Category Archives: Edtech

Learning Materials Shouldn’t Form Filter Bubbles

Snellmanin ala-asteen luokan oppituntiIn printed learning materials bubbles might be formed between the school book cover and the plastic covering it. However, bubbles can emerge also with digital learning materials. These bubbles are completely different since they isolate learners from each other. That’s why it is very important to avoid and burst them.

Last time I wrote about how artificial intelligence is teacher’s friend not enemy. Intelligent digital tools and materials are not about to replace the teacher. Instead they support the teacher, making her job easier.

Now it is time to address another theme: filter bubbles. Filter bubbles are known from social media and politics. People with similar opinions and attitudes talk solely with each other, causing them to form a bubble which drifts away from other bubbles. In the future the same unwanted mechanism can also be affecting learning.

Politicians, education officials, application developers, publishers, and many others: one of the most central objective for parties working with education is to advance personalized learning. This means that learners are encountered as individuals rather than as homogeneous groups. For example my employer Sanoma Pro as an educational publisher aims to offer diverse materials with something for everyone.

In digital environments personalized materials can be composed and distributed automatically. For example in Bingel the pupil is offered easier or more difficult exercises depending on whether he got previous answers right or wrong.

Personalization cannot jeopardize the equality of learning

Personalization and adaptivity can be taken further than what present Bingel has. This is exactly where the danger of filter bubbles looms. In principle the learners could complete exercises and according to the answers be directed in different routes which might not cross in the future. This could replicate the unwanted scenario from social media with learners in their own bubbles, isolated from each other.

In real life the teacher has a central role in guaranteeing that each learner goes through at least particular topics. Also the curriculum mandates this; personalization has to be implemented respecting he curriculum.

What to personalize then, and on what grounds? Some propose learning styles as the answer. It means offering interactive content for kinesthetic learners, videos for visual learners, and so on. However, learning styles and their positive impact to learning has been debunked several times. Not worth to waste time in them.

Personalization for engagement

My proposal is to personalize in order to engage and motivate the learners. One can assume that a learner is more motivated if she gets offered learning materials tailored for her. For example, exercises should be hard enough to keep the learner interested. They cannot be too difficult, however, so that the learner doesn’t get frustrated. It is natural for people to like both routines and change. Learning materials should reflect this by offering both familiar content and surprises.

To conclude, an important note related to personalization and more generally applications utilizing AI: both the learners and the teachers should have the feeling of being in control and understand the tools and content they use. This is why it is worthwhile to offer recommendations rather than completely automatic adaptivity. Let the learners and teachers to select whether to follow recommendations or not.

Even better if the recommendation includes argumentation of why just that particular content is offered to that particular learner. For example like this: “You seem to be practicing for tomorrow’s geometry exam. You have already mastered areas but there is still some work to do with volumes. Here is a 30 minute exercise package for you and there is a three minute video covering the basics. You can also familiarize yourself with volumes with the following containers found in your kitchen….”

When implemented right, personalized learning motivates the learner, eases teacher’s daily work, and does not isolate learners from each other.

This post was first published in Sanoma Pro’s blog in Finnish.


Teachers value blended learning

In 2018, we carried out our SLIF survey (Sanoma Learning Impact Framework) for the fourth time. In total 7594 teachers answered the online survey, which was carried out in all our markets: Belgium, Finland, The Netherlands, Poland, and Sweden. The main purpose of SLIF is to investigate the impact of published materials on learning. This []

via Teachers value blended learning — John Richard Martin

Hey Teacher: AI is Your Friend, Not Enemy


We are told from left and right that artificial intelligence (AI for short) is going to take our jobs: four million jobs in the UK in danger to disappear, 47 percent of US jobs are going away, as much as half of all professions vanishing during the next decade.

Luckily not all news stories are as gloomy. One research dealt with a thousand companies and estimated that AI will create new jobs in 80 percent of the cases. More moderate predictions claim that professions are going to both appear and disappear. A recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) stated that in the years 2017-2037 the UK job market is going to see seven million jobs to go away, but 7,2 million new ones to emerge.

You Cannot Replace a Teacher with a Machine

How about teachers, then? Are they going to be fine? Yes, claims PwC. Teaching is one of those professions which are hard to replace with computers or automation. I couldn’t agree more. Deep knowledge of learners’ personalities, ability to adapt to dynamics in the classroom context, and interacting with the study group accordingly are in the hard core of teaching. No one or nothing knows the class better than the teacher.

Instead of replacing teachers, AI can help them in doing their job better. Teaching involves several routine tasks which could be partly or completely automatized. For example in Bingel, Sanoma Learning’s gamified learning environment for primary education pupils, checking the answers of simple exercises is automated. Assessment has further opportunities for automation and AI, as does for example planning the upcoming weeks, days, or lessons during a semester.

AI can help also the learners, for example by virtue of personalized learning. A machine can learn to provide the best possible exercises and other content to each learner, as long as it has access to enough data of the learning history. The accuracy can be further improved by adding other context attributes into the equation. For example the social dynamics of the study group, time of the study activity, and even the learner’s emotional state could help to select the most appropriate content. Doing all this can increase the motivation of the learner, which in turn can improve the learning results. In other words: the machine learns to make the human learn.

Learning materials are always designed and tested together with the users of the materials, namely teachers and learners. This applies also to intelligent systems which learn. Even the best data scientist or developer cannot implement good pedagogical solutions without the precious know-how of education professionals. The machine learns to make the human learn, but it all starts with the human teaching the machine.

This post was originally published in Finnish on Sanoma Pro’s blog.


Augmented reality (AR) is one of the hottest technology trends these days. It is also making its way to education. At the risk of hype meters overheating, allow me to combine it with another trendy acronym, namely BYOD (Bring Your Own Device).

Book & phone

In the educational context BYOD means that the students are bringing their own devices to schools and utilizing them there in lessons and other learning situations.

Typically the devices brought to schools are smartphones. In Finland even the youngest schoolchildren often have smartphones. With these devices they can both consume and produce learning materials. Phones have integrated cameras and microphones, which can be used to create rich content. Phones are also personal and attached to mobile networks, which in Finland are quite reliable.

Augmented reality brings an interesting twist to BYOD. With AR, printed learning materials can be brought to live in a new way. My employer Sanoma Pro recently launched an app called Arttu, which does just this. Arttu works so that you open it on your phone and place it over the book pages. Arttu recognizes some images on the pages and opens related video content, bringing the learning experience to the next level. For more about Arttu (in Finnish), check here.

Whenever discussing BYOD, equality between the learners comes up. Is it right that some students have better equipment than others? The two extreme opinions are:

  1. Everyone should have the exact same learning materials, tools, and devices.
  2. Smartphones are like skates or skis. In physical education, the pupils are mandated to bring their own skates when they have ice hockey. And their own skis when they have crosscountry skiing. Why should smartphones be treated differently?

AR apps manage to avoid this debate, at least partly. For example Arttu provides a shortcut to video materials. However, the same videos can be found otherwise, too. It might be that somewhere in the distant future using AR apps is mandatory in order to pass a course. In such case, all students should be provided with sufficient devices and software, for example as a combination of own and school’s devices.

An earlier version of this post first appeared in Finnish on Sanoma Pro’s blog.

Flickr image CC credits: Image Catalog

On Gamification: Chocolate is Good and Broccoli Healthy


Are you familiar with the expression “chocolate-covered broccoli”? It basically refers to adding a layer of cool stuff to a layer of boring stuff. If you work with edtech & gamification, chances are you’ve heard of it.

Opponents of gamification have the opinion that enriching education with gamified elements is like pouring chocolate on top of broccoli and therefore not good at all.

I disagree.

Think about when you cross a street. Do you ever tend to step on the white stripes of the crosswalk—or alternatively on the spaces in between—but not on the border? Or have you ever placed bets with your friends about a hockey game on TV? How about following your pace while running and later comparing it to your other runs on a training log? Maybe spent time on selecting the best filter for your picture so that it would get attention on social media.

If you answered “yes” to any of these, you’ve gamified your life, brought some extra fun to it. In other words, you’ve covered your broccoli with some chocolate. Now my question is: why couldn’t we gamify education? (And my answer is: of course we can!)

When thinking of gamified educational materials, it is important to keep two things in mind: first, pupils/students compare them with other educational materials, not with games outside education context. Secondly, not all education should be gamified. There are several ways to Learning and gamification fits some but not all.

Avatars, levels, points, rewards, and storifying are typical features of gamification. They take nothing away from the imortance of the educational materials they are applied to, such as theory content, exercises, and tests. No, they are just there to spice up various learning situations and drive engagement.

I currently work with Bingel, a gamified environment for primary education, grades 1-6. We launched it this fall in Finland and based on the feedback we’re getting it really seems to hit the spot!

Earlier version of this post was published in Finnish on Sanoma Pro’s blog.

Flickr image CC credits: Emilien ETIENNE

Teachers Would Subscribe to a Proper Education Netflix


Jay Lynch from Pearson recently wrote an interesting blog post called Why We Don’t Need a ‘Netflix for Education’. I agree with most of what he is saying in that post, but still come to an opposite conclusion: we do need a Netflix for education. It just has to be developed on education’s terms.

There’s one key thing that distinguishes institutional education from watching movies: the teacher. You might get suggestions from critics or your friends regarding movies, but you are still alone watching them. In learning, instead, the teacher plays an essential role. When designing a Netflix for education, teacher’s role shouldn’t be faded but amplified.

A proper educational Netflix wouldn’t replace the teacher by trying to propose the best learning content directly to the students. It would rather offer the teacher with a vast amount of content, properly tagged and structured to fit various contexts. Exactly as Jay wrote in his piece:

A personalized learning system must enhance the emotional and personal connection between learners and teachers, rather than obviate it.

These emotional and personal connections manifest in the classroom context and are influenced by many factors. Not only the skill levels of students and teaching capabilities of the instructor, but things like personal characteristics, social relationships & structures, mood, and energy levels.

In addition, there are many random variables: sudden events such as natural disasters or acts of terrorism have impact on how people think (and learn), even if they took place somewhere far away. And even though people tend to appreciate routines, sometimes they just want to be surprised. Educational Netflix should generate moments of serendipity for learners and the teacher.

As much as I am a proponent of machine intelligence and AI, I believe that a personalized learning system should concentrate more on the surface than what’s going on under the hood. The teacher and the pupils should have powerful and intuitive tools to find, manipulate, connect, and enrich the content.

Naturally the content should be properly tagged and searchable, but above all this calls for careful UI design and A+ front end programming. Rather than trying to guess what the learners need, let them and especially their teacher to easily find it.

I claim that teachers would subscribe to an educational Netflix, if they were assured they would get to be included in its recommendation algorithm.

Flickr image CC credits: Austen Squarepants


Will Pokémon Go Boost Location-based Games in Learning?

As I write this on July 15th 2016, the new game Pokémon Go has not even been officially released yet in Finland, yet pictures of Pokémon creatures have started to emerge in my social media streams.

pokemon go

Apparently the game is quite addictive. Augmented reality technologies and location-based games have been around for years (remember e.g. the cool Finnish game Shadow Cities?), but this is the first time they really break into mainstream. After a successful entry into consumers’ lives, they can also sneak into learning.

There are already several location-based games and platforms designed for learning, in Finland for example Citynomadi and Seppo. I hope that Pokémon Go’s success will accelerate their adoption in education, as well as generate many others!

I believe that majority of learning will be “stationary” also in the future, happening in places like the classroom, student’s own room, or library. That being said, the combined effect of BYOD, smart phones, and location-tracking will no doubt increase the relative importance of location-based educational games.

Nice thing about location-based games is that you can teach virtually anything with them. Of course it adds another interesting layer to the game if the augmented content is somehow related to the physical surroundings, for example questions about buildings which can be seen from the spot. This is not necessary, however, just like Pokémon creatures are not related to the surroundings where they can be found in the Go game.

I am an advocate of gamification and believe also in extrinsic motivators it utilizes in engaging the students. If embedding exercises on mathematics, foreign languages, and other school subjects increase the student engagement, I am all for it!

Flickr image CC credits: Eduardo Woo


Scratch: Learning by Remixing


I came across an interesting Medium post about the visual programming language and framework Scratch. The post said that some 30% of pupil projects in Scratch are remixes. In other words, three in ten projects build on top of existing ones.

There’s nothing surprising here. First of all, reusing and -mixing existing projects is made easy in Scratch. Secondly, building on top of existing code is an age-old tradition and a common way of working in the programming community. The rest of the world has a lot to learn from developers on how to avoid reinventing the wheel.

What’s interesting, instead, is that remixing actually teaches new concepts. The writers of the above-mentioned Medium post had done research on Scratch community and found out that kids started to use concepts they had never used before but were exposed through remixing.

What to make of this? To me it means that remixing and reusing is not brainless copying & pasting. No, it is an active process of taking existing material, investigating it, enriching with own additions, and releasing for others to remix even further. Standing on the shoulders of giants, paying forward, adding value, etc. There are many ways to describe this process.

How about expanding this beyond programming projects? Are there “traditional” school subjects or activities where remix culture would fit? I am thinking for example written essays. Remixing essays could create an interesting Wikipedia-like network of written content.

This is against the grain; plagiarism is a known problem in this day and age, when stealing answers from the web is ever so easy. Dealing with this comes down to assessment. In addition to the essay, maybe the student could at least be assessed with additional questions to verify how well she understands the core topics in her essay. If she could answer to such questions, then it wouldn’t matter if she had used someone else’s content in her writing. Because she had learned, right?



Class Charts to Boost its International Expansion

Class Charts

Great news today from my Class Charts friends Duncan and Gintas: their company Edukey just announced an investment round from TES Global! I once wrote about five edtech startups and claimed that you are going to hear about them in the future. Well, today is that future for one of them.

TES is a UK-based provider of various services to teachers. Class Charts being a seating chart tool for teachers fits their portfolio perfectly. The same goes for Edykey’s other major product, Provision Map, which addresses special education needs.

Edukey will utilize this investment to expand internationally, expecting to grow its current user base of 350k teachers and 4m students significantly. I wish the best of luck to Duncan and Gintas, the hardest working men on edtech!


Flipped Learning by Doing

Flipped learning is often associated with videos & Khan Academy. In a nutshell: the teacher instructs students/pupils to watch a video about an upcoming topic at home before coming to the class. This enables better time allocation: instead of lecturing, the teacher can wander around and give one-to-one coaching for those in need.

Learning by doing, a learning theory typically associated with the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, emphasizes the active role of the student/pupil in the learning process.

How about flipped learning by doing?

Discussing Bingel with a teacher who uses it as a flipped learning tool. Photo by Kirsi Harra-Vauhkonen.

Discussing Bingel with a teacher who uses it as a flipped learning tool, by assigning pupils Bingel-exercises of topics they have not yet gone through in the class.

I was presenting and discussing Bingel for two days straight at Educa 2016, the biggest annual learning-focused event in Finland. I found out that Bingel is also used as a flipped learning tool: teachers assign exercises of completely new topics as a homework before actually teaching them in the class.

Flipped learning approaches often combine theory content with exercises or other activities, so there is some learning by doing present. You can for example watch a video and then do a test to find out how well you digested the topic on the video. Or write an essay, contribute to a portfolio, etc.

Bingel is about exercises rather than theory content. Sometimes the exercises are accompanied by hints, but these hints are only fragments of the whole theory. In other words, using Bingel in flipped learning means that the pupils start the learning process about a new topic with the actual exercises.

This teaches them a relevant skill of rolling up sleeves and getting to work even before the needed knowledge is well structured. After some iterations of trial and error, they come to school better prepared and maybe even with some questions for the teacher.