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!