Monthly Archives: August 2013

Replace Textbooks with iPads? Stop this Madness!

Disclamer: I work for a provider of educational solutions, ranging from printed books to online content and learning platforms.

It’s the time of year again, when schools are starting and you hear these ideas about getting rid of text- and workbooks at school and investing the same money to tablets. Mmmkay, think about this for a second.

For a while now books have turned out to be quite a nice carrier for content consisting of text and pictures. This is true for educational content as well. However, books are just that, a carrier. Nothing more, nothing less.

The beef is in the content, and the medium it comes in is secondary. So when you propose that out with the books and in with the iPads, you should demand the iPads loaded with educational content satisfying your curriculum.

There’s nothing curriculum-related in tablet’s normal set of preloaded software. You have to go to an application store and start searching. There you can find all sorts of apps, many of which are probably very useful to you. Just be aware that coming up with content and apps satisfying all your curricular needs might be quite time-consuming and cumbersome.

End rant.

I think iPads and other tablets are very fine devices. As they become more common in and outside classrooms, which they will for sure, new innovative ways to teach and learn will emerge.

I for one welcome our new flat overlords. I just don’t fool myself in thinking they are going to magically turn into content. Or make content irrelevant.


Reflection on Today’s #edchat: Form a Project Team in the Classroom

Today’s #edchat topic was: “Kids know how they best respond to their learning. How do we involve their voice in education conversation?” Among many discussion threads flying around during the hour, one considered whether schools and businesses/companies could learn from each other.

Of course they can. At one point I blurted:

How to take this seriously and make the most of it? In worklife, it is natural for people to work in groups because they are experts of different things due to their education and earlier work experience.

Whereas with students, they have no work experience and their educational background is also somewhat similar, at least if as far as K-12 students. But still, they are not each others’ clones. We can take their personalities, interests, hobbies, etc. into account and form heterogeneous groups accordingly.

The teacher needs to possess special capabilities to make the most of this. The students are not one size fits all and the teacher should turn this into positive group dynamics. Note that this does not always mean that the kids do what they like the most.

Oftentimes it pays off in the long run to force people away from their comfort zones. This teaches them new skills and also helps to relate. This also takes place in business life: job rotation.

Why Do I Talk with American Teachers (or Big Up to #edchat!)

I’ve been in educational business for two years now. I work for an educational solutions provider, our offering ranging from printed books to online content and learning environments. Important part of my job is keeping up with technological and behavioral trends having something to do with learning and teaching.

I try to go to conferences, visit schools, and follow news & discussions around edtech. During the last two years I have also started to use Twitter a lot more. One delightful way of educating myself are the many available Twitter chats. I’ve visited #eltchat and #satchat a couple of times, but by far the most I’ve frequented on #edchat.

#edchat is organized two times a week, by Twitter influencers Tom Whitby, Steven Anderson, and Shelly Terrell. Both 1-hour #edchat sessions are on Tuesdays, and they are scheduled according to US time zones. I usually can take part in only one of them, which is 7 PM here in Finland. The latter would be in the middle of the night for me, some time in the early hours of Wednesday.

As the scheduling suggests, #edchat is organized not only by Americans, but mainly also for Americans. And what’s more, the majority of the participants are teachers. So what am I doing there, a European guy working in the industry?

You’d be surprised. I’ve found interesting topics every single time I’ve visited the chat. Typically the organizers tweet a poll of five or so possible topics in the weekend before the chat and it closes some time on Tuesday. The most succesful topic ends up to the later chat (which I cannot attend because I am sleeping) and the second most succesful to the earlier chat.

Maybe it’s the 140 character nature of Twitter that makes it convenient for me to participate, or maybe it’s something else. Whatever the reason, I’ve enjoyed #edchat every single time. The same 140 character length of course limits the depth and detail of arguments, but that is not the point. These chat sessions are more for finding new inspiration, insights, and contacts than thorough solutions to some problems.

Four Essential Skills for the Future

For the reader in a hurry: We should teach search, literacy, netiquette, and publishing on the web, and do it in this order. For the rest, read on…


At a conference I recently attended a keynote speaker asked the +1000 participant audience a question: which is more relevant a skill in the future, googling or math? First to raise their hands were the ones who thought googling is more important. I belonged in the second group, a minority.

If I were asked the same question now, after I’ve had time to reflect, I wouldn’t raise my hand at all. Or alternatively for both. You see, it is comparing apples and oranges.

This discussion is related to the observation that we have massive amounts of information and computation power at our fingertips. Therefore trying to memorize factoids or teach mental calculation isn’t necessarily the most relevant education. (I think it never was, but that’s not the point here.)

Search is, I think, a very essential skill of today and the future. Google’s algorithm is doing an excellent job in retrieving the information we need, nowadays often even in the right context. However, we still have to know how to do search right. What are the most suitable keywords, how to combine them, what to exclude, etc. This calls for logical/ mathematical thinking. In a way you need math to do advanced search.

After searching, the results have to be evaluated. Literacy is the second must-have skill. What to trust, who to trust? Can the person who created the web resource you are now looking at expected to be a) knowledgeable enough and b) acting benevolently?

Web users should act like “mini journalists”, trying to check whether the resource they are acting upon is trustworthy. The usual tricks apply: what is the track record of the resource creator and are there any other resources transmitting the same message?

Web is a bidirectional medium. After finding a resource, you often interact with it or with other people around it. This is what social media is all about. Someone shares a piece of content and then others discuss or otherwise enrich it.

So, now you are already interacting. This calls for the third skill: not making an ass of yourself. This is netiquette. You should act nicely, encourage rather than discourage others, not post offending content, etc.

This can create a virtuous circle: the more encouraging and positive content you post, the more you can expect the same from others. You shouldn’t present yourself as a suck-up or too cheesy, mind. Keep it real and honest.

The next step after discussing around existing web resources: create the web yourself. In the lack of a better word (help, anyone?), I call it publishing. It has to do with diverse set of activities like programming, design, and blogging.

Now you find the content you need, are able to evaluate its trustworthiness, say something smart about it, and even create content yourself. You’re good to go!

LinkedIn Bridges Gaps Between Highschool, College, and Work

The news today was that LinkedIn, the social network for professional relationships, added pages for universities and also started to accept highschool students as its members.

Me like! It serves the same purpose of bridging gaps between studies and also working life as I proposed in my MOOC post a while ago.

With MOOCs a highschool student can get a flavor of what and how they teach at universities. But as we know, there’s more to college life than what they teach. The buddies you hang out with can prove to be as important in your career, if not more.

Highschool classes break after graduation and students flock to different cities and countries to continue their studies. LinkedIn’s new additions enable these freshmen to kickstart their college life with people they already know – if only virtually.

Teaching is Learning and Learning is Teaching

I was as a language course student in New York in the summer of 1989. I remember our host family father correcting me when I tried to borrow money to my friend and he in turn wanted to lend some money from me. “Guys, you’re mixing up. You borrow to get a loan and lend to give a loan.”

In Finnish there is only one word for this, “lainata”. You use this one word and deal with suffixes to determine whether it is giving or getting. That’s why it was hard for me to separate “borrow” and “lend”, sometimes still is.

Fast forward 20+ years. These days I work quite a lot with Dutchmen. Like us up here, also they use subtitles instead of dubbing their movies and TV shows. Probably one of the reasons for why they know their English quite well. That’s why it first amazed me when they mixed the words “teaching” and “learning”. Or rather, they would use the word “learning” to mean both learning and teaching.

Then it hit me. It was the same phenomenon I faced as a teenager in my language course. In Dutch the word “leren” is used for both learning and teaching. So no wonder they mix it up sometimes when speaking English. First I thought it’s weird. Teacher teaches and the learner (student, pupil) learns.

On closer inspection, the Dutch are right. Typically you cannot teach without learning something yourself, nor can you learn without teaching the teacher something. It’s a bidirectional process.

Lifelong Language Learning

To continue the theme of my previous post, here’s the question for this one: can technology change the way we learn languages throughout our lives? Short answer: of course it can (and will).

Now for the longer answer. It is not very long, in fact, so don’t go tl;dr on me just yet. Here in Finland language learning is in a somewhat ok shape. We are a small nation of five million people and Finnish is not spoken elsewhere in the world. Basically all of us learn English (plus Finnish and Swedish of course, which are official languages of Finland).

We can generally communicate in English. In addition to being taught at school, we learn it from TV and movies. Unlike most of Europe, we do not dub but use subtitles instead. I am very grateful to whoever is responsible of this.

That being said, there is still demand for more language learning. Couple of years after graduating, many of us start to think further educating ourselves. Key here is that we can choose the subject ourselves so the motivation to learn is intrinsic.

In addition to yoga classes, carpentry, cooking, and what have you, language courses are popular in adult education. The problem for many is finding the time to go to the classes. Workdays stretch to evenings, kids have to be taken to their hobbies, etc. Language learning is something that should be doable in an ad-hoc manner, in several but short idle moments during the week.

Enter educational technologies! In the years to come we’re going to see breakthroughs in mobile language learning technologies. Already now you have a myriad language learning applications e.g. in Apple’s App Store, starting from simple word practicing apps. But when context-awareness, audio interfaces, and speech recognition become better, this is going to take off big time. And they are going to become better.

Finally, in addition to consumer business, language learning technologies have also B2B implications. In a flat world (or spiky, doesn’t matter [PDF]), companies have incentives to invest in their employees’ language skills. International projects need common language and more people go to be expatriates. Incidentally, technologies are to “blame” that we need more language skills. They make the world flat and call for more interaction between different countries, languages, and cultures.

MOOCs to Assist Career Development

New innovations constantly impact working life and call for new skills & expertise. People should educate themselves during their careers, all the way to the retirement age. Indeed, lifelong learning is a buzzword often popping up in corporate values and motivational talks.

Reality is somewhat different. Neither school system nor professions really support lifelong learning. First you educate yourself, then you enter the working life. Period. If you are lucky, your boss might sponsor you some continuing education packages every now and then.

Could technology provide help here? For example MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses. Josh Coates of Instructure mentions MOOCs to currently be at the very top of the Gartner hype curve. People have put a lot of faith into MOOCs, no doubt also false expectations. Next couple of years will show whether MOOCs will survive the dip in the hype curve or end up in the innovation graveyard.

Why are MOOCs so popular just now? How did Coursera for example manage to attract its first million users faster than Facebook? After all, the first course loosely satisfying the criteria of a MOOC was organized already back in 1958 when the New York University decided to broadcast a popular course via television.

Anant Agarwal, the president of edX, explains the massive popularity with three technology trends: social media, video content and cloud services are all now mainstream and together they form the basic building blocks of MOOCs. It is now possible to build sustainable education on top of them.

Agarwal also envisions the future American university studies as follows: from the normal four years spent in the university the first one could be done already when in high school, then two years at the campus and finally the last year while working, in several batches.

The idea is fascinating. Thinking back to my own high school time back in the early 90s I recall my assumption of higher education being something intriguing and mystical even. However, in fact it was something I really knew nothing about. Had I had access to MOOCs back then, I could’ve gone shopping for various courses. This would’ve given me a lot better understanding of different subjects, and even some credits to kick start my campus life.

Furthermore, in the first years of my career life after finishing the university studies I could’ve well returned to a virtual classroom, had there been such available. I could’ve picked studies providing me with information and skills needed in my then ongoing projects. Of course I could’ve taken studies for example at the Open University. The problem was that everything available included face-to-face lectures. Not so easy to attend while working.

Attending a physical classroom is one thing, but even more important is the relationship to the official curricula and degrees. If universities would truly recognize MOOCs and give credits on a large scale for passing these virtual courses, then they had the chance of making a bigger difference. MOOCs shouldn’t be only extra, but an integral part of university studies.

In the US some universities have started to open their eyes and smell the coffee. In early 2013, five of Coursera’s courses were accepted by many American universities and colleges. This amounts up to around two thousand institutions in total. Now all their students have the chance to earn credits from those Coursera courses.

Coursera originates from Stanford and edX from MIT & Harvard. Together with Udacity—also from Stanford—they form the three biggest players in the MOOC business. It is only natural that MOOCs stem from the most famous and praised institutions, because their teaching is probably the best one can expect.

Every now and then politicians talk about the need to shorten the time spent in universities. My opinion is the exact opposite: we should have people spend longer time studying, preferably their whole adult lives. This does not mean that they shouldn’t work at the same time. On the contrary, studying should take place with ease while working. And this is where MOOCs kick in.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Finnish in Suomi elää älystä blog.