Archive for the ‘Open Source’ Category

Aakash $35 tablet: pedagogical affordances and investment advice

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

Aakash Tablet

The Akash table, designed in India, is expected to be delivered for schools and other education institutions with a price tag of $35 per unit (this is the Indian government’s subsidised price). The Akash is naturally challenging the One Lap Top Per Child project’s XO-laptop and number of other netbooks provided for schools.

I have been critical about the design and development process and some aspects of the pedagogical approaches in the OLPC. After reading the first reviews of the Aakash I am not convinced about their pedagogical design, either. For someone outside, it looks that the Aakash is designed as “generic tablet”, not as a pedagogical tool. In this area, I think, the OLPC’s XO is at least trying to make a real difference.

I am afraid that the Aakash design team did not have anyone thinking about the pedagogy. The main aim has been to deliver a cheap tablet. Maybe that is what is needed, but from research (or innovation) point of view, I do not find it very interesting. Aakash is just a cheap tablet.

Actually, I think that in the Aakash there are probably many usability issues, too. The Aakash comes with a resistive touchscreen. I know that this is a matter of price, but the difference in the user experience between the resistive and capacitive touchscreen (used e.g. in iPad) is a real issue. People want to use thing with their fingertips. I believe that there are biological reason for it: the fingertips contains densest area of nerve endings.

We love to touch things. Pressing and touching feel very different. With a touch we can navigate, move things around, draw with our fingers (most natural way), and write relatively comfortably (with a virtual keyboard). This is the right starting point for a school device. When this is in place, we should think and design another “layer” that could work more like a paper and pen. For instance a cover of a touchscreen could be a “digital paper” on what one could draw and write with a stick, with any stick. The “smart cover” could be even smarter.

The online review also tells tat the Aakash actually does pretty good job with playing video. That is of course nice, but this can be analysed also from the point of view of pedagogical affordance. Is the idea that one could watch educational video programs with the device? Probably. Again OK, but not necessary a priority.

Design is difficult. Designing pedagogical affordances is really difficult. Will we ever get it right?

Here is my advise for schools and parents considering buying new devices for school children:

If you are short of money. Wait. We may get it right (affordable pedagogical tool), soon (in 3-4 years). At this point there is no hurry. You can still carry out quality education with papers, pens, books and maybe some PCs in the corner of the classroom. Invest to teachers, drawing paper, colours and pens, library with books etc.

If you have some money: At first, iInvest to teachers, drawing paper, colours and pens, library with books etc. With ICT budget invest mostly to netbooks with some easy-to-use Linux distribution, eg. EduBuntu. Buy maintenance of the Linux netbooks from a local service provider. If there isn’t any ask your high school students to start one – they can do it. In addition to this, you may also buy couple of iMacs as workstations for more advanced creative work (graphic, audio, video etc). These are pretty maintenance free. Your service provider should be able to take care of them too (they are Unix anyway).

If you have a lot of money: At first, iInvest to teachers, drawing paper, colours and pens, library with books etc. With your ICT budget just get it all: iPad 2s, netbooks with easy-to-use Linux distribution and iMacs for more advanced creative work (graphic, audio, video etc). Buy maintenance from your a local service provider. Again, your students should be able to run it.

European perspectives on design for learning in the 21 century

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

In mid July, I gave a workshop and a keynote at the National conference of the Australasian Association of Distance Education Schools in Tasmania, Australia. The slides of my talk are here:

View more presentations from teemul.

During the lecture I showed some of my favourit videos related to ICT/New Media and education. I’ll add them here too, with some comments.

I think people working in the field of ICT and education in the 21 century should get familiar with Marshall Mc Luhan‘s ideas. Interestingly enough you can do it today by watching Mc Luhan talking on video about his (literature) scholarly works. A video with an interview from the year 1960, made by the Canadian Broadcasting Company, is one of my favorites.

In the lecture I said that when Mc Luhan wrote about the tribal man in the era of electronic media, I am worried that with the digital media we may see some tribal wars, too. When then week later, I got the news about the attack in Oslo, I couldn’t help to think that this is an example of tribal war in the era of digital media. Someone should do a proper study of the killers social media behavior and its effects on him.

In the presentation I also summarized three main research topics I see as the most crucial and important in the field of ICT or New Media in education. These are (1) Creative spaces, (2) Social software and (3) Free and open content. Related to these topics I have some videos, too.

The first one is an example of “future classroom” or “creative space” where the ICT is just an add-on. By watching couple of minutes of it you’ll notice (5 minutes is definitely enough!) that the teacher is teaching the way they are use to do, and the role of the students is to listen and talk only when teacher is asking them something. The laptops are there, but they are not practically used for anything else than to deliver material.

With the video I try to demonstrate how important is to think first pedagogy and only then consider what ICT tools could help in the implementation of it. Bringing laptops and interactive whiteboards to the classroom without re-considering the whole idea of teaching and learning is useless.

In universities, at least in Europe, there is a lot of discussion on “learning centers”. In most of the cases they are build on top or beside existing university libraries. The interest on the “learning centers” comes from the fact that more and more of learning materials, especially academic journals and articles (and soon study books, too) are already available online. Faculty and students see the benefits of using digital content – it is always available. Same time there is a worry that meeting other students, sharing ideas and working together will decrease. When we know that learning is a social process and that often innovations happen when people from different disciplines get together, isolation caused by digital content can be a real issue. A contra-argument is that the social part will take place in social media, but it is also true that meeting face-to-face increases collaboration and trust between people.

The École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne’s (one of the top Universities in Europe) learning center concept is interesting. The forms of the building are based on the human movements in space. The open public space invites students to hang-out, to do their study work and same time meet other people. The public space with “hills” can be used for gatherings and events of different size. Many small meeting rooms gives more privacy for groups working together and wireless connectivity provides access to learning materials.

Related to the creative space I also presented the idea of large multi-user displays. One example of this is the multitouch microscope. Researchers at the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM) and Multitouch Ltd have created a gesture controlled microscope that is combination of web-based virtual microscopy and large multitouch display.

The new creative spaces should include social software in them. The software will run “in” the multitouch displays and in people’s own devices, such as pads and mobile phones. Critical in the this track of development is that the software will be web-based (in practice HTML5). This way we may use the devices students already have with them; a laptop, pad or mobile phone with a web browser. It is also important that the students own devices will seamlessly work together. This is what our design research is about in the European iTEC project.

I finished my talk to a new video explaining the LeMill – Web community for finding, authoring and sharing open educational resources, developed in my research group. In addition to have media/internet/web-rich creative spaces with large displays and social software we also need free and open content. To increase the amount of open content such projects as the Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects are very important. In addition to these we also need projects that are precisely targeting to create learning materials for different levels of education and in different languages. In this — at least in the primary and secondary levels — I consider LeMill to be one of the most important projects in the world.

I had absolutely great time in Australia. People were very friendly and I like the humor in there. Professionally, I particularly enjoyed the pre-conference workshop giving me a nice overview of the ICT use in Australian schools, colleges and universities. It was not a surprise for me that in distance education Australians are in their own level (with Canadians) but there were also interesting experiments and research related to ICT implementation and policies in “normal” schools and other educational institutions (1t:1 computing, social media, etc.).

There are probably many blog posts related to the conference. As traveling, I haven’t found time to read them all, but I found this post, which I really like. There are also references to Educational system in Finland: How to win the “best schools” competition – don’t play the game!.

Another nice surprise in the conference was that just before my talk the Hon Peter Garrett MP gave his talk about the Australian Government’s $2.4 billion investment on ICT in education to create Digital Education Revolution. His talk is worth of reading. With the Minister I also got a a chance to chat a bit about his musical and political career in the last 20 years. I actually saw his band playing in Finland in 1990. I was 21. It was a good summer, indeed.

Brand new New Media tool for school classes: TeamUp

Saturday, April 2nd, 2011

We are working on a new tool for school classes, teachers and pupils. We call the prototype TeamUp. The idea is simple: it is a tool for creating great teams for classroom team work. You may try the prototype over here:

TeamUp is designed for touch screens / tablets and interactive whiteboards. When trying it think how it could be used on a large interactive whiteboard in front of the class or from a tablet with a projection for all pupils.

Picture 81 1024x553 Brand new New Media tool for school classes: TeamUp

With the TeamUp teacher can add “mental notes” (visual tags) related to the pupils. Teacher can mark who is who’s friend in the class, who do not get along together, what pupils like/dislike, what are they hobbies etc. Adding mental notes is not necessary shown for the whole class, but teacher may do decision on it.

After mental notes are set, teacher or the class together may name topics of interest. After this the pupils may vote on the topics. The voting may take place on a shared interactive whiteboard, with laptops/netbooks/tablets or clicker/mobile phone. The voting happens by tracking your own face next to the topic.

Based on the notes, votes and rules set by the teacher or the class together, the software will put the pupils to teams. At the moment we are working with the algorithm handling the team creation.

Picture 91 Brand new New Media tool for school classes: TeamUp

For the pupils there is an option to record 1 minute video report after each class. The idea is to summarize what did they learn, what they are planning to do next and report if there were problems. Teacher and pupils may watch the 1 minute reports of each team or they can be watched together in the beginning of the next lesson. This is not yet implemented to the demo.

The software will be open source. Please. Let us know what do you think about it.

TeamUP is developed in the iTEC project. We are reporting the progress of the work in the blog of our work packages where we are developing number of prototypes. This means that TeamUp is just one and there will be more.

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.

State of Open Source Software in Finnish Schools: some good news, something crucial still missing

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

To be honest, for a couple of years now I have been pretty skeptical about the future of Free and Open Source software in Finnish schools and education sector in general.

cmyk pingo crop 200x260 State of Open Source Software in Finnish Schools: some good news, something crucial still missing

In Finland we have a lot of open source expertise and know-how. We have developers. I also assume that majority of the (liberally) higher educated people in Finland, at least know what is “Open Source” and “Linux”. This should be a great foundation to get open source software to all public schools (and public institutions).

Today I did a little Internet study on the topics to find out where we are now. Frankly, I am positively surprised. There are a lot of things happening in the field. But there is also something very crucial missing. I’ll get back to this in the end of the post.

The good news is that the number of schools using Open Source is growing. Relying on several sources I would estimate that around 5% of the schools are using Linux on desktop and over 50 % of the schools have some Open Source software in their desktops — mainly Firefox browser, whose share in Finland is estimated to be over 50%. This is a great result when the Linux’s is estimated to have only 1-2% share of all the desktops in the world.

Another good news is that there are several projects raising awareness on Free and Open Source software for schools. There are blogs and newsletters, webinars and get-together events. The outreaching and educational activities seems to be today professionally carried out and well organized. Still, I would claim that the information provided on the topic is far too technical and as such irrelevant for most of the decisions makers. The people making decisions on the educational technology are not really interested in the LTSP (Linux Terminal Server Project). They want solutions. It looks that we are still missing credible providers of solutions.

Probably, however, the most promising thing in the field of Open Source in education in Finland is, that there actually are several small and middle size companies that are specialized in providing Open Source solutions for schools. Some of them have also build their own products and services specifically for the school market.

I am maybe doing some unfair promotion of only three companies, but they are good examples of those that were catched by my survey.

Opinsys seems to be the most promising one. Opinsys designs and implements networks, computers and software for schools — in practice solutions for teaching and learning. They provide support and maintenance. All Linux and Open Source.

Dicole use to develop their own Open Source community/intranet/learning environment platform, but has since then focus more on knowledge work. I still, however, believe that they could pull together a package of software-as-a-service specifically designed for schools.

Mediamaisteri is a company with strong presence in the Finnish education sector. Their product / service portfolio includes Moodle, Elgg, Mediawiki and Open meetings hosting. All Open Source. (Disclaimer: the founders of Dicole and Mediamaisteri are my friends)

Could these companies find growth in the international markets? I think they could. At least, in the European markets. Maybe there are similar small companies in other Scandinavian / Baltic countries (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Estonia) or in the large European countries (Germany, France, UK, Poland, Italy, Spain). Maybe these small Finnish companies could establish partnerships with them?

I honestly was happy to find out that the Free / Open Source in education is not dead in Finland. Some regions in some other countries, like Andalucia in Spain and some pockets in the UK are maybe far ahead of us. I still, however, think that in Finland we have great chances to make a real impact in the field.

I wrote in the title that there is still something crucial missing. What is that?

It is the simple Linux based device designed specifically for school use. I think OLPC XO is not the solution for us or the rest of the Europe. We need our own device that is basically a touch screen with a web browser, a camera, audio in/out and all possible forms of wireless connectivity (Wlan, 3/4G, Bluetooth).

Firefox interface State of Open Source Software in Finnish Schools: some good news, something crucial still missing

I know there are people in Finland who are able to do perfect electronic engineering and industrial design for this. I know that there are software people able to do relatively minor changes to existing Linux distributions to make it up and running. If we can do it, why we are not doing it?

Just with the European market — close to 100 million school children — it should make sense.