Archive for the ‘Conferences’ Category

Qualified Self and Learning Analytics: from Quantification to Qualification

Monday, May 14th, 2012

I think the learning analytic research should move from the current practice of doing quantitative data analyses to include in it qualitative analyses. The quantified self should be expanded to be qualified self.

In learning analytics research we should consider use of mixed methods that are combining quantitative and qualitative data analyses.

Today the learning analytic research builds strongly on the quantified self idea. The idea of quantified self is simple and powerful. With help of technology we can collect data on our daily life, such as our physical activity (mobility, walking, running etc.), surrounding environment (weather, air quality etc.), our performance (work, study etc.) and social relations (emails, phone calls etc.). The reason to gather and analyze data is to increase awareness on ones own life and ultimately, I assume, to have a chance to change things in it.

The idea of quantified self raises some questions. Like, how much data on their behavior and analyses people really need to get to the right conclusion? For instance, people who have never tracked or record their jogging can still tell pretty accurate information on it (for instance: I run 0, 1 or 2 times / week / 3-5 kilometers). Whatever they run a lot, little or not at all they must be aware about the fact. People also can tell relatively good description of their diet. Most of us do not have a clue about the amount of calories we eat, but most of us know whatever our diet is healthy or not. Because of knowing all this (without any numbers) people may also pay attention on their diet and may have an attempt to run more (or less). On the other hand many people rarely enjoy running and often enjoy unhealthy food. In some aspect jogging and eating healthy food are decreasing the quality of their life.

A different thing is when someone is training, for instance, to run a marathon. In it exact data and a plan helping to reach the objective is for sure useful. Most of us, however, are not interested in about this kind of training. Doing some training is still important.

The idea behind the learning analytics is that collection and analysis of data about learners and their context will provide opportunities to optimize learning and the learning environment (compare to training to run a marathon). In practical implementation of the learning analytics, learners and teachers are provided visualizations on their interactions and progress in some study course. The visualizations can be things like performance in assignments and tests compared to other students or social network analyses.

At some level this probably makes sense, but I think often in study work one can reach good conclusion simply by observing, self-reflecting and using common sense. I think most students know, from various small hints, how they are doing in a class. It is a bit like knowing that I do not run enough or knowing that I should eat healthier food — just by knowing it without any accurate data. In this case people are doing qualitative analyses that is not based on the limited accurate data from the course but from various sources of fuzzy information.

Getting back to the issue of running and diet, however, we must remember that without tens of years of scientific research on the topics — health, physical exercise and diet — people wouldn’t be able to come up with the “right” conclusions of these things importance in their own well-being. I assume this is the case with learning and learning research, too. We should study how people learn, because that will help individuals to monitor, reflect and self-regulate their own behavior. Even if numbers and visualizations on individuals’ behavior may help students to be aware of some things related to their learning, I think we should get beyond it — to the quality of learning.

For many years in social science there has been two methodological camps — you may call them paradigms —fighting on their relevance. These are quantitative research and qualitative research. Recently there has been some advance of bringing them together. The mixed methods have become popular. Often quantitative research can provide interesting research questions for qualitative research and other way around. To get a good picture on some complex social phenomena (e.g. learning) one must use both.

The mixed method (also called multimethodology) approach could be used in learning analytics research, too. What then would be qualitative learning analytics? Could this approach lead to qualified self?

With some latest prototypes we have somehow touch the topic. We call the new learning tools reflection tools. Here is a video of the three latest prototypes.

Media Tools for Reflection in Learning (iTEC) from Media Lab Helsinki on Vimeo.

The idea with the tools is not to collect quantitative data (there is some, like how many reflections one have made), but to provide a space for student to do reflection in natural language. With the tools students are asked to think and ponder questions, like: what I have learned? What I have done? What I am planning to do next? Have I faced any problems to implement my plans?

The reflection tools are also calm technology. They are designed not to be distributive in a learning situations taking place in social interaction. They are not central, they are peripheral, but can be brought to the center when needed.

What I would like to see in future in the learning analytic research is a move to the direction of machine learning and natural language analyzes. I am imaging that one day we could automatically or semi-automatically analyze content people create as part of their learning activities (or everyday life) and based on that provide them hints on directions they could explore more. The picture build out of the qualitative data (the content produced) could be something that could be called “Qualified Self”.

As a final (meta) note I want to explain how this idea of qualified self and qualitative learning analytics idea came to life. Why? Because it is a nice story and demonstrates how research happens.

A couple of weeks ago I met with Erik Duval when he was giving a keynote in a conference in Finland. Erik is doing right now a lot of research on learning analytics. His talk and discussions we had were very inspiring. At some point we also discussed about quantitative and qualitative analyses – actually in the context of research evaluation.

Next week I was in Copenhagen and was lucky to have dinner with Timo Honkela – a colleague who happens to be visiting fellow in Copenhagen right now. Timo’s area of research is computational cognitive systems — “adaptive, autonomous and socio-culturally grounded cognitive systems that are able to learn and use language“. Some years ago with Timo we did some theoretical research around the idea of using self-organizing maps (SOM) in learning. During the dinner I explained to Timo the idea of qualified self. He liked it and brought in it the idea of machine learning. I hope in a near future we will do some writing on it.

In Copenhagen I also met Jonas Löwgren, one of the leading figures in interaction design. He made some more interesting comments on the idea of qualified self.

Thank you all!

How to learn and what to learn: reflect and regulate; humanities and arts

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

415px Holbein erasmus3 How to learn and what to learn: reflect and regulate; humanities and artsIt looks that in the edu. tech. research field we constantly forget two things. These are:

(1) learners are humans;

(2) what is important for humans.

For instance, in research related to e-learning and learning objects and later to massive open online courses and learning analytics there is very little consideration of these topics.

Why thinking, motivation, emotions or behavior — all deeply human things — are not in the interest of the researchers?

Some days ago Sanna Järvelä’s lecture made me think. In learning science these “human factors” are considered to be the key issues in learning. Research has shown that good learners are able to observe, evaluate and regulate themselves. They are able to reflect their thinking and motivation and regulate their emotions and behavior. They are strategic. When aiming to learn they work with study materials (search, read, listen, watch); analyze the materials; plan their next steps; explore; do stuff; validate things; observe and regulate their own behavior etc.

Fine. So how do you learn these skills? The good news is that we can develop the skills for our entire life. To learn the skills we must practice them.

Couple of weeks ago a Finnish freelance journalist Johanna Korhonen wrote a column to the leading newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, with the title “The morons of civilization” (Sivistyksen tunarit). The title may sound strange, as the word “sivistys” does not translate well to English. The idea of the text, however, is that with a growing focus on utility of actions we may same time loose something extremely useful.

Today in Finland you may hear relatively smart people claiming that social debates are just waste of time or music and other forms of art are useless (except if they are export products). Everything is seen primary in relation to economics and economic growth. This is the case in education, too. Education system’s only task is to serve economic growth. Barbarism? Yes.

Instead of barbarism we assume that we have a democracy. Here is the problem. Democracy requires education — educated citizens who are knowledgeable, critical and active. Democracy needs people who care.

According to Johanna Korhonen to have people who care the most important objective of education should be to prepare citizens who have critical thinking skills, imagination, compassion and are able to carry responsibility. This means that the most important school subjects are not mathematics, science or even programming. The important subjects are humanities and arts. In these you learn imagination, critical thinking and compassion.

I do not like dichotomies. I think studying math and science (and programming) are important. We may study them reflectively and critically, too. What it will ask for is probably a bit of humanities and artistic touch in the study of them. We may study math, science and engineering with critical, ethical and æsthetic mindset.

The next big thing in edu. tech. research will be (or should be) how to enhance truly reflect and regulative learning with technology. In this kind of research and development the human is in the centre.

Children learning by themselves and progressive inquiry

Friday, June 10th, 2011

A couple of weeks ago — actually it was the May Day — I gave a talk in a conference in Ankara Turkey. Here are the slides from my talk:

One reason to accept the invitation (in Finland the May Day is an important festival of academia) was, that among the invited speakers there was Professor Sugata Mitra.

I consider Sugata Mitra to be one of the most important researcher in my field. To get an idea of his work you may check the lecture he gave in Google, just two weeks after the Ankara conference:

Sugata Mitra’s main argument — as I see it — is, that children learn many things when involved in to study things in small groups in front of a computer with an Internet connection. Children learn without a teacher, or at least without a teacher-led instruction.

Mitra has made a considerable amount of empirical research to prove his argument. I am convinced, although I think that if we’ll take a closer look of his experiments the argument is oversimplified. In the experiments there is a teacher — an extraordinary teacher. That is professor Mitra himself.

When doing the experiments Mitra is giving students an assignment. Often it is something relatively complex and open-ended, something like “find out how DNA works. You may use the computers. I am coming back in a couple of months to find out what did you learn”. What happens then is that children get excited about the computer, study the topic and then show Mitra what did they learn when he comes back. This is not learning without a teacher. There is a clear and clever teacher’s intervention: A professor asking students to study, giving them a new tools (computers) empowering them, giving them self-confidence and motivation. There is also a promise and actual implementation of assessment. All these are important didactical actions.

Another Mitra’s interesting insight is that children learn even better if they have a “granny figure” supporting them. The granny’s job is to stand behind the children, ask them what they are doing and admire them. Exactly what loving grannies do.

Again we can see that a good teachers is a bit like a granny: supports students, is interesting in their work and praise them. I think, however, even better teachers than a random granny is an expert of a domain acting the granny way. An excellent expert-teachers (can be a granny, too) is able to guide pupils in their inquiry by challenging their thinking and by providing new perspectives to the students inquiry. The point is to guide, not to instruct.

The progressive inquiry learning, a pedagogical model that has been widely studied, experimented and partly took in use in Finland, is close to Mitra’s way of teaching (I call it teaching, although there is very little teaching in a traditional sense). In my talk in Ankra I explained how progressive inquiry learning works and how pupils and students in all levels of education — from kindergartens to universities — can be guided to do research.

In the last weeks of the spring semester I have seen several learning cases that are one kind of implementations of progressive inquiry learning.

The TIVI-O-AALTO is an unconference organized by the Aalto University in a collaboration with the University of Helsinki. The topic of the event is use of ICT in teaching and learning in higher education. An unconference? What is an unconference? In traditional conferences, the most interesting ideas are often discussed outside the conference sessions, in corridors and coffee breaks. With the unconference format we aim to bring those discussion to be the main content of the event. The unconferences are open for all. Those people who come, are the right people. Anyone can sign to have a talk on any theme of the event. Sessions are informal and interactive. All participants are expected to take part in the discussion. This, however, does not mean that it is all just chit-chat. The sessions chairs are expected to facilitate the discussion and to make conclusions. If there are parallel sessions they may take place in one large space where people are free to move from one group to another. In the end of the day the chairs of the sessions will summarize discussions back to the whole group.

Another example with some elements of progressive inquiry learning, I recently heard about, is a card game designed for data structures and algorithms course of the Computer Science department. The card game was designed to study some of the main concepts of the course. The cards come with concepts and their definitions. These are all also available in the course materials. The game itself does not teach the players. The cards do not come with the answers. The idea is that one can play the game only when holding necessary information about the algorithms. When playing the cards students will face problems. That then drives them to discuss about it or collaboratively check the learning materials or search answer from other sources. The card playing put people to talk about the topics of the course. This will help students to know each other better and builds trust between them. This will help students in their studies in a future.

A third example of one kind of implementation of inquiry learning is from my own department. We call it “Open Workshop”. In the Media Lab most teaching is organized as a week or two long intensive workshops. The topics of the workshops are such as: Rendering/3D Advanced Techniques, Introduction to Visualization, Information Design, Composing with Pure Data, Interface Prototyping, Rapid Mobile Application Prototyping, etc. When done well, the workshops are progressive inquiry: students set problems, create and develop a variety of solutions, and end up in some that are then presented for others. A couple of years ago, students asked could there be one “Open Workshop” without any pre-defined themes, only a room for the entire week for students and faculty to meet and work together. What a great idea. Now the Open Workshop is officially in out curriculum. All students are welcome to join the workshop with their own New Media project to put it forward with others. A real opportunity for progressive inquiry learning.

Imagine courses that take place in wikis, blogs, social networks…

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

I am this week in the WikiSym / Wikimania double conference.

Its’ another great opportunity to spend some time with the world’s brightest wiki-minds: academics, developers, community members and bureaucrats.

I am going to give a short talk on Friday in the Wikiversity session. I am going to present the EduFeedr, a small and beautiful project I am working with Hans Põldoja.

If you can’t make it to Gdańsk — it’s sunny and with nice mixture (like good wikis) of Slavic flexibility and Prussian order — you may check the following presentation. I’ll copy here also the abstract of the talk:

Designing Tools for Supporting Wikiversity Courses: the Case of EduFeedr

In spring 2008 the authors organized a course on composing free and open educational resources (in the Wikiversity). It was officially a master’s course at the University of Art and Design Helsinki. The authors decided to make the course available with an open enrollment through the Wikiversity and promoted it in their blogs. As a result about 70 people from 20 countries signed up for the course on the Wikiversity page.

The course was organized as a weekly blogging seminar. In each week the facilitators posted a weekly theme and links to related readings on the course blog. The participants reflected on the weekly theme in their personal blogs and commented their peers.

One of the challenges in a large blog-based course is to follow all the communication. Typically this communication takes place not only in blogs but also in other environments such as Delicious, Twitter, etc. Most of these environments provide RSS feeds but typical RSS readers are not very suitable for following this kind of courses. Most of the RSS readers such as Google Reader are designed for personal use. In a Wikiversity course it would be important to have a shared feed reader that all the participants could use.

EduFeedr is a web-based feed reader that is designed specifically for following and supporting learners in open blog-based courses. The design process of EduFeedr is based on the research-based design methodology. We have organized several Wikiversity courses where we have tried out various online tools to manage the course. The initial user needs for EduFeedr came out from this contextual inquiry. Interaction design methods such as scenario-based design, user stories and paper prototyping have been used in the process.

As a result of the design process we have indicated the key features for EduFeedr. These include (1) signing up for the course, (2) visualizing how the students have proceeded with the assignments, (3) visualizing the social network between the students, (4) annotating blog posts and comments, and (5) archiving the course.

EduFeedr is currently a work-in-progress. The first version is implemented as Elgg plugin and we are currently doing internal testing with real data from several Wikiversity courses. In this version we have implemented signing up for the course and some of the planned visualizations. We are planning to launch the beta version of EduFeedr service in late summer 2010. The source code and more information about EduFeedr is available at the project web site (see

Design thinking and education

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

The Nordic Conference on Activity Theory and the Fourth Finnish Conference on Cultural and Activity Research (FISCAR10) started today. This time the conference takes place at the Aalto University School of Art and Design.

The keynotes are video streamed online. The recording will be available in the same site, too.

The original home of the activity theory is in psychology (cultural-historical psychology) but people in the community have always moved across different disciplines. The theory has also achieved interest especially among such areas as education, organizational studies, work research and human-computer interaction.

This year — because of the location where the conference is taking place, I think — there are more design thinking in the air than probably ever before. Also the concept of combining art and design, economics, science and technology in the Aalto University is interesting when analyzed in light of the activity theory.

During the conference, I hope, we will have many discussions about design thinking and education, with emphasis on product design, artifact creation, architecture — on things that have concrete impact to people’s life.

It’s not the first time that “design” is discussed in the context of education and learning. One branch of learning science have present the idea or design-based research (Barab & Squire, 2004; The Design-Based Research Collective, 2003). In design-based research the aim is to do research with designed interventions into real-world educational, teaching and learning situations. In design-based research design interventions are a research method.

I think design-based research is missing some important aspects of design thinking. In design field the designs — artifacts, products, “things” — are the main outcome of the activity. The design process is creative and intentional activity of composition: “brining parts, pieces, functions, structures, processes and forms together n a such a way that they have a presence and make an appearance, particularly of unity, in the world” (Nelson & Stolterman, 2003). The designs (the “things”) are the change agents. They are concrete things that are changing our way of doing things.

For someone coming from the field of new media design the impact of tools and artifacts in human life and culture is obvious. People playing with new media and internet know that these things are changing the way we live our lives, socialize, communicate, work, love, hate, and learn.

The sad thing with the new media is that we easily take the tools and artifacts for granted, as something that just comes like a natural force. This is of course not true. There are people “designing” these things. They are driven by values, ideals and intentions. They are humans.

Design is communication. Design thinking is a skill of moderating design communication, deliberating different intentions and interests. But this is not enough. Design thinking is also an issue of leadership. When there is a request to deliver the “thing”, the designer must be able to do decisions. To get the thing done.

Here is a video nicely explaining how design process can go wrong.