Archive for December, 2010

Designing Learning Tools — Introduction to Some Methodological Thoughts

Monday, December 27th, 2010

Tolstoy has suggested that: “The vocation of every man and woman is to serve other people “. In this brief presentation I am aiming to demonstrate how I have tried to do it. How I have tried to serve other people.

My study is about design. According to Nelson and Stolterman design is not about self-expression. Design is not about self-service. Design is other-service. Design is always an attempt to serve other people.

In a well-known online directory of learning tools — maintained by Jane Hart of the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies in England — there are over 2000 tools for learning. It is obvious that more and more learning is mediated by digital technology.

Helping someone to learn is one of the most fundamental services we do for other people. Doing the service we may use tools — learning tools. Both learning and tools are in the core of our culture.

As part of my study I have designed tools people may use when helping each other to learn. With these tools I serve other people. By seeking methodological insights on how to design learning tools, I am aiming to serve those people who design learning tools and do research on them.

picture 1 Designing Learning Tools — Introduction to Some Methodological Thoughts
Figure 1: Timeline of the Main Paradigms of Using Computers in Learning. (Some rights reserved).

My study examines design of software learning tools in the era of the Web, social software and open content. This partly frames the contemporary socio-technical environment where I have done the research and design work.

With this presentation I am trying to answer two questions:

What are the key findings of the study? And how did I get these findings?

My study consists of five original articles and a summary article. Four of the articles describes design of four learning tools. The study relies on my personal involvement and experience gained by participating in design processes of four distinct and experimental software tools that aimed to enhance learning in different contexts . By analyzing and reflecting the design processes I present methodological discoveries and insights.

The key findings — my experience-based suggestions — are:

  1. Design research relying on practice should follow a certain research-based design process,
  2. designers should aim and accept that design is often based on informed guessing, and
  3. designers should be aware of the need to move between different knowledge interests.

Lets take a close look of these.

Research-based design process is a model for academic design research relying on design practice. In it the attempt is to design and experiment with new tools and strategies. I do not claim that research-based design process is the only possible methodological approach, but it is an approach tried out and found appropriate. It is not a recipe to designing good tools — rather it is a methodological design research approach.

In the research-based design process there are four phases.

picture 21 Designing Learning Tools — Introduction to Some Methodological Thoughts Figure 2: Research-based Design Process: Contextual Inquiry, Participatory Design, Product Design, and Production of Software as Hypothesis (Some rights reserved).

The research-based design process starts with an exploration of the socio-cultural context of design. I call the first phase Contextual Inquiry. The aim is to understand the context and to define the preliminary design challenges. In practice the contextual inquiry in design often includes and rapid ethnographic methods with observations and interviews as well as literature studies. The result of the contextual inquiry are preliminary understanding of the context and some preliminary design challenges.

The second phase, Participatory Design, brings different stakeholders to design the products and services that are driven by the design challenges defined in the contextual inquiry phase. Participatory design takes place in design workshops with the stakeholder. In the case of learning tools the participants are often teachers, pupils and parents. In the workshops the participants are asked to comment and prepare scenarios, sketches and light prototypes. The expected results of the participatory design are some preliminary design concepts, some early product or service ideas.

Based on the participatory design sessions, the third phase, product design, attempts to define use cases and basic interactions with user stories and throwaway prototypes. In the case of software learning tools, the product design phase refers to the operations carried out by the designers and the software engineers. In the product design they translate the results of the contextual inquiry and the participatory design to information architecture and human-computer interaction models. In practice, the professional designers will need some distance from the stakeholders, in order to have a chance to use specific design languages. The results of the product design are use cases and basic interaction models.

The software as hypothesis phase delivers functional software. I call these software artifacts hypothesis as their design is based on number of assumptions. They carry in them some ideas on what will be their impact to the socio-technical environment and the context where they where design and where they will be used. This way the software prototypes are potential solutions to the design challenges defined earlier in the process.

The second key finding – methodological insight – of the study is the suggestion, that designers should accept that design is often based on informed guessing and also aim to the situation where they are able to do informed guesses.

In a research-based design process the amount of information gathered, in one form or another, is often breathtaking. All possible information should be documented, not to be fully analyzed, but to guide the design process: to be used as a reference and to help in the case of a need to recall some event during the process.

picture 3 Designing Learning Tools — Introduction to Some Methodological Thoughts Figure 3: Intentions of Research-Based Design Process in Learning Tool Design. (Some rights reserved).

From the design of software learning tools I have recognized several dimensions of disciplines that are used in the design process. The emphasis in the design of learning tools is in service. The tools are there to serve learners, not for instance, primary to help teachers.

The art and science dimension and tension is often discussed in the field of art and design. In the case of designing learning tools the ability to understand and work in both ends of the dimension is also important.

Designers would benefit of being aware of the pedagogical ideas but also about the characteristics of media. Using theories and methods of social science, pedagogy and media studies would be beneficial for designers. Even that designers may also contribute to these disciplines the approach should be utilitarian; they are expected to serve the design process.

The disciplines used and the research done can be expected to inform the guessing done in a design process.

The third key finding of the study is related to different knowledge interests.

Designers designing for and in complex socio-technical system should be aware of and able to move between different knowledge interests. To illustrate the situation, I have used Jurgen Habermas’ well known categorization of human knowledge interests and Karl Poppers theory of the tripartite division of physical and mental states.

I have combined the Habermas’ three primary knowledge interests and Poppers worlds to a single table. On top of the table I have locate the phases of the research-based design process. With the picture I try to illustrate the complex situation learning tool designers face.

picture 4 Designing Learning Tools — Introduction to Some Methodological Thoughts
Figure 4: Interaction of Interests of Knowledge and Movement Between Different Popperian Worlds in Research-based Design Process. (Some rights reserved).

During the different phases — which in practice often take place in parallel — designers can be expected to be able to move from hermeneutic understanding to emancipative thinking space, and also to technological and physical realism.

The participatory design practices are the clue joining the different knowledge interests. Working participatory with people in the “knowledge world” requires navigation between the different interests, but also ability conclude with design solutions.

Designers can be expected to stand the pressure of different knowledge interests and find strategies to move between them.

I have found it important that designer are able to communicate and deliberate between the interest but still keep focused to product or service under design. Designers are responsible to guarantee that required design decisions are made and the product or service is delivered.

I have now explained the findings of my study. In the following I am aiming to clarify how did I get the results.

As mentioned my study builds on my personal experience gained by participating in design processes of four distinct and experimental software learning tools. These learning tools aimed to enhance learning in different socio-technical contexts. In these design cases I have act as the design director.

The design cases are summarized in the following table.

Table 1: The Four Design Cases: The Context, the Challenge and the Hypotheses of a Solution. (Some rights reserved).

table 1 Designing Learning Tools — Introduction to Some Methodological Thoughts .

The design cases can be viewed as practical experiments and strategies to reach a developmental and expansive, constantly developing design process. Within each other them I have defined the design context and design challenges. In these the software designed and develop tried to be if not the — at least part of the — solution to the challenges.

The learning tools described in the study are extensively used in different experimental learning practices and learning communities around the world. We may already claim that these tools have had an impact on the field.

Same time these design processes have provide me a framework to develop the methodological insights presented in this study. At this point I think I can present something that is generic for certain kind of learning tool design.

My study presents — as Donal Schön calls it — the action of a reflective practitioner in an on action. The primary reflection in action took place in the actual design practice of the four cases, whereas this study reports more the reflection on action.

More and more learning is mediated by digital technology, by different kind of digital tools, and since learning is a fundamental human right we have a great responsibility. The tools designed and used for learning are shaping our future.

There is a need for academic practice-based design research of these tools. Design research can deliberate and bring alternative approaches to the discussion; it can be critical and comprehensive.

[Transcript of the lecture given December 7th at the Aalto University School of Art and Design in Helsinki, Finland.]


Leinonen, T. (2010). Designing Learning Tools. Methodological Insights. Aalto University School of Art and Design. Helsinki.

Ridiculous start-ups from Finland and how photorealistic virtual worlds are soon here

Friday, December 17th, 2010

I play very little games and I am not into the Angry Birds. With 50 million downloads and creation of world class brand is something to appreciate, though. Well done Rovio.

Last night the company’s Bird Whisperer Ville Heijari said that when international media asks how come Angry Birds comes from Finland they have a standard answer: “that is simply because in Finland we are the best in the world in marketing and in the art of creating brands“.

Another (ridiculous) game studio start-up in Finland, which I know much better, is the Virtual Air Guitar Company. I think the company is a good example of future high-tech company in Finland. The tech. guys of the team are top computer scientists who have developed “computer vision library that allows accurate real-time tracking of the entire human body as well as background removal using regular webcams”.

The other half of the team are New Media professionals, game designers, musicians, artists and designers who have been playing with similar kind of hacks for years to develop games you control with your body. It’s been a long way from the first working prototypes in 2004 to the game released last week on Playstation in Europe and US. Congratulations!

I think that still a couple of years ago the computer science guys would have license their technology to some corporation and be happy. That probably would have made the founders wealthy. In this case, the people also wanted to do content that is using the technology. I think that is wise and for sure more fun. Doing stuff is fun.

In think the Virtual Air Guitar Company is also leading the way to photorealistic virtual worlds. When we are able to track human body with video from several angles we may model 3D photorealistic “avatars” with a talking face and face expressions. With 360 cameras like the one used by Google street-view, possibility to do 3D photorealistic models of objects and possibility to combine the pictures and the models means that we can have photorealistic 3D worlds. With the new micro-size cameras you may also shoot and do 3D photorealistic models about very small and otherwise hard to reach places.

I think photorealistic virtual worlds are the future of video conferences. There are huge possibilities for learning, too. Just think about all the possibilities to build simulations and to do explorations. For instance with these tools medical doctors could study Intestines inside the system or engineers could study nuclear power inside a reactor.

WikiLeaks related materials for (new) media educators

Monday, December 13th, 2010

For some weeks now I have been busy with many things and have not found time to follow all the current issues in the new media field.

The wikiLeaks saga is not yet finished. When being busy I have relied strongly to the news provided by the traditional mass media — in practice established Finnish newspapers and TV news.

Now I took some time to study the WikiLeaks -case a bit deeper. I didn’t do any “academic study”, but rather just read various editorials, blogs, commentary, watched and listen to some podcasts/videos about the case. In practice, I spent something like 10 hours to do it – not a big deal, but I did spend some time with the topic.

To save other (new) media educators time, I summarize here the sources which I found most neutral, accurate and useful.

1. WikiRebels by Sweden’s Television SVT

The documentary, WikiRebels by the Sweden’s Television SVT, the national television broadcaster, is a good introduction to the topic. It summarizes what are the ideas behind the WikiLeaks and also present the people. It also gives a voice for the opponents of the WikiLeaks. I also consider the Sweden’s Television to be a media company with highest journalistic standards. It is interesting to see if the other broadcasters — like the Finnish YLE — will broadcast this. The documentary is available online until January 16 and it comes with English sub-titles. I wouldn’t watch it with children, but it is good material for adults studying media.

2. Wikileaks cable FAQ by Jonathan Zittrain

Professor Jonathan Zittrain of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University / Harvard Law School is maintaining Wikileaks cable FAQ. It covers the event much better than most of the mass media. Also the FAQ format works with this kind of events very well. To start discussion and debate on the topic it is good to have some facts in place.

3. Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy by Aaron Badyn

There are thousands of blog posts about the WikLeaks and Julian Assange. Aaron Bady’s (Zunguzungu) post Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy; “To destroy this invisible government” goes to the original sources and make analyses of the Assange’s thread of thought. The same writing is available in a in slightly edited form in the online publication. If you want to have a serious discussion on the topic this text is a good starting point.

Doctoral Dissertation: Designing Learning Tools – Methodological Insights

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

I finally finished my doctoral dissertation. The dissertation was presented for public examination on December 7th at the Aalto University School of Art and Design.

The book is available at the University Book shop.

At some point there will be free PDF, too.

In a couple of weeks I am also going to post chapters of the book to this blog.

teemu leinonen 07dec10e Doctoral Dissertation: Designing Learning Tools   Methodological Insights

In the Finnish tradition there are several steps to complete doctoral dissertation. At first, the manuscript is examined by two, so called, pre-examiners selected by the Research Board of the School. After this the Research Board sends your work to an opponent of their choice.

Finally there is a public defense of the thesis. The even starts with the candidate’s presentation of the work and the opponents general notes. Then starts the discussion based on the opponents questioning.

Here are the slides of my presentation:

The opponent of my work was Professor Gerhard Fischer (Department of Computer Science, University of Colorado at Boulder), the director of the Center for Lifelong Learning and Design.

During the discussion I was very nervous, although Prof. Fischer showed that he is a master of Socratic method which is — if not necessary easiest — as least fair form of questioning.

Our School’s Adjunct Professor (docent) Timo Honkela wrote a summary and a commentary of the discussion.