Wednesday, 7 December 2011


I did a presentation today outlining my PhD. With the power of technology, I have embedded it below for you to look at, but I doubt it will make much sense because most of it was read off a script.

The presentation was nothing serious, but was to give me some feedback on my progress and my presentation skills.

Anyway, I've put it here so the effort doesn't just get lost in the depths of my hard drive never to be seen again.

Monday, 21 November 2011


Since starting my studies, I've found myself more and more interested in the tools available for capturing everything you see in my day-to-day. This blog just one of them, as I find it good to slap down the more prominent ideas, and allows myself to debate it with myself. Like a journal, it is often useful to see your thoughts and ideas in writing in order to reflect on them more. The good thing about putting them in a blog means anyone can see them, so they can weigh in on their opinion, ideas or knowledge, or just tell you that you're plain wrong.

I have also recently setup an RSS feed connected to a myriad of different links, from literature journals to design blogs. This gives me a constantly updating, concise feed of everything thats being published or talked about relevant to my studies. I read this through Google Reader.

However, not everything that comes up on the feed is relevant enough to take note of, and not everything relevant is important enough to take the time to write up on here. So I need a middle ground, a list of links that are relevant, but I just want to take note of them, or put them to one side to address later on.

As I write this, I have 16 tabs open on this browser window, and another 8 open on an extra window (I have a sort of phobia, worried that the tabs will get so small they disappear, so I limit each window to under 20...). I have had these tabs open for at least a month; they contain things I've started but not finished, or things I've thought would be useful, but dont want them to be lost in my ever growing forest of bookmarks.

So today I open a Delicious account. On here, you can make lists of links you find could be useful or interesting, and then name that list as something. With each list you can give a quick overview of why you liked it and add keyword tags for easy searching later on. Whats more, I can share these lists with others who are interested in this subject, or follow theirs as an RSS feed. I'll be keeping a link to my Delicious account on the side somewhere, but in the mean time, you can watch as I add my tabs to it here.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Bridging The Gap

So far with my studies I'm finding an inherent problem with trying to teach, and I'm sure its something that anyone who has ever attempted to teach multiple people - especially in a group - has encountered. The problem is that everyone is different. Particularly for teaching, everyone has different skill levels, ability to learn, willingness to learn, and also different levels of interest in the taught subject. This makes it very hard to fit the curriculum around a group of people, because some will excel and some will struggle, and some just wont care.

You even see this in everyday life. Computer programs often have a 'quick-start guide' to explain the basics to the people who don't have a clue. Video games have easy, medium and hard settings to suit the n00bs up to the hardcore players, and mobile phones will have an 'Advanced Settings' menu that only the brave should dare to venture.

The reason I type this is because while I am researching easy ways for people to prototype, and entry level routes into coding and App building, I cant help but think about 2 things;

One, are these basic introductions applicable in industry? Would you let a brick layer build a house if all you've taught him is Lego?

Two, what if some of the people this is teaching are far beyond this - find it child's play, or simply want to investigate further in their own time?

These resources should open up as many doors as possible and not restrict people to only the basics. They should encourage curiosity and let imaginations a skills flourish, prepare them for the real world but still not forget about the people who just want to complete the task so they can pass their degree module.

So this is why bridging the gap is so important, and why I'm looking at services like App Inventor as good examples. Just the other day I found out about the App Inventor to Java bridge, which is doing a great job at flattening the learning curve between simple block-interface coding and Java, the primary protocol used for coding Android applications. But not only that, it introduces the concept of having an Interface Builder separate from the code writing elements, and how they interact with each other. This is the same as in xCode when writing iPhone applications. So along with a few other parallels between the two approaches, students can relate what they learnt with the basic system to what they would encounter when tackling the more advanced tools.

On the ladder of learning, there should be many rungs so students of different skill sets and abilities can jump on when they want. The resources should be there to support this.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Child Driven Education

The last video of the day. Another TED talk, this one by Sugata Mitra.

Mitra observed that there are many places in the world which has poor education, and no good teachers want to go to teach there. This is also key areas where there is troubled communities and problems with poverty and violence.
However, Mitra found evidence of children's own willingness to learn, by installing a few 'hole in the wall' type computers, connected to the internet in one of the slums in New Delhi. He found that with no instruction, children who had never seen a computer in their life were finding information and teaching it to themselves. He found that "children will learn to do, what they want to learn to do".

This led on to other experiments, like putting computers in classrooms with speech to text software. After a few months children who could speak English but with very strong accents soon learned how to pronounce better, even if it was more like Stephen Hawking.

Schools who were lucky enough to have computers encouraged their students to use them to complete there homework, using any tools or resources they could find. The amount the children learnt increased greatly.

In the video, Mitra talks about other tests he done, in India, Africa, Italy and the UK, with impressive results. What he has found, is that with the right resources and within the right environment, children can learn much without the aid of a teacher.

Open Source Learning

I have always had an interested in the Open Source movement, including things like Creative Commons and the public domain. In my opinion, knowledge and culture should be free and accessible to everyone. It is very damaging to restrict these fundamental elements of our society from people - it is the dissemination of culture and knowledge through the ages which makes us the people we are today.

So this video below (been watching a lot today) is interesting as it talks about an Open Source Learning initiative. In it, Richard Baraniuk talks through Connexions, an online, open source education system which is written collaboratively; edited, mixed and built upon by many people. It could be described as a wikipedia for teaching, but controlled more vigorously by trusted and knowledgeable vetters. Below is a pretty diagram of the system from their site.

The idea is to collaboratively combine knowledge from a huge range of subject areas and provide a modular teaching environment. Making it modular makes it easier for information to be added and updated.

Baraniuk describes it like "Allowing books in the library to talk to each other."

What are we teaching children for?

I've been watching videos today. This one, from Sir Ken Robinson and animated for the RSA, poses some interesting questions regarding education relating to my work -

  • Unpredictable education - what are we teaching our children for? To get jobs? When? In 10 years time? In this economic climate, how do we know what to teach them for 10 years time? We as a society are moving at such an astonishing rate of development that we can't possibly know.
  • Our current education system is driven by academia - maths and sciences are given first priority in education, and assumed that it is the key to getting the best jobs - if you are not an academic, there must be something wrong with you and you are destined to have a lower quality of life. This has been the case for the entier history of formal education. Now we live in a time where jobs in creativity and arts based sectors have exploded, but our education hasn't been there to support it. In other words, people are not either academic or non-academic. Their minds work in different ways, they learn in different ways, and our education system is yet to fully address this.
  • Our current education system has been industrialised; much like a factory outputs products, we output taught children. We educate children in batches - by age, in separate facilities which focus on specific topics. This regimented approach to education does not reflect the myriad and diverse nature of the human mind.
  • Divergent thinking is the essential capacity for creativity. It must be encouraged, it must be stimulated in all subjects.
  • "Collaboration is the stuff of growth"

Watch the video and awesome animations below:


Design Based Learning, But Extended

This is about a year old, but is something I have just found.

Emily Pilloton did a TED talk in July last year called teaching design for change, where herself and her company Studio H (odd name, I know) aims to improve run down, rural communities by implementing design into education. She bases her methodology on 6 rules...

  1. Design Through Action
  2. Design with, not for
  3. Design systems, not stuff
  4. Document, share and measure
  5. Start locally, Scale globally
  6. Build
She talks about redesigning education; using creative tools to connect with kids and immerse them in their taught material.

A key point that struck me was when she talks about "Design as Education". Based upon Design Based Learning (DBL), but instead of making in-class papier mache volcanos, use the taught material to make projects within the community, that gives something back to the town and at the same time gives a very real-life scenario for the children to see the benefit of their work. 

More info HERE

Monday, 7 November 2011

Hardware meets apps

Ok, so the Lego Mindstorms NXT robot kit I got last week is an awesome plaything, but it also packs some cool features, namely Bluetooth support. This opens it up to being controlled by (or controlling) all sorts of things, including PC's, tablets, phones and iPods.

In this demonstration I built the shooter bot (one of the several robot variations that are in the kit instructions) and have controlled it with my android phone, with an app built in App Inventor (see previous post about that).

I have to admit, the blocks (code) that I used in app inventor were not all my work. I gave it a shot, but even with a nice graphical block interface, there are some complicated processes you need to go through to make this work, like the Bluetooth connectivity, and the control statements to command the motors. So I got a headstart using sample code from The AI Repository, a folder of pre-built programs you can load straight into App Inventor.

I made some changes, added some extra buttons, arranged them into a directional layout and put in an "Action" button, for any functionality the front motor has.

Anyway, here's a little video of it working below, it's shooting stuff and spinning around. While Your watching it, chill out to some dub reggae in the background.

App inventor > Java Bridge

I've been using app inventor on and off for a few weeks now, and its pretty good. As a graphical way of realising code blocks, it does a great job, while still retaining the logical thinking required in real code writing. But, as an educational tool, is it the best way? Surely it isn't very applicable to the real world, and not good for people who actually want to learn to code?

Some developers in the AppInventor forum have created an AppInventor to Java bridge. This means that students who start with App Inventor can use these graphic block components in the Java-based Android SDK. The student can use as many or as few as they like until they start feeling more comfortable with the Java environment, thus graduating the transition. An ongoing project.

More can be found here

Tuesday, 1 November 2011


A package arrived for me today, a Lego Mindstorms NXT kit! With these things you can build robots, program them on a computer and even control it with apps made in App Inventor. A great example of mechanical prototyping and interface design in a package that effortlessly connects with students of all ages? Maybe. But who cares? I'm busy re-living my childhood.

Friday, 28 October 2011

The Science Behind Day-Dreaming

Interesting article on the science behind why our mind wanders. I think we can all be blamed for a bit of off-topic thought adventures. But some of the worst day dreamers may have a good excuse. Apparently a wondering mind is a creative window of opportunity. According to the linked article, we spend 46.9% of our time daydreaming, usually because we are bored, disinterested, or have nothing stimulating to think about.

This seems true. Remember the four B's of inspiration? Bed, Bath, Bar & Bog - the 4 most likely places you'll come up with an idea, probably because your not focused on anything in particular, drifting between consciousnesses.

What does this have to do with lessons? How do we discourage boredom in class? Keep students stimulated, even the ones with little interest in the subject?
Or do we encourage a bit of day dreaming? While still keeping that bit of meta-awareness to be able to capture any bright ideas that come out of it...

Dirt-cheap tablet

Following on from the OLPC, the indian government has released a subsidised $35 tablet to distribute around their schools. Subsidised maybe, but not by much - $60 is its retail price, amazingly cheap for any touch screen tablet. Android OS, resistive 7" screen, Wifi, GPRS modem, 256GB ram, 2GB internal storage (expandable). Pretty good!

India is already a well known source of cheap app development, imagine what it will be like in 10-15 years time with kids growing up with this technology.

Sugar on a Stick

That One Laptop Per Child project had a little programming interface that runs similar to App inventor, but even simpler. Going back to the days of the Logo programming language and the crazy turtle that you stuck a pen in and watched it draw on some sugar paper on the floor, you can make a turtle do stuff on here.

A bit basic for undergrads, but another example of this method of programming

Side note: The Logo language, developed by Seymour Papert (1928 - Present), Constructionist, believed in embedding contextual tasks into learning (also talked about by Donaldson).

Wednesday, 26 October 2011


"Learning should not only take us somewhere, it should allow us later to go further"
- Bruner, 1977:17

Monday, 24 October 2011

'Learning' Doesn't Necessarily Mean 'Teaching'...

Or not 'teaching' how you might perceive it.
Below is a short but interesting video that sums up part of what I'm talking about on this blog, and what I'm trying to achieve with my studies. It's where learning doesn't focus on being taught, but on creating things and achieving goals - the teaching is a biproduct.

Mike Masnick - Innovations in Education from SAY Media on Vimeo.

Its from an article on Techdirt that, while focusing on the use of Information Technology, also touches on how education can be fun, more productive and more effective. It also talks about how so much focus is given to class sizes, and how it's supposed to effect the amount of attention given by the teacher to each student. But when students are more immersed in the activities and given the opportunities to share knowledge and to help teach their peers, this becomes far less of a problem.

Now, while some of the article focuses on bringing Information Technology into classrooms (and it would, being part sponsored by Intel), I have to make it clear that I dont entirely agree with it. While my research is about 'teaching technology', I dont think pixilating everything from the paper to the pencil sharpener makes for better learning, necessarily.
I think I can speak for everyone (certainly my Mum) when I say that technology can often get in the way. When you plug in a printer and it doesn't work, or when files are lost, or the system freezes...etc. Granted its getting easier and errors occur less with every upgrade, but we are still a long way from a mouse and keyboard being more reliable as pen and paper. And even then, sometimes reality is a far better tool than a touch screen.

The success relies in getting a balance, and not (as Intel would like you to believe) about everything being automatically better if it runs on Bits and Bytes.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

New Toy

I have a new toy.

IR remote helicopter! Totally worth the £20 it cost, even more so as I got it as a gift. Tonnes of fun, and the rest of the office hate love it! I'm sure I can make some sort of app for this so I could control it like an AR.Drone.

In the mean time, I've been developing cardboard containers to transport potato crisps to various desks...

Monday, 17 October 2011


This is going to be the first of many 'end of the week' posts, covering what I've been up to in the past 7 days. Except this one is covering the last 2 weeks, and I'm writing it on the Monday of my third week. I'll get better at this blogging progress thing eventually!

The things that have been taking up my attention has been starting with the research and learning new skills.

The research I've been starting with is focusing directly at Problem Based Learning and Design Based Learning, both separate things, but sharing a lot in common.
Most of the PBL material I've been reading has been related to the medical industry, but there is also much written about PBL being applied to engineering disciplines. Both subjects are of interest, but interestingly, the medical papers touch a lot on PBL being used to teach ethics and morality; an interesting concept when applied to design, as you start to think about the ethical decisions a designer must face when designing a product. Is it something that would be thought about while hardware or interface prototyping? A medical product perhaps?

I haven't covered what Design Based Learning is on here yet, but I'll do a little post at some point explaining both PBL and DBL. There seems to be less written on DBL, but theres many sources of information I haven't tapped into yet. The most interesting paper I've found so far is entitled "Designing Learning through Learning to Design" (Mishra, Girod, 2006) which documents what a teacher witnessed when DBL was applied to her class, and an academic's interpretation of these observations.
It basically showed how an otherwise mundane subject can be turned into a very interesting and productive one when the tasks were to design and build models representing the core principles.

While researching different ways of teaching, I've also been teaching myself some new stuff.
In order to build learning environments around interfaces, it would probably be a good idea to learn how to create some interfaces to teach. So I've started with touch interfaces, and had my first play with Android App inventor.

Android App inventor is a very useful tool for people like me who are (at the moment) new to building apps. On top of that, it's also a very good example of the kind of stuff that would be good to put into the classroom, because of its very shallow learning curve. It works in two parts, like many app dev kits; It has a 'Designer' window and a 'Blocks Editer' window. Within the 'Designer' window, you layout the content of the app, buttons, images, sounds, moving elements and so on. But its in the Blocks Editor where you assign functions to each of these parts.
The 'Blocks Editor' function is the most interesting to me, because it is a good example of graphic-based code writing. In this, not a single line of code is actually written by the user. Instead, the logic of the program is in the form of blocks which the user drags into the main window. There, other blocks are attached to build up the code.
It is just the kind of thing I am looking for to introduce code to students who have never coded before.

One of the first apps I was able to create (thanks to the easy tutorials on the site), was a simple painting app.

OK, so maybe I was never good at finger painting at school...

Moving on from that, I've been diving into learning how to code with Objective C, which is what is needed to code iPhone and iPad apps. This is a little more challenging and is taking quite a lot of time to do. Thankfully, there are loads of resources on the web to help with this, the best so far being The New Boston on Youtube, who does a whole host of tutorials from C++ to 3Ds Max. I'm still at the early stages of this, no shiny apps to show yet!

This next week is going to be focused on progressing with very much the same things. Until next time...

Thursday, 13 October 2011


Talking about the relationship Design-Based Learning gives students to information:
"This is essentially a dialogue between ideas and world, between theory and its application, a concept and its realisation, tools and goals." - 'Designing Learning Through Learning to Design' (2006), Mishra, Punya; Girod, Mark. 

Technology Will Save Us

The other week I visited the London Design Show at theV&A. There I found a company who's aim is to teach the public how to do things that everyday we take for granted, called Technology Will Save Us. Practical skills like gardening, sewing, woodwork, or electronics; they teach them all in a shop on Brick Lane and now have started up classes in Budapest.

They also sell little kits, like this Lumiphone, which I bought of them for £10. It comes with all the parts, all you have to do is solder them together.

It works like a Theremin, those odd sounding instruments you hear in films like Forbidden Planet. There are two LED's shining onto light sensors; the one on the left controls the volume of the noise, the one on the right controls the pitch. All you do is vary how much you stick your fingers in between them and it makes funky noises.

What amazed me was how simple the circuit was. Apart from the 2 resistors to protect the LEDs, it only uses 6 types of components to make the noise: a capacitor, a transistor, a resistor, 2 LDR's, 2 inverters (the IC) and of course the loudspeaker.

It was easy to make and its fun to play with; a classroom-worthy project.

Check out a video of it working below.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The Proposition

Rather than rely on that short little description at the top of this page, I thought I might as well chuck my proposal on here to make it clear what this is all about. Check it out below. 

But in case you dont want to read all that waffle, in short, I am developing learning resources, initially for undergraduate design degrees. These resources seek to teach students how to build electrical circuits, code microchips and design user interfaces in as quick and easy to understand ways as possible.

Ultimately, the plan is to give students the skills that allow them to quickly prototype fully working models of relatively complicated products. We're not talking about them making the next iPad here, but definitely things on par with the technology in your car or what you might encounter at the self service check-out at Sainsbury's (However I assure you, we're aiming for something that works a bit better than those darn check-outs).

Another key element of the research is utilising Problem-Based Learning (PBL). Contrary to its name, PBL is not solely about problem solving. It is a method of learning, used a lot in the medical industry, that seeks to engage students more in the taught material. It focuses on group collaboration, self motivated research and sharing of their findings. Many studies have shown that students who are engaged in PBL based exercises learn a broader knowledge of the subject, retain the information better while also gaining valuable skills in team work, researching and communication.

Now for the real thing:

To develop and evaluate an engaging learning environment, which uses Problem Based Learning (PBL), technology and software in order to educate designers in creating products that include electronic and interface design.

The aim is to develop learning environments / tools / exercises that inform designers how to quickly and efficiently create working prototypes of their designs. Many products now have some sort of electronic functionality, and many of them are increasing in complexity and require a dynamic interface to use. Also, much of our lives can now be aided, controlled and organised using devices that fit in our pockets. Now more than ever, it is in a designer’s interests to be able to know how to work with these technologies and apply them to their own products.

Student Background
Since having started studying Product Design and Technology BSc at Loughborough University, an increased understanding of electronic components, circuits and systems has been gained. It has sometimes been very challenging however, to apply this knowledge to designs in a way that would accurately reflect their intended function. Many products on the market now have functionality far beyond what is capable of a PIC microcontroller, for example. Basic knowledge of electronics and rudimentary microcontrollers are useful, however not being aware of the other resources available can be limiting.

Interaction design has also become a growing interest. The proposer’s final year project has been on systems that involve Tactile User Interfaces (TUIs). These interfaces focus on blurring the line between virtual and reality to emerge the user in their task more, and make the interface seem more natural.  The complexity of such an interface can be great as it needs to take in and process data from many inputs and still provide a seamless environment that the user can interact with.
The Arduino microcontroller platform has been selected as the basis of my project. It not only allows for quick prototyping and easy programming, but also has well supported connectivity with computers via USB, allowing it to control software, media and data transfer locally, and to the Internet. An added benefit of Arduino is the large communities of users constantly developing software and additional hardware that can communicate with the microcontroller. Systems as adaptable and compatible as this can open numerous options to designers seeking to prototype with this system.

The research consists of 2 main stages;
Designing the environments and Problem Based Learning resource’s based upon previous research performed in teaching and education.

Testing the environments and resources, and evaluating the data recorded from them to assess the performance.

Program of Work

1.     Observe the learning environment and identify key scenarios where PBL resources will be most effective.
2.     Design and develop the PBL resources to suit the identified scenarios and their environments.
3.     Implement the PBL resources in the identified scenarios and collect data from users using questionnaires, interviews, observations and analysis of user-generated work.
4.     Refine the designs of the original resources based upon the data collected from 3.
5.     Expand user test base to the wider design education community.
6.     Collect and analyse results from these broader tests and use them to further refine the resources.

Beyond serving Loughborough University in helping to create more dynamic and useful designers, this research will be of benefit to many areas, from schools through to industry and the overall economy. Schools teaching Design and Technology could utilise this knowledge and apply it to their own teaching. This will increase the potential for more advanced projects even as early as KeyStage 3, and engage young people, hopefully encouraging them to take further education or follow a career in Design or Engineering.

Universities could provide more focused learning resources that will produce graduates with efficient, multidisciplinary skills and knowledge that industry seeks.  Lastly, in the government’s 2008 report, ‘Supporting Innovation in Services’, a emphasis was put upon encouraging the development of relevant skills in information technology and the product and service design-oriented economy. This research will help achieve that aim by developing a more efficient approach to electronic and interaction-based product design.

The main objective of this research project is to develop effective learning resources that will help learners gain skills that will be most useful to them in industry. They will be able to use already developed systems and formats in order to create relatively complex electronics and interfaces in prototypes.  From the final year project, interest and understanding has been gained in this area and multidisciplinary skills have been learned that will aid no doubt support any future endeavours in design. The proposer feels he can continue this work and further the subject that will ultimately benefit other designers in their area, education and in industry.
So there you have it. My next 3 years in a nutshell.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

And in the beginning...

...there was a post. Nothing much to say, but you've gotta start somewhere, eh?

In the next few days I'll be updating this with some more details of what I'm doing, and some pictures of the new design department.

Until then!