Monthly Archives: August 2014

EU Supports Nurturing #Edtech Startups and That’s Great

Open Education Challenge

I used to work as a researcher for more than six years at VTT, the technical research centre of Finland. It is actually the longest gig I’ve done in my career, and a very interesting one at that!

At VTT we used to get funding to our research projects both from companies and governments. One significant source of research funding is the European Commission. We’d send applications to EC’s framework programme calls together with universities, companies, and other research institutes across Europe. Sometimes we got lucky and scored funding for a couple of years.

Now I’ve been working in the private sector since 2008. I must say that looking in retrospect some of our projects lacked true market demand and contact with the end user. That’s why I’m delighted that these days the Commission has also more business-oriented instruments in their portfolio to find new innovations.

One of those is the Open Education Europa. They are currently organizing an edtech startup challenge and incubation program. I am lucky to be one of their mentors in Helsinki.

Next week I’ll be coaching Atta, a social media platform for learning; Cubes Coding, a robot programming platform for as young as three year olds; Domoscio, an adaptive learning engine; Funbrush, an interactive toothbrush(!); GroupMooC, a service for organizing your MOOCs; Harness, a blended learning & classroom flipping service; KLAP, an adaptive learning and analytics product; Think with Things, an application for turning any physical and digital objects to learning resources.

So this should be interesting! I’ll write another post once I am done with them.


Experts Should Get to Choose The Tools They Use

I prefer Android phone over iPhone but iPad over Android tablets. I like to use a Mac laptop at home but couldn’t imagine working with one. No, PC it has to be for me.

All professionals, also teachers, should have a say on the tools they use for working. And the tool is to be understood broadly here. For teachers it includes computers, tablets, whiteboards, and other classroom infrastructure, but also—and at least as importantly—educational content.

Auction gavel

Lately I’ve seen some disturbing signals of the decision making related to teaching tools slipping away from teachers. Most often this comes in the form of tenders, where a bigger unit than class or school is served with some uniform offering. These don’t always go as in Strömsö, as we say in Finland. The latest blunder comes from the $1 billion(!) iPad contract of the LA Unified School District.

It is not easy to predict the total long term impact a big tender has. Immediate cost savings are easy to calculate, but the effects it has on actual teaching and learning are more difficult. A tender is always a compromise and cannot take into account everyone’s personal preferences.

Finally, I suspect that there will in any case be more tenders in the future. If and when this happens, it is extremely important that the experts get to be carefully heard. There should be enough teachers in each evaluation board of each tender. They know what they want to use in teaching, they know better than anyone what works and what not.

Flickr image CC credits: toridawnrector

BYOD: Closing or Causing Digital Divide?

The discussion on BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) has once again taken off in Finnish media. Should the schools provide all needed devices for primary and secondary education, or should the kids use their own gadgets? Or something in between?

Heterogeneous devices.

Typical argument against BYOD is that it increases inequality: the richer the family, the better their children’s devices, ergo the better chances for them to succeed in their studies and life. There are a couple of counterarguments to this, of which maybe the most common is: Economy is bad, we cannot afford devices for all, but we must transform education to digital, ergo BYOD.

Enter the conciliator. We don’t have to provide every child with a device, only those who cannot bring their own. In Finland this is often compared with cross-country skis or ice skates: everyone should bring their own skis to the physical education class, but the school has a couple of (old) pairs for those who cannot afford.

I personally think smartphones, tablets, and laptops cannot be straightforwardly compared with skis or skates. They are a lot more complex gadgets, which break easily, outdate fast, should be personalized, etc. However, there is some sense in this approach and I think it should be pursued further. Maybe the personalization can be done in the cloud instead of the client device, for example.

One factor having significant impact on how BYOD turns out is the heterogeneity of “allowed” devices. What if all pupils would have exactly the same hardware, running exactly the same software and apps? At least the lives of teachers and administrators would be a lot easier.

This is of course a utopia. Maybe we could get a uniform setup for one class, for one school even. But for everyone on a country-level? I think not. And at the latest when new HW & SW versions get rolled out, this would fall out of sync. At the other end of the spectrum is that everyone could bring any kind of device they like. This wouldn’t work either.

No, the truth is somewhere in between. At the very minimum the needed input and output methods should be specified: keyboard, camera, microphone, speaker, etc. The necessary connectivity modes should be outlined, maybe some sensors, as well as the most basic capabilities (for the likes of information search, word processing, calculation, and publishing).

Finally, if the alternative to BYOD is to not allow devices at all but continue with “pen and paper”, one could argue that this is actually increasing inequality. The reasoning goes that if no devices at school, some children can use them at home, whereas others cannot access them at all.

So it would be a job for the school to ensure that all children get at least a glimpse of what new technologies have to offer. Otherwise some folks would automatically be better prepared for the future than others. And we don’t want that, do we?

Flickr image CC credits: adactio


On Our Way to Digital School

”The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed”, said the famous science fiction author William Gibson. Typically this quote refers to unfair geographical or societal distribution of new innovations.

I might use the very same sentence to describe Finnish K-12 education regarding how digital content and devices are used. Note that this time I am not referring to differences between schools or municipalities, although they also exist. This is more about the existing possibilities and how they are on average used in learning and teaching: in some respects we are quite far already. In other areas we are only taking very first baby steps.

My employer Sanoma Pro conducted an extensive study in the spring 2014 among Finnish K-12 teachers and headmasters. Around 2000 professionals filled in an online survey about the state of ICT in schools, utilization of online materials, and the capabilities to face the changes in the years to come: a new K-12 curriculum will be introduced from 2016 onwards, and the matriculation examination in upper secondary education should be fully digital by 2019.

In what follows, I will highlight four core findings of the study:

1.     The foundation for the future is here…

99 percent of schools already use computers and 97 percent online learning materials. These amazing numbers reveal that there are virtually no schools in Finland operating only on printed books.

2.     … but we want more!

Even though computers are found in all schools, the situation is not optimal. Majority of computers intended for pupil usage are shared, on average ten pupils per one device. Furthermore, there is plenty to do regarding mobile devices. 52 percent of schols use tablet devices and the ratio is even worse: one tablet per 15 pupils. Smartphones, typically owned by the pupils, are utilized in 33 percent of the schools.

It is crucial to note, however, the positive attitude the teachers have: 82 percent would like to use tablets in their teaching, more than 90 percent believe that digital materials make teaching more diverce and modern, 83 percent feel digital materials activate & motivate pupils, and 71 percent see that they make differentiation easier.

3.     Challenges in the present state

Differentiation. Now there’s a prime example of the challenges teachers face in their work. 71 percent experience being too busy and one of the root causes for this is the time spent on differentiation: 57 percent would like to use more time to cater different learners and learning styles.

Almost half of the teachers are dissatisfied with how digital materials are currently utilized. In the age group of teachers under 35 years, it is even more than half. This also supports the observation that there is will to use new materials and methods.

4.     Way forward

Digital materials also raise doubts and fears. As much as 67 percent fear that they end up increasing the amoung of work to be done. This is easy to believe and understand. Teachers—like any professionals—need support when adopting new technologies and methods.

The Finnish K-12 curriculum is going to be renewed from 2016 onwards. Matriculation examination is going to be fully online by 2019. Both of these reforms create pressure of learning new skills and adopting digital devices and content in schools.

Less than half of the teachers feel that they are well prepared for the curriculum reform or the online matriculation examination. The clock is ticking and we have to give our dear teachers all the support we can so that these numbers are as close to a hundred percent as possible well in time.


Can Chegg Pull off a Netflix?


Chegg, the US-based textbook rental company, did an IPO last November with not so flattering consequences. Recently the company stated a goal of further strengthening its digital offerings like online tutoring, homework help, and course planning. As a result, the investors started to believe in Chegg. Why?

Chegg is sometimes compared with Netflix. Actually, Netflix insipired the founders to start the rental business in the first place. It should be emphasized, however, that Chegg compares with the DVD rental era of Netflix, not the streaming TV success it has since become. Maybe the market sees more future in digital services than physical book rental and that explains the increased interest in $CHGG.

What would it mean to “pull off a Netflix” in the context of education? I’d say it is not as straightforward as in movie business or television. A film is a film, nevermind if you stream it or watch it on DVD or VHS even. Ok, differences in quality and some folks value the boxes the casettes or records come in, but you get my message.

With study materials it is quite different. When content is used in digital form as opposed to print, a plethora of possibilities emerges. The content can be easily updated, jointly edited, and curated. Answers to questions can be automatically or semi-automatically corrected, lectures can be streamed across the globe, portfolios stored and shared, etc.

In recent years Chegg has acquired several companies such as InstaEDU (online tutoring platform), CourseRank (course scheduling), and Cramster (community-based homework help). Having done so, it seems to have a good start in building its digital offering.

Even though printed textbooks are going to be with us for many years to come (I am sure a lot longer than DVDs!), it is wise to start building a digital future. We’ll see if Chegg started with the right pieces.

Flickr image CC credits: ~Brenda-Starr~