Monthly Archives: January 2014

Virtual Elementary Schools for Engineering, Arts, Languages, Whatnot

When I started my upper secondary (highschool) studies in the early nineties, I would’ve liked to take Latin as an optional subject. Don’t ask me why, I just would’ve. Since there were no interested people in our school besides me and my pal, it wasn’t worthiwhile to organize a latin class for my age group. So I chose German instead. Again: don’t ask me why.

Whittenberg's mascot is a robot, naturally.

Whittenberg’s mascot

Fast forward 20 odd years. The Atlantic just run a story about “America’s tiniest engineers”. The story describes A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School of Engineering. That’s right, elementary school. Kids aged 5-6 years at the youngest.

What do you think about this? Does it make sense to specialize so early? Or is there a danger that we hide something potentially interesting or important from the child?

My spontaneous reaction to this is positive. As long as the basic curriculum is satisfied, emphasizing things that the children naturally take interest can only do good. At least this subject-oriented differentiation of little kids sounds a lot better than skill-oriented.

Whittenberg has robot as a mascot, iPads to study and play with, lots of project work, all kinds of cool stuff. At this point your inner cynic (or at least realist) wakes up: Not all schools can afford iPads and other fun gadgets. I agree 100%. I don’t propose all schools to be turned into schools of engineering. Nor to schools of arts, languages, or sports.

No, what I am thinking is how basic online technologies could help in specialization and implementing rare optional subjects. If there is a computer equipped with online access at school or home, it is possible to build online communities spanning the school boundaries. And what’s important, these communities can be very niche.

Back to me and my unrealized Latin studies: In the early 90s the Internet existed, sure, but Tim Berners-Lee was still working on the foundations of the world wide web. The machines in my school’s two computer classrooms were not connected to the outside world.

Now the situation is different. It shouldn’t be too difficult to organize Latin studies by working virtually. Finland is a small country with only five million inhabitants. However, I am sure there are enough people each year for a couple of Latin groups, if the participants can come from wherever in the country.

Furthermore, there is no need to wait until the upper secondary studies for these virtual classes. Why not build a couple of virtual elementary schools of engineering? After all, most graduates from such schools are going to work virtually on a daily basis. No wait, most graduates from all shools are going to.

I am leaving you with a video of how this virtual work today takes place. Hopefully there is going to be progress on that front as well:


Coding as a Part of… Arts, Literature? Why Not.

I’m witnessing a strange phenomenon as I write this. Linda Liukas from Finland must be breaking some speed records on Kickstarter with her Hello Ruby project. She launched it only yesterday, but has already attracted more than $100k in pledges – amazing! What’s the project about? Well, it is a children’s book. Uhm, you think, ok, nice. But there are plenty of kids’ books available so what’s unique about this one? Well, my interpretation is that it is demonstrating a new fresh way to approach coding. The characters on the book are from programming lingo. The main character’s name, Ruby, is based on Ruby on Rails, which Linda has done a great work with her Rails Girls network. Other characters include Android and Snow Leopard, and of course there are bugs under the bed. Linda wants to make it easier for girls and women to get into coding. I think her storytelling approach to this is just great. As far as actual programming skills are concerned, they probably don’t get any better from reading stories about Ruby and her pals. But you have to step back and take a broader look: the benefits of this work are before the actual coding, making the whole geekdom more attractive. There are more direct and conventional connections with Hello Ruby and programming, since Linda is planning to create a workbook to accompany the main storybook. The exercises in the workbook are set to practice logic skills, foundations of knowledge structures, and other aspects essential to coding. For me still the actual storybook with the fun characters is what’s truly unique in this project. If you manage to lower the barrier and make computers, programs, and software less scary, you are more than halfway there. By then children have made this world their own and are open to new things in it. I once discussed with Linda about how programming should be taught in schools. As you might know, my opinion is that we need it both as a separate subject and as a multi-subject activity. But I must admit arts and literature are not the first subjects that come into my mind as benefiting from coding. And that’s exactly where Hello Ruby strikes first. During our discussion Linda also said that she’s not entirely happy about the fact that 20 and 30 something Silicon Valley males basically dictate how web services and apps look and function. That we should have more heterogeneity. Well, now she is about to make a big ol’ dent of her own to advance this. Godspeed!

Pledge status in the second day of the Hello Ruby project

Pledge status in the second day of the Hello Ruby project

#20Time and #Geniushour are in Full Swing

In my previous post I speculated with adopting Google’s 20% own projects to education. I had one personal experience of such, from a school in China. Since that blog post, I have come across entire movements related to the idea. Check Twitter hashtags #20time and #geniushour for yourself.

I am especially interested in the tools and content students use during their own projects time. I asked around using those hashtags. The core idea in these approaches is that the students can themselves choose the topic they want to investigate. It is only natural that they come up with something quite different from the curricular education, just for a change. For example stop-motion animation, videogame design, backpacking guide, and recording an album:

In such topics material designed for curricular education can assist only partly. Geography & history materials can help in backpacking guide, programming studies can provide a basis for building videogames, and so on. However, in projects like this it is very important to teach how in addition what. How to find the relevant information sources, how to verify their trustworthiness, and how to combine the scattered data into a coherent picture?

In other words, 20-Time and Genius Hour are quite research-oriented and inquiry-focused forms of learning. The students are handed some tools to find the appropriate content, rather than the content itself. Oliver Schinkten was kind enough to provide me with a resource designed for just this:

As we shift from printed educational materials to online content and tools, I can see a bright future for approaches like 20-Time. And there are good possibilities also in utilizing the curriculum-related digital content and online tools in these multi-subject projects.

Being able to search across the materials enables the students to pinpoint the pieces of information they need in their current tasks. This information can be stored in online portfolios, modified, and shared with peers for enrichment. And these peers can be anywhere in the world, not necessarily in the same classroom.

For some additional 20-Time and Genius Hour resources, check these links kindly provided by Joy Kirr:

Google’s 20% + Portfolio Through the Ages = Win?

Everyone knows about Google’s “Own projects”*: the search giant’s employees can spend one day per week on self-development and other own initiatives. Lately such projects have reportedly been cut down to some extent, but the spirit is still there.

Tudor project.

I once visited an elementary school in Shanghai, which had adopted this same idea. A day or at least half a day a week the pupils can take part in various clubs, ranging from robotics to ballet and painting classes. The children had themselves had impact on what these clubs do and how they operate. Seems like a great idea, I wonder why it hasn’t spread.

I lately came across another interesting thought, namely portfiolios which are developed throughout the education, starting from first primary grades and continuing through secondary and highschool.

As I’ve mentioned, I am not at all opposed to education based on subjects. However, subject-oriented teaching could be complemented with bottom-up approaches such as the Google/Shanghai method described above. And if these own projects are not separate but interlace in some way, we might end up with something interesting.

Think of a student finishing highschool who has for the past twelve years collected information and created various content on some specific topic. What a great complement this could provide to the grades and graduation certificates when e.g. applying for the first job.

* Google did not invent the own projects idea, at least 3M had applied it before.

Flickr image CC credits: Rob Enslin

The first School in the Cloud opens in the UK

Interesting to see how this turns out!

TED Blog

By Sarah Schoengold

Sugata Mitra has opened the doors of the world’s first School in the Cloud.

Located inside George Stephenson High School in Killingworth, England, this one-room learning lab is a space where students can embark on their own learning adventures, exploring whatever questions most intrigue them. Students even designed the interior of the space — which has colorful beanbags scattered throughout and (very appropriately) fluffy clouds painted on the walls.

[ted_talkteaser id=1678]On the glass doors of the lab is the acronym “SOLE,” which stands for “Self-Organized Learning Environment.” It’s a concept drawn from Mitra’s TED Prize wish, in which he offered up a new vision of education that pairs the vast resources of the Internet with children’s innate sense of curiosity. SOLEs are a minimally invasive education technique that lets kids puzzle through big questions on their own, teaching each other in the process. This method can have…

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We Need to Mix & Match between Subjects (and Edtech can Help Us)

Traditionally the story has gone as follows: first as a child you learnt spontaneously and autonomously the things you felt important, with maybe your parents’ or other adults’ reinforcement activities. (“Say ma-ma, MA-MA.” “Grrbrgl.” “Good boy!”)


Then it was off to preschool, where they started showing you letters and numbers. In other words, you got your first dose of maths & reading. In primary education you got served a bit more subjects, and even more in secondary education. At the end of secondary you had a couple of languages, maths, physics, history, geography, etc. A whole bunch of subjects.

Then it was full stop. Whether it was university, polytechnic, or vocational education for you, you generally had to pick a subject and go from there. One subject, leaving all these other wonderful domains behind.

But it did not matter, since after your higher or applied studies came the work life where you were assumed to know that one topic you had educated yourself. Carpenter, captain, accountant, veterinarian. You got paid for doing that one thing.

Somewhere along the way things changed. These days work is ever more multidisciplinary and calls for skills, which make use of things taught across the curriculum. We need T-shaped people, to quote the term coined by IBM [PDF]. T-shaped people have deep knowledge of some subject but also, and sometimes more importantly so, lighter knowledge of many other domains.

If I am to predict, we are not going back to individual experts working alone. Instead, we are proceeding even further into teams consisting of multitalented people each having separate roles but still capable of understanding each other.

So what to do? This should be embraced in education, of course. I think there is nothing wrong with subjects, mind. On the contrary, they are useful abstractions of similar kinds of information. However, it should be easier to hop over the subject boundaries and implement multidisciplinary teaching and learning.

If we look at the grade levels, I think the most convenient places to add multidisciplinary approaches are at the start and at the end of one’s educational life. At the start children are not yet accustomed to subjects and it is more natural for them to switch lanes.

And at the end, when teenagers are preparing for work, it would be very useful for them to get a grip of what’s going on in corporate life, and what it has in store for them. So for universities, polytechnics, vocational education, and even upper secondary, I would like to see more project-based work with real-life topics.

Many educational technologies can help in this:

  • Children can collect online portfolios consisting of content spanning several subjects.
  • They can use suitable social media tools and virtual learning environments to work in groups and assess each others’ achievements, learning teamwork as they go
  • Educational games and other content utilizing gamified elements can teach several subjects in one unified universe.
  • etc.

Bottom line: We should respect subjects and utilize them to the max. However, we shouldn’t let them prevent multitalented experts to emerge.

Flickr image CC credits: Tulane Public Relations

Mashing Up @Edsurge 2014 Outlooks

In my previous post I declared video as the edtech phenomenon of 2013, based on investments & media coverage in the New York Times. What’s going to happen in 2014, then? Since we don’t yet have investment rounds, acquisitions, and other hard facts available, we have to settle on expert opinions.


I took a look at the predictions on the EdSurge blog by various educational experts and tried to extract some common themes. I found the following topics getting the most attention:

  • Better accessability and “online everywhere”. Emphasizing these basic things shows that schools are still in a very heterogeneous and unequal position. Some of them have all the gadgets and fast infra, while (many) others suffer from poor access and the lack of good client devices. This has to be taken into account when designing digital content and educating educators.
  • Better testing & assessment. More emphasis has to be put on why and how the students should be tested. Teaching students just to pass tests makes no sense. Instead, the tests themselves should be vital part of the teaching process. This also calls for new and innovative ways of assessing.
  • Personalized learning. Online tools for identifying personalized learning needs and recommending suitable content to facilitate these needs are just that: tools. Nothing more, nothing less. They are tools for the teacher to better manage her class or directly for the (self-)students to obtain suitable exercises and other materials. In no way should they threaten the position of teachers.
  • Better professional development. The educators should have more choice and a wider variety of techniques & methods for keeping them up-to-date.

In addition to these top topics, also increase in investments to edtech, consumerization, big data, less technology for technology’s sake, teaching to code tools, and device management got more than one mention by the experts.

The experts on the EdSurge blog were divided into two major categories. First one was investors and the second educators & K-12 admins. These two groups were highlighting different topics, which is only natural. The first batch looks at the world from business perspective, whereas the latter is interested in how things function in the daily life of teaching & learning.

Of the four main topics listed above, both groups were emphasizing access and online, educators & admins were more into T&A and professional development, and personalized learning was solely in the investors’ agenda.

Flickr image CC credits: Ben le Photographe