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.