot of noise about it, but it has been growing smoothly – especially in the Eastern Europe. Today, with Wikimedia projects, LeMill is the only multilingual and multicultural online community for collaborative creation and sharing of open educational resources in the world. Today Lemill is a web community of close to 7000 teachers and other learning content creators. At the moment it has more than 5000 reusable learning content resources, almost 2000 descriptions of teaching and learning methods, and 690 descriptions of teaching and learning tools in more than 3o languages. If your learning resource is not yet in LeMill, please join the community and let’s make it together.

21st Century Skills: The Virtues of Ancient Greece

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

Last week I gave a talk in a workshop organized by the Confederation of Finnish Industries EK. The theme of the workshop was to explore the future of education in Finland. The title of my talk was “digitalization, networks and the future of education” (In Finnish: Digitalisoituminen, verkottuminen ja koulutuksen tulevaisuus).

My original plan for the talk was to bring up the latest international discussion around the 21st century skills: what they are, why they are considered to be important, and how different stakeholders are planning to achieve them?

Finally, I didn’t talk about the 21st century skills at all, but about digital culture and how the social behavior online is strongly affecting on “offline” areas of human life, such as schools and educational system. I concluded that, though we live the era of digital knowledge and networks we probably should not drive “skills sets” from these external factors, but maybe look the old good virtues of ancient Greece and think what could they mean in the 21st century. The classical four Greek virtues are Practical Wisdom (sofia), Braveness (andreia), Justice (dikaiosynē), and Sophrosyne (sōfrosynē).

In Finland – cause the relatively good results from the OECD’s PISA surveys – there isn’t any huge internal pressure for major educational reforms in basic education. Children in Finnish schools all have reading/writing proficiency, can do basic math and science and know where is Burma and who is the prime minister of Italy (and if they don’t they will check it from Wikipedia in two seconds). Having a good system, leads easily to wrong kind of self-satisfaction: why we should do anything if we are doing so well? Why fix it if it is not broken?

Systems are not that simple. When you are doing well in some areas you may have huge challenges in other areas. For instance, if someone would take a look of ICT, Internet and media education in Finnish schools the results could be quite surprising. In these areas, the educational systems ability to respond to the changing world has been very poor. We do not have laptops in schools, we do not produce or use open educational resources and our “online teachers community” is, if not non-existing, very small. Also our ability to encourage our children to be active citizens who see the world as something they can change seems to be very limiting.

If we do not continuously develop the educational system it will decay. Systems are like gardens; you must take care of them. My humble interpretation of the areas in need of more attention in the Finnish educational system are: 1) use of ICT in Education: especially social software, open content and free and open source software; 2) The virtues of ancient Greece.

I feel that for the readers of this blog there isn’t need to list what the better use of ICT in education would mean. Because of this I’ll focus on the virtues and try to explain how they could be more present in schools and education.

The Practical Wisdom (sofia) maps well with the idea of critical thinking, problem solving and design thinking skills. Practical means focusing on solving problems of the real world. Wisdom is ability to look the problem from various points of views and to come-up with creative solutions. This is happening very little in schools today. We just do not ask children to have a look of the real world problems and ask them to search solutions to them, with help of the methods of different disciplines. For instance, how many math teachers are using global warming as the context or case in her teaching? Are we still working in the silos of different school subjects? I am afraid we are. Practical wisdom develops in a balanced practice of art and science.

Braveness (andreia) requires from one-side communication skills and from another side ability to take risks. It requires a lot of braveness to speak-up one’s mind, to share once opinion and to take part in public life. To do this one needs strong communication skills, ability to read and write, talk and listen – in several languages. Risk taking means ability to stand change and unknowingness. Many people see braveness also a critical factor in entrepreneurship.

Justice (dikaiosynē) naturally means skill to see the difference between right and wrong – to be fair and honest. It also means ability to do and support things that are rather constructive than distractive.

Sophrosyne (sōfrosynē) means moderation and temperance in everything. It means avoidance of excess in daily life, in public life, in business.

So, how one can “teach the virtues”? Actually it is simple. Virtues bloom and grown when you use them. Simple – just have good teachers.

Academic Administration and Freedom

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

What a title. Reading it makes me smile.

I am nowadays dealing almost daily with academic administration of the soon starting Aalto University. I am kindly asked to comment plans of having new ICT system, how to have ICT enhancing teaching and learning, tenure track, research assessment exercise etc. All these are important and event to some extent pretty interesting stuff.

When dealing with these things, there are three proverbs I keep on repeating in my little head. These are:

1) Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.

2) Don’t fall into the Not Invented Here syndrome (NIH).

3) Don’t be the fire chief who keeps on telling for the volunteer firefighters that their did their job, but technically wrong. (I think this is very Finnish proverb / joke and does not make much sense in English)

With the Aalto University – merger between the Helsinki School of Economics, the University of Art and Design Helsinki and the Helsinki University of Technology – one of the key preparatory activities was an extensive, international research assessment of all the units of the three Schools.

The results from my unit – Media Lab Helsinki – were in a nutshell, as follows (straight quotations from the evaluation report):

“Scientific Quality of the Unit’s Research – Numerical Rating (1‐5): 4 Very Good International Level”
“Scientific Impact of the Unit’s Research – Numerical Rating (1‐5): 4 Very Good International Level”
“Societal Impact of the Unit’s Research – Numerical Rating (1‐5): 5 Outstanding International Level”
“Research Environment at the Unit of Assessment – Numerical Rating (1‐5): 4 Very Good International Level”
“Future Potential of the Unit of Assessment – Numerical Rating (1‐5): 5 Outstanding”

You may guess that we were pretty proud about the results. Regardless of the great results from the assessment, I am seriously worried whatever these results will ever translate to any constructive actions.

I am afraid that when things will be “reorganized” we may loose the flexibility and freedom causing the good results. We will throw out the baby with the bath water.

For instance, the new tenure track system may not recognize the existing expertise in the unit and those who (1) made the great results and (2) are holding the “outstanding future potential” will have hard time to find a place. In a worst-case scenario these people will reclaim the results of the research assessment and move to some other University or research institution. I have some friends in US with this experience.

With the new ICT systems – for internal communication and to enhance teaching and learning – I am afraid of the not invented here syndrome (NIH).

For instance, when selecting intranet/extranet solutions we should be well informed, educated and strategic. This means, that we a honest with the fact that the software engineers are not necessary the best people to design communication systems, such as intranet solutions. They of course know how the bits move in there, but are not – seriously – very good with people, those poor things who will end-up using the system.

In my unit, in last 15 years, we have designed and implemented hundreds of intra/extra/social media systems. The Onni intranet system, developed in-house in cooperation with some people from the School of Design, is definitely one of the best intra/extra/social media systems in the “market” (Socialtext is pretty good, too). Why wouldn’t we use the Onni in the whole Aalto University? Because it is not made by the software engineers of the Helsinki University of Technology but some weird art and design people? I am afraid. To demonstrate that I am not myself falling it to the NIH, I am open to accept Socialtext, as the intra/extra/social media system of the new Aalto University. Please no Confluence Wiki (it’s a wiki, not an intra/extra/social media!).

Finally. The fire chief. In our unit we have many flexible practices that help us to do our job very well: to do (high quality) research and to run our MA and doctoral programs. Sometime the procedures are not exactly according to the rules and guidelines of the University. We do things in a way that may look strange for someone who is not that deep in our operation. In most of the cases there is a practical reason to do things the way we do them. Often the reason is just “common sense”, to save time, effort and nerves or to be focused and not to do things that are not necessary. The results count, right?

Summa summarum: We need autonomy and freedom – not only in the University’s relation in its funders – but also internally in the University, in the unit’s relations to the academic administration.

Wikimedia – the public media of the Internet-era?

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

I just met with the BBC journalist, Tim Sebastian. He was visiting us to see the results from our study project exploring new media concepts for World Health Organization (thank you M4ID’s Mari for organizing this). The main issue discussed related to humanitarian emergency communication.

How we could communicate fast and efficiently with the people who are affected or even injured with disasters? How we could help people to help each other? According to Tim Sebastian, often the last people to know what has happen are those people who are in the middle of humanitarian crises. Our students have designed a simple mobile solution to help this.

Tim Sebastian was seriously worried about the growing censorship and violation of free speech. I was quite surprised about this. My own – maybe naïve – view have been that with the Internet and the Web the situation is definitely better, than when the media landscape was managed mainly by public broadcasting companies. Those days, in tens of countries, the government was strictly controlling all the information channels, except private conversations. In some countries they use to have some pretty sophisticated systems to follow even private chats.

In a couple of years Wikipedia has become the largest and most popular reference media on the Internet. Besides an encyclopedic reference work, Wikipedia has become a popular news resource where articles about recent events are quickly and frequently updated. It is already fair to say that Wikipedia is no more *just* an online encyclopedic. All the processes and things around it are making it its own media or media network.

Wikipedia is a community and volunteer-driven project supported by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. The Foundation is funded primarily through donations by tens of thousands of individuals and several grants and gifts. Probably most of the donations come from the readers of the Wikipedia. Still, also the same volunteers who are donating their time to write articles are also donating money in it. Wikipedia is not only encyclopedic or media – it is a social movement.

In addition to Wikipedia, the Wikimedia-community has started several sister projects that are aiming to fulfill its’ mission “to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content“. These are, for instance: Wiktionary -project creating a multilingual free content dictionary in every language; Wikimedia Commons –project building repository for free photographs, diagrams, maps, videos, animations, music, sounds, spoken texts, and other free media; and Wikiquote –project creating a repository of quotations taken from famous people, books, speeches, films or any intellectually interesting materials. All the projects are collaboratively developed by volunteers.

Wikimedia –project have many characteristics of a public broadcasters, though formulated from the beginning to utilize the possibilities the Internet provides for media. Just like in public broadcasting Wikimedia’s aim is to be free from vested interest and governments. There is a serious concern for community and minorities. Special interest is made on cultural heritage, and all in all the investments are made to activities with are expected to have high social benefits.

Wikimedia is a people to people media. Anyone reading or watching Wikimedia may freely edit, copy and redistribute it.

Wikimedia is still young. However, by running one of the world most popular websites, it already has a huge impact to modern life. Same time Wikimedia is facing some external and internal challenges. The traditional media industry may see Wikimedia as a “market disruptor” or “competitor”. In many ways Wikimedia –projects are disruptive innovations using disruptive technology. They are changing the game. Also the need and growth of more permanent staff in the Foundation (today around 30) causes tension between the “paid staff” and volunteer community. Will the Wikimedia movement survive this?

I hope that in a couple of years we will see an establishment of the Wikimedia movement, community and the Foundation. Establishment is good – when it is done without giving-up the original vision, mission and values. To progress the establishment the Foundation has started a project to formulate a strategy for the organization.

Being Wikimedia the strategic planning process naturally takes place on a wiki. The process in an open community process designed to serve the movement. The wiki is there for you to explore and edit.

The values of the Wikimedia Foundation are “Freedom, Accessibility and quality, Independence, Commitment to openness and diversity, Transparency, and that Our community is our biggest asset.

If these values will stand the Wikimedia movement will be fine.

OPEN 2009 – Helsinki – November 2009

Tuesday, September 1st, 2009

I just got home from Wikimania 2009 – the conference I am willing to call THE free culture conference (now when iCommons seems to be history, why?). The Wikimedia Foundation’s conference was just as good as I was expecting it to be: The energy and the good will was all there, more and better academic and research talks, honest and open keynotes: Richard Stallman’s rant, Jimmy Wales’ enthusiasm and Sue Gardner’s “reformulation” of the Foundations’ vision:

Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That’s our commitment . . . “and we are not achieving it”.

Admitting the facts is the origin of wisdom, said Juho Kusti Paasikivi – the first Cold War era president of Finland.

The open and free culture movement is growing and doing pretty well. In a way it is slowly reaching some level of establishment where people know what it is and why it is important. For example open educational resources (OERs) are becoming part of national policies in many parts of the world – although not in Finland, but in some more advanced information societies, like California, Netherlands and Catalonia.

Actually, the free culture is doing well in Finland, too. However, it is still more academic and activists who keep on talking about it – not politicians, decisions-makers or business people.

Open 2009 symposium will be THE event of free culture in Finland, although the theme is not limited to “free” (a problematic term) but will discuss specifically about “open”. From the website:

“The OPEN Symposium is an event for all interested parties who want to understand the recent shift from an industrially organized era to an era of networks and open information and social production.

What does this mean for …
… organizations?
… consumers?
… citizens?
… research?
… business?
… design?
… culture?
… art?
… society?
… environment?
… you/me/us/everone else?

The event is naturally open and free for all.