Archive for February, 2010

Simple ICT devices with simple Linux to be used in schools

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

Arafatux Simple ICT devices with simple Linux to be used in schools If you ask me this is something that should have happen in 2004, the year we found the association for free, libre and open source software in education (FLOSSE). It didn’t happen in 2004. In a few coming years we have a much better chances for this to happen.

What I would like to see in the educational ICT market in 2012, is an easy to use information and communication (ICT) device that comes with an easy to use Linux.

Why this could revolutionize the use of ICT in education?

In a couple of months the Apple iPad will demonstrate that a simple ICT device that is excellent to do a couple of things — web browsing, email, photos, watching video, listening to music, playing games and reading ebooks — is all a large majority of people need. I am pretty sure that with an addition of audio/video phones calls this is all what 90% of pupils and student need in school and university work. These features of course already exist in most PCs used in schools and universities. The point is that even if the features are there, PCs are by no means “excellent” in these. PCs with the Windows or some desktop Linux are just terrible what it comes to user experience.

Today the user experience with ICT devices is so poor that all clever teachers simply do not let ICT to disturb their classes. A good teacher understands that ICT tools of our time are causing too much cognitive load, disturbance and waste of time. Because of this it is better: 1) not to get ICT in classroom and leave use of them only to computer labs, were the situation is manageable; or 2) to ask pupils to use ICT only at home.

Why I think there are today great chances to design ICT device that comes with Linux that has an excellent user experience?

The five keywords of the answer are:

  1. Mobile
  2. Sugar
  3. Maemo/Meego /Android
  4. Touch screen UIs
  5. Web/Firefox

(1) The mobile devices are today the primary ICT devices for the majority of people. This is not the case only in developing world but also among wealthy people. We are fast moving from the PC/Internet world to the mobile internet world. When this is happening, those people who come to the world of ICT with the mobile experience will expect no-hassle user experience from more “advantaged” uses, too: something that is activity centered and as straight forward as making a phone call. This is especially the case with most young people. They are not interested in to “pimp” their PCs or to fight against computer viruses. They are interested in to write a school paper (or a blog posts / wiki-page), to take part in a collaborative knowledge building, to draw, to take a picture or a video, to keep in touch with their friends. The ICT may help them in this or not. If it does they will love it.

(2) The Sugar — the Linux distribution originally designed for the One Laptop per Child project’s laptop — seems to be progressing very well. The basic idea in Sugar is great. Their list of principles are just right. For instance: activities – not applications, emphasizing learning through doing, facilitating sharing and collaboration, collaborative learning through rich-media experience, the culture of free software is a powerful culture for learning etc.

(3) Maemo / Meego are open source, Linux projects developing platform for mobile devices. I have tested several version of Maemo and the user experience of the latest one — with touch screen — is really good. It’s not as good as in iPhone but it is close. Also Android’s — another touch-screen Linux for mobile devices — has pretty good user experience (I have just tested my friends’ devices a couple of times).

(4) Touch screen is a must. Especially if the devices are expected to be used by masses, like it is in the case of education. Anyone who ever have tested iPhone with children under age of 5 know the power of touch screen. With iPhone children are able to draw, watch movies etc. in less than 15 minutes. This does not happen with Windows / Linux PCs and mouse or touch pad. Why is this? It is the natural and instant interaction only possible by touching objects. We have practiced touching things for more than 200 000 years. For school use the device should come with a QWERTY-keyboard, but all the selections should take place through touch screen. It’s time to say good bye for mouse. Some devices also already come with touch screen and QWERTY.

(5) Mobile device with touch screen, QWERY and Linux with great user experience are important. The most important thing, however, is to have a superior web browser: something that makes the reading and writing with the web-forms a pleasant experience. Browsing should be fast and you should be able to adjust the experience for you needs. In input you should not loose your blog post if the connection cuts etc. Simple things but not obvious. Have Mozilla Firefox – it works, it is open source.

Finland and education export: IKEA of schools?

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

The Finnish Ministry of Education just released an education export strategy document with the title “From Interest to Demand and Products” (see also the News Paper articles: Tuition fees suggested for some types of higher education and Education – latest Finnish export product).

The main message of the strategy document seems to be, that:

  • In future Finland will be one of the world leading economies that is based on quality of education and educational system, and
  • Education sector’s share of the total export will grow significantly by 2015.

I love when people set objectives that 1) are already reached, or 2) are so vague that one can not measure were they ever reached on not.

Finland definitely is an economy that is based on quality education. Keeping this state of affairs in the future, too, is of course a good thing and actually not that obvious, nevertheless.

In do not have anything against the second objective either, although writing that there should be a “significant growth” leaves a lot of space for people interested in to measure the return of investment. In this particular case the ROI is important because the strategy document is ending with a budget proposal with an investment of 4 million Euros for three years to reach the objectives. In most state budgets — even in Finland — 4 million Euros for three years is of course peanuts, but still I am wondering what we, the tax payers, will get with this.

What I am seriously afraid is that in Finland we just do not have exportable education products and also designing them is very difficult.

I am not sure if we have the know-how to do it. Maybe, spending 4 million Euros to find out this makes sense. At least then we will know.

Anyway, lets try to stay positive and think what kind of education or education related products we could design, produce and export.

If we’ll have a look of the education export “mass market”, dominated by Universities in USA, Australia, UK and New Zealand, their main source of business come from international student expenditure on tuition fees and secondary benefits related to them: such as their spending on goods and services related to living in the country.

For these four English speaking countries the international students really are a “market” — a group of young minds interested in to get a degree, learn to speak English and to build an international, English speaking network.

In Finland, the Universities are basically all ran with the money coming from the tax payers. Universities are independent but the bills are paid by the tax payers. For students — both Finnish and international — there isn’t tuition fees. The great investment from the tax payers makes the University education expensive (also ineffective many ways) but same time by many measurement high quality. I do not have the numbers — I hope someone somewhere does — but the factual cost of an University degree in Finland is probably rather high if compared to cost/unit in other countries.

I am afraid that the “market” of international students, that would pay the tuition fee and the high living costs in Finland, is very small if not totally non-existing.

With the same price, one would pay in Finland, a student could go to country with native English speakers (and probably much better weather and more friendly people, too). It is also a safer investment for the student: if the education is not good, at least she will learn proper English and may build an international English speaking network.

Someone should naturally do a “market study”.

What is my worst case scenario is that we will introduce tuition fees and a stipend system that will not create any value for anyone.

If we will have tuition fees, for Finnish and students coming from ETA countries we, in practice, must arrange governmental stipend system. Then we must also guarantee that anyone — coming from whatever country — who can’t pay the fee, but is selected to the program, is not let down. We need another stipend system.

So, in the end of the day we may have a massive stipend system, or maybe two, that will provide stipends which will cover 95% of the tuition fees. Then we will have a new line of bureaucrats running the system and because of this we will actually have less money to be spend on teaching in the University.

When designing education export on the bases of international students paying tuition fees one should also think, would this change in the system increase or degrees the number of students interested in to come to study in Finland?

This is important, because we as a nation really need international students. We live from export industry and to sell the products we need people who know us and are able to work with us.

Most people educated in Finland will finally pay back their (free) education with real money — whatever they will stay in Finland or not. Most of them will do business with Finnish companies, travel here as tourists and tell their good memories about Finland for their friends.

Those who will stay and will pay taxes in here are worth of millions. Really. Children and young people are those who “spend” most of the tax payers money: as a child in Finland you are very expensive for the tax payers in the “free” kindergarten, free school, free health care and free dentist.

If you’ll get someone to move to Finland at the age of 20-25, is healthy, have basic education and speaks 2-3 languages she will simply jump almost straight to the stage of being “productive” and being only for a little time a “cost” for the nation, when studying in a “free” University.

I am afraid that if we’ll introduce tuition fees for the international students we simply will not have many of them anymore. Same time we may loose the reputation of being a nation with free education from primary education to higher education. This is often one of the few facts people internationally know about Finnish education. Can we afford to loose this?

The people who promote the tuition fees often say that free is dubious and people do not consider something to be valuable when they get it for free. If you ask people on a street in Helsinki, Jyväskylä or Pihtipudas, people will not agree with this. People value the “free education” probably more than anything else in this country. Just the news of having tuition fees, regardless of it having any practical impact to most people, will increase social inequality. People will use this to distinct them from each other. This will create more unstable society with more covetousness and fear and less social cohesion. Can we afford to loose this?

I understand that introducing tuition fees at any level of education, even in continuous education, summer schools and short courses is difficult when there are also University programs that do not collect fees. In a way the Universities are some kind of market disruptors.

I think that we can change this. Let’s make the factual price of the courses and degrees visible, but include in all communication about them a simple note:

“All students in XXX University / program XXX are currently fully funded (tuition/medical insurance and stipend)”.

Now everybody know that education is not free. We pay it. The tax payers pay it.

So, is there anything the Finnish Universities could export?

I think yes. The Universities could provide special degree programs (like MBAs) and continuous education programs that are separated from the “general programs”. These programs could be offered partly online and party in campus. The Finnish Universities could also have branch offices in some countries and start to provide education in there. I am not, however, sure how good business this would be, as I haven’t seen the great American or British Universities doing this.

What else we could export? Education management consulting, teachers, architecture, software, technology?

Probably yes, but if there is a demand for these services, why I do not see Finnish companies offering almost any of these products?

Maybe using 4 million Euros to help potential companies to develop these products and to start to export them is a good strategy.

167126512 a19fc8e94a Finland and education export: IKEA of schools?
Picture by by uzzran.

In January Risto E.J. Penttilä, the director of the Finnish Business and Policy Forum EVA – policy and pro-market think-tank financed by the Finnish business community – was promoting the ideato spread the benefits of the Finnish primary school system across the globe”.

Penttilä’s idea is to start-up a network of Finnish International Schools around the world that would loosely follow the Finnish school curriculum (an alternative to the IB system). The teachers would be mainly Finnish but the language of teaching would be English. According to Penttilä the Finnish International Schools would be like “IKEA of schools” with unified design, functionality and curriculum and run by a foundation of private social enterprise.

Penttilä calls for action and someone to conduct a feasibility study. That is a great idea.

Results from my small survey among friends in Bogota and Bangalore gave promising results. People — most of them with children — considered the idea feasible. However, people were concern could they actually afford the school with teachers who are paid Finnish salaries. A relevant question.

Picture by by jpellgen

Two disclaimers: 1) What it comes to immigration to Finland, I think we should carry our responsibility of the global refugee problem as a wealthy nation, and provide more refuges and new place to live. We should welcome to Finland more people in need of help. We should be like the other Nordic countries. 2) I do not consider students in the University community to be primary customers, but understand that in some situations it doesn’t harm if they are considered and treated as customers. In most situations and context in a daily life at the University one should not treat students as customers, but as colleagues (members of the University community) and hmm… students. Unfortunately the ability to recognize the different contexts is rare. This is also why it is important that the management of the University is in the hands of the Academics — in hands of those who get it.

Update: check the comment for a 3rd disclaimer.

Fle3 — 10 (or 20) years ahead of its time ?

Monday, February 15th, 2010

I just got an email from a graduate student in US asking would it be possible for him to take a look of the Fle3 with a visitor user name and password. Fle3 is server software for computer supported collaborative learning (CSCL) designed and developed in our research group, released in 2002 (first version in 1999).


I get this kind of requests about twice a month. My common practice with these is that I just send people the user name with the teacher’s rights.

This time — I do this maybe once in two years — I decided to check whatever our Fle3 demo server is still up and running. Tarmo has setup the server so that it is pretty much bullet proof but sometime it is good to check that everything in there is ok.

So, It was not a surprise for me that the server was up and running, but a surprise was that when clicking a bit around in Fle3 I realized that it is still very relevant collaborative learning environment.

In a way it is maybe today more relevant than 10 years ago when the first version of Fle3 (just called FLE at that time) was released in 1999. In the late 1990′s and early 2000, the Web was not very social or collaborative.

If you are interested in to have a look of Fle3, feel free to visit the demo server with the following username (it is a teacher/tutor username – the login is in the right upper corner):

username: tutor
password: saapask1ssa

If you rather read about Fle3, we also have a nice colorful booklet:

Learning with Collaborative Software – A guide to Fle3.

In a way Fle3 was (and naturally still is) a social media and social networking service. For instance, it has a lot of similar features to Facebook, but with a special focus to support learning projects.

In Fle3 you always work with a group of people you trust and are willing to share your most stupid thoughts and ideas. This is because sharing your early hypothesis and theories is important in learning and you rather do it with people you trust.

For instance, Fle3 is very strict with privacy: you work and share things only with your class or group of students with whom you have build a social cohesion in a level that everyone can trust each other.

When Facebook is now claiming that privacy is no longer a social norm we may expect that closed network services will become more popular. I assume people need social online spaces (like Fle3) where one can be open with their “friends”, without a fear of someone using your early ideas and pondering against, you or your data/media to sell something to someone.

Practically speaking, there are needs for different kind of services: open and closed, socially and technologically open and closed. This is why in our research group we are also interested in to develop fully open tools that could support the idea of knowledge building in the open Internet. I will write about this another post, soon.

EduFeedr – to handle your open online courses (or to build your PLE, if you prefer that term)

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

Hans Poldoja have initiated really interesting and important project, called EduFeedr. Hans aim is to solve the problems of using standard RSS readers in Open Education, more precisely in open online courses. He’s problem statement is:

Standard RSS readers lack the features for following and supporting learning activities which cross the borders of different Web 2.0 applications.

I have been “teaching”/ “mentoring” / “coordinating” (also with Hans) several open online courses. The idea of an open online course is to provide online learning experiences to anyone interested in to join the course. In open courses people often use pretty standard Web 2.0 tools (wikis, blogs, micro-blogging) to “deliver” content, to present reflections on the content (e.g. learning diaries), to share their learning exercises and to discuss about the course related issues.

If the group of participants is more than 20 it easily becomes very difficult for the participants to follow the process.

Can we help that with a better tool? I think we can. Please have a look of Hans presentation “Current state of EduFeedr project” on Slideshare. If you like it, please contact Hans and contribute. EduFeedr is (will be, when ready) Open Source.