Monthly Archives: March 2014

Learn to Code – It’s Good for You

It is no news to anyone any more that programmming in one form or another is going to be ever more important in schools in the years to come. However, there are still misunderstandings in just what is it that makes coding so important. Why should everyone of us know it, at least to an extent?

I found the below infographic yesterday embedded in an Edudemic blog post. There are some figures predicting how the amount “computer science -related jobs” is going to grow, how England has starting to include coding in its K-12 curriculum as a mandatory subject, etc.


Learn How to Code


However, what interested me the most are the skills & professions the infographic is outlining. The following topics are supposed to be related to or resulting from programming:

  • Algorithms
  • Cryptography
  • Computational Biology
  • Machine Intelligence
  • Heuristics

Nice list, but shows well just why there is this confusion on what is it about programming that is so important. You see, those five points on the list are on very different levels. I would pick algorithms and heuristics as core parts and complement them with the likes of ontologies, data structures, logic, and reasoning. These are the core skills programming can teach, the foundational components to better thinking and learning.

Machine learning, computational biology, and cryptography are examples of applying these core skills. And there is a lot more to add to application areas. In fact, it’s going to be harder and harder to find professions and industry domains, where the abstract thinking skills taught by programming would not play a role.

Internet (of things) is going to be everywhere, in various objects around us. Designing and using those objects benefits from knowing how they “think”.

You often hear the mantra that we should teach our kids how to “learn to learn” (instead of trying to pour factoids in their brains). Above-mentioned skills brought to you by coding is the best fuel for this!

If You Can’t Beat’em, Join’em

I once visited New Haven and took the guided tour on Yale University campus. Our tour guide said that the roof tiles had been buried in sand prior to putting them up. Why? In order to get the harrypotteresque England of yore look.

Yale campus

Yale itself is one of the elite Ivy League universities. These days it doesn’t have to mimic anyone or anything. Well, not brick & mortar schools at least. MOOCs might be another story. Yale’s ex-president is joining Coursera, one of the leading MOOC providers.

Market leading MOOCs originate from top universities: Coursera and Udacity from Stanford, edX from MIT & Harvard. This is perfectly understandable. Best universities have been able to attract the best lecturers & professors. Now these same lecturers can spread the goodness beyond campus boundaries by virtue of online technologies.

This is what MOOCs are about, what explains their success (let’s not go to dropout rates and other challenges this time): world’s best lecturers give their talks over the web so that students living elsewhere don’t have to go and listen to talks about the same subjects at their local universities, given by worse lecturers.

In the future local universities are going to concentrate more on personalized teaching and coaching, and theory lectures are left to MOOCs and other online technologies. But how many successful MOOC platforms can we fit on this planet? There are eight Ivy League universities. Surely we don’t need that many MOOC providers, right?

Flickr image CC credits: Francisco Anzola


#SXSWedu 2014 Recap

Three days now since I returned back from Texas and SXSWedu. My luggage made the same flights as me, but my sleeping habits are still somewhere on their way. Maybe they got stuck at JFK.

Rainy ACC

Let’s start from the beginning. I touched the ground in very cold Austin on Sunday before the conference. Next morning the weather reports were screaming “Central Texas Freeze” in their headlines. The start of the week was quite cold and rainy, but it got better towards the end.

SXSWedu at Austin Convention Center

As last year, SXSWedu proved again to be a good mixture of sessions and booths/lounges, of academia and industry, of educators and businesses.

The growth since SXSWedu started four years ago has been huge, but my gut feeling is that this year there were approximately the same amount of participants as last year: 6000, according to the organizers. Over 250 sessions and some 700 speakers/panelists.

The main differences between SXSWedu 2013 and 2014? This year there seemed to be less startup buzz than last year. LaunchEDU, the conference’s startup competition, had only one category this time around, whereas last year they divided between K-12 and higher ed.

By the way, RobotsLAB was the LaunchEDU winner this year, out of 80 participants. RobotsLAB creates robotics kits to be used in STEM education.

To fill the hole left by absent startup folks, there apparently were more educators in the audience this year. This is great, since you need educators for creating good edtech and online content.

Pearson lounge

Lounges had been swapped a bit from last year. Pearson had inherited the biggest one from Google, who was now in a smaller room. McGraw-Hill with their Smartbook demos had grabbed the nicest lounge, with huge windows facing downtown Austin.

Last year in that same exclusive lounge was InBloom, the Gates-backed public-private organization aiming at managing student data across US states. It was midway through this year’s conference when I realized I hadn’t bumped into InBloom at all.

Could this have something to do with the criticism it has received? Parents are worried about where the data concerning their children ends up. Also many educational experts are wary about the activity, one of the loudest being Diane Ravitch, who gave a talk at SXSWedu this year.

In 2013 SXSWedu managed to attract more popular keynote speakers than this year, for example Bill Gates and the CEOs of the biggest MOOC providers. Although keynotes represent but a fraction of a conference’s whole content, they are important. Many make their decision on whether to join or not based on keynotes.

I concentrated quite a lot on gaming and gamification related topics this year. Brainpop was quite visible and also Amplify demoed high-end games to accompany their curricural content.

Maybe the best gaming-related session I participated was a workshop presenting several educational games for K-12 usage, also with hands-on activities. Edugames are still quite separate from the rest of the gaming world, as I reported in another post.

SXSWedu is still several times smaller event than its bigger and older brothers of SXSW Music, Film, and Interactive. I stayed for one day after SXSWedu had stopped and when Interactive had just started. The streets of Austin started to swarm with conference badge wearing people, and parking lots were turning into temporary stages and lounges.

Education, movies, music, technology. Whatever is your thing, I recommend you visit Austin in the festival season.

Phhhoto from Pearson party

#SXSWEdu’s Missing Ingredient

Agree 100%. If teachers (and students!) are not listened to and co-created with, no edtech is going to work.


sxswedupic copy I attended SXSWEdu this week in Austin, Texas.  It was a great celebration of business and education.  As an educator, I would have never had the opportunity to attend such an event if it wasn’t for my latest role as the Digital Curriculum Editor for KinderTown.   KinderTown is an app for parents to help them find the most valuable educational apps for their children.  I’m also currently a teacher at an independent private school in Baltimore.  These are the two roles I represented and shared with people, and with which I viewed the conference.

As a teacher, the only community of learners I have interacted with professionally is teachers.  My mother was a teacher, her mother was a teacher.  My mom’s friends were teachers, and I grew up in the conversation of education.  I knew what was happening in the day to day lives of teachers, since I was…

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Don’t Expect Any Educational Games From #SXSW Gaming Expo

I stayed for one extra day in Austin after SXSWedu ended. Four days of sitting down watching presentations made me want to just walk around the town. I also visited the SXSW Gaming Expo, hoping to score some educational games there.

Boy was I wrong. There was all sorts of cool games and playing going on, with virtual reality headsets and the like. But I couldn’t find anything related to learning. Well, there was one game, a Kickstarer-funded project called Classroom Aquatic. But I wouldn’t exactly call it a learning game. Take a look at the trailer so you see what I mean:

Avoid teacher’s and students’ gaze, look at other students’ papers to get answers, and throw erasers at people. Fun stuff for sure, but not quite what I was looking for.

Visiting the expo strengthened my assumption of education and hard-core gaming are still worlds apart. However, that doesn’t mean gaming wouldn’t have anything to give to education. Various elements can be extracted from games and used to gamify educational content, storylines and game characters can be reused, and innovative interaction mechanisms utilized.

It might be virtual reality headsets are entering the classrooms in the years to come.

Small Educational Games Can Lead to a Big One

On Monday March 3rd, Amplify announced two things at SXSWedu: cooperation with Intel on tablets aimed at school usage, and a new curriculum discarding the notion of a book altogether (also digital book). When Larry Berger, the Learning President at Amplify was presenting their new curriculum called ELA, he also mentioned and briefly showed some premium educational games they are rolling out.


The games are aimed solely at outside classroom usage. Amplify has the goal of getting children to spend three times as much time on reading and writing as they currently do. This time cannot come from school hours, so they try to introduce attractive games to get kids read & write at their spare time.

So they are entering the cutthroat business of gaming, where only very few make it big time. This is very different from providing curriculum-related educational materials and solutions. Being owned by News Corp might help them in entering this market, but it is nevertheless a new ballgame.

Today I listened to a wonderful panel chaired by Esteban Sosnik from CO.LAB, and including PJ Gunsagar from Kidaptive, Jacob Klein from Motion Math, and Sooinn Lee from LocoMotive Labs. At one point the panelists were discussing the approaches of creating small independent learning games versus making the whole school experience a game. Candy Crush Saga on one end of the axis, and World of Warcraft on the other.

Amplify is clearly taking the WoW approach, creating whole virtual worlds for children to learn. Typically these two extreme approaches (as well as the shades in between) are seen as alternatives. How about considering them as a pathway instead, or a journey?

The journey would start with small games and light gamification, adding more along the way. This way students (and teachers!) would get to know the game characters and other elements in small steps. The approach wouldn’t have the risk of going all-in with a large scale game production all at once, nor would it remain a set of independent games not forming a uniform collection of educational content.

Flickr image CC credits: Tim Green aka atoach


Google’s Oppia Turns Programming into a Dialogue

Update, March 5th, 2014: I found the man behind Oppia! A true developer really devoted to what he is doing. He helped me to get a bit deeper insights on some things:

  • Oppia is not Google’s product, so the title of this post is a bit off. Oppia was initiated as the 20% time project, meaning the time employees can use for their own projects. Something I proposed a while ago to be included in education, too. And then found out it is already happening.
  • The fact that it is called Oppia is an accident of sorts. The team has no connections to Finland. They had to come up with a name and were going through different languages searching for translations to the word “learning”. The runner-up was Swahili word “kujifunza” but “oppia” is easier to pronounce.
  • No immediate plans to integrate with Google’s data & algorithms. For the time being Oppia is an independent system and any integration with web content (e.g. to find out that Finnish is linguistically close to Estonian) is up to the community. If someone wants to code an interface to web sources, fine, they are free to do so. But you shouldn’t expect Google itself to implement such, at least for now.
  • Community is at the core. This is the most characterizing feature of Oppia. You could compare it to Wikipedia or Linux in its ways of working. This actually brings a fresh approach to personalized feedback and learning paths. Usually metadata, semantics, and powerful computing is harnessed to perform these tasks, but Oppia relies on the community. The more people contribute to Oppia and its explorations, the better it becomes. If it works for Wikipedia, hey, why not here?


Last week I bumped into two interesting technology launches: Wolfram Language and Google’s Oppia. Both bring us closer to actually discussing with a computer rather than only giving it commands in a one-directional fashion. I managed to discuss Oppia with Google folks yesterday here at SXSWedu.


Google’s search engine has long ago started to resemble the classic vision of artificially intelligent computer, which gives answers to questions humans ask it. I remember this from the comics I read as a kid in the 1970s. There are questions Google can’t answer off the shelf, though, and that’s why it would benefit from having a dialogue with the user.

Oppia is an open-source project Google has initiated. It aims at providing a convenient way for anyone to create and share “bite-sized educational explorations”. What caught my attention first when I heard of the project was its name. Oppia is Finnish and means “to learn”.

This factoid was also used in the demo the Google guys gave me. The demo included a question along the lines of “What language is the word Oppia?” The demonstrator first typed “Spanish”. Oppia gave a negative feedback in a polite way and asked the user to try again.

“Greek”, he wrote. Then Oppia replied “Closer, but not quite, please try again.” I got excited: could this system know about languages and how close they are linguistically? I asked him to type “Estonian” next. I know that Finnish and Estonian are very close to each other, hoping for an answer indicating that.

But no, it did not recognize this aspect. Bad news. The good news is that it could. We could’ve created a rule on the spot stating this fact, setting Finnish and Estonian linguistically very close. The huge news, however, is the potential.

At the moment Oppia is a separate system relying on explicitly states rules. What if it had all Google’s muscles behind when interacting with the user? I am sure there are several sources on the web where the closeness of Finnish and Estonian is mentioned.

While I am waiting for the integration between Oppia and Google’s information & algorithms to happen, I am marveling its dialogue approach of interacting with the users. It is mimicking the communication between a teacher and a student. When the user/student answers incorrectly, Oppia/teacher not only tells that the answer is wrong but tries to encourage and give a push to the right direction. Very nice.

Another phenomenon Oppia contributing to is the lowering of barrier for anyone to start programming. Like the Wolfram Language, it bears the possibility of bringing people and computers closer to understanding each other.

I have yet to locate “the man behind Oppia”, but I’ve heard he is at the conference. If I find him and get deeper insights, I’ll update this post or write a new one.