Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Boycott Elsevier

Some academics have put together a boycott against Elsevier Journals. They are against 3 things:

  1. The high cost of the journals
  2. The expensive 'bundles' that they force libraries to buy, even if they dont want them all
  3. The fact they support SOPA, PIPA and the Research Works Act (RWA)
Now I'm always for anything that encourages the free-flow of information, and this is no exception. Not only am I against SOPA and PIPA, but the RWA tries to restrict free, open access to state funded journals - journals that the public has paid for anyway. 

Plus, I wholeheartedly believe that knowledge is power, but currently powerful only to the few who lock it away. Knowledge and ideas are what allows us as a civilisation to grow and develop, and restricting it to only those who are able or willing to pay for it is at a detriment to our progress.

I dont expect to have anything to do with Elsevier in my next 3 years, regardless of this list, but I'm adding my name to it to help the momentum and to (hopefully) show other journals that this issue is not taken lightly.

Read a little more about it here, and sign the thing here. Already over 2000 signatures.

Michael Gove Suggesting D&T Limits Progress

This is Michael Gove pretty broadly calling all Design and Technology purely vocational, and suggesting that it limits a students capacity to progress afterwards.

While I agree a GCSE in 'Nail Technology' is going to have limited applications when looking for jobs, broadly saying all D&T limits capacity compared to the core subjects is a huge generalisation. Completely overseeing the key skills which D&T (like Product Design and Resistant Materials) provides is frankly being blind.

Where in the core subjects do you learn the kind of contextualised problem solving that D&T provides? How about industrial processes and manufacturing techniques? All very applicable in a huge number of courses and jobs.

Along with them downgrading Engineering Diplomas, it shows that the government has a poor idea of the skills thats needed to get this country out of the state it in.

Sunday, 29 January 2012


"You can't think seriously about thinking without thinking about thinking about something"
- Seymour Papert

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Why its important to prototype

Some early prototypes are purely aesthetic. I made one for my final year project
When we have ideas down on paper, they are in essence theoretical. But theories cant be proven or debunked without them being tested out in practice. No amount of theory can ever say for certain if it will work in practice because no matter how hard you try, it is impossible to consider all possible factors.

External factors can range from a large number of things. In architecture, they are more likely to be based on environmental factors, such as ground movements, temperature wind and rain. Products are going to be more focused on external factors in the form of a human and how they interact with it (people are probably harder to predict than the weather).

Secondly, when designing products or electronic circuits, there can be a lot of guess work involved; certain parameters just cant be fully defined until you know how the whole system is going to react. It is there for imperative to test the system.

In fact, if anything man-made breaks or goes wrong it is always because the factor that caused it was not foreseen by the designer, or they failed to act upon it. If you try to open a beer can and the ring pull breaks off, its because that certain manufacturing defect was not taken into account. If you stand on a chair to fit a lightbulb and you put your leg through the seat, its because it was not designed to take that much force in such an isolated area. Or if your computer freezes while your working, its because the particular sequence of executed code that caused the error was not properly written inorder to avoid it.

But thats OK. Nothing can be made indestructible or made to suit everyone in every situation. Sure, companies try to do it, but even the mighty Apple are not immune to major product faults. Every product developer reaches the point where they have to stop developing and release it into the world, onto shelves and open to the scrutiny of the increasingly fickle consumer.

In electronics, some blue foam and Pritt Stick can
make the best tests
In many ways thats what makes the difference between a good product and a bad one; how much time, money and effort they put into development before its released. The majority of this time and money will be spent on 10's, maybe even hundreds of prototypes; each made, tested, evaluated and then superseded by the next, and then the next, and the next...

Even after a product is released, changes might be made in the design when products keep getting returned with common faults. Thats why its often useful for companies to have a warranty on their products, so that if there is a recurring fault, it gets logged and the product returned for the problem to be diagnosed and fixed.

The thing is, if you design something you can never fully understand it until its real. There are so many factors that cant be foreseen, so many things that can go wrong. Whether it's a good design or bad design, its not even a full design unless its been made.

Peer Review In Action

St. Christopher's is a British school in Bahrain that my old D&T teacher from school is now teaching at (he will probably appreciate me pointing out that by 'old', I mean 'previous'). He has been telling me about some of the innovative teaching methods they have in their classrooms, and many resonate with PBL and Inquiry Learning; the methods I'm looking to implement for my own resources, such as peer-to-peer teaching and strong feedback links between students and teachers. The above video illustrates some of these methods and how this makes for a more coherent learning experience.

Key points for me:
The feedback card system - When a topic is taught, students are asked to hold up a card which reflects how well they understood it. Then the teacher can focus more time onto them while the more able students work on further independent learning for themselves.

The Market Place, where "green" students share their better understanding with "red" and "yellow" students who dont understand so well.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Problem Designers

Through my studies as a designer, I've been taught to solve problems using a design methodology. Now I'm being tasked to design problems to solve.

My task is to create problems that have features that guide the user (solver/learner/student) to experience certain things. Like an interface for a car radio must be designed so it is instantly intuitive, the problems within the learning resources must naturally and effortlessly guide the learner through certain actions, thought processes, discussions, dilemmas and internal dialogues inorder to teach them what is necessary to complete the task (and more).

From a PBL standpoint, the problems must aid learners to learn the subject knowledge so the information is concise and flexible so they can retrieve it when the opportunities come about.
They must stretch the learner's capabilities to solve problems and develop similar self-directed learning skills so they are applicable throughout their life.
They must induce natural collaboration inorder to find all the answers and most importantly (in my mind), they must cause the learner to be intrinsically motivated to learn - ie, when they work on the problem they are motivated by their own interestes, challenges or self satisfaction.
(Hmelo-Silver, 2004)

Due to the vast diversity in possible students, designing a problem is a huge task. Two encourage these characteristics from everyone who approaches the problems requires a lot of scaffolding that is strong yet flexible so that it can be added or removed depending on the abilities of the individual students. But ultimately, it will be up to the facilitating teacher or lecturer to decide where scaffolding is required/not required*.

*Can problems have built-in fluidity in regard to the supportive scaffolding? Can an activity itself judge the abilities of its solver and change its course to address skills that are lacking? Eg, Like a book that lets you choose the outcome based on your own choices, a problem could test a learner after a certain stage, but instead of saying "go back and learn that chapter again", it sets the next task in a way that addresses the lacking skills for a second time, but maybe from a different direction or within a different context.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Technology and the Development of Teaching

As Seymour Papert inquired in 'The Children's Machine' (1993), if using a time machine and you were to bring a group of teachers and a group of surgeons from 100 years past into present time, how would they fair at their craft?
The surgeons would probably have a hard time adapting to the new tools and techniques used in hospital theatres today, but despite the new technologies in today's classrooms, the teachers would probably find it easier to adapt and teach nearly as effectively as teachers do now (apart from getting overwhelmed with the increase in unruly, undisciplined, knife-wielding kids).

If this were they case, Papert asks, then why? Why has medicine developed far more than education? Is it because the ways we used a century ago were the best ways to teach? Is it because the pressure to improve surgical methods has been greater than for education? Or maybe the success of new medical procedures are far more quantitative and obvious than a new teaching technique.

Possibly for medicine in many ways, the tools have dictated the techniques. New technologies have directly influenced how a medical professional works on their patients; from making diagnoses easier to making incitions smaller. In schools however, the influx of technology has only recently been making a direct effect on teaching methods.

This, I expect, is due mostly to how the technology is packaged. Desktop computers have been in most classrooms for nearly a decade, but its only until the screens could be projected onto whiteboards did the power really be injected into every lesson. Now with the new wave of tablets, the technology is not hindering the learning experience but complementing it.

The development of technology:

The fast development of technology is most certainly a double edged sword. In one sense it is greatly enabling;  the stuff only realised by science fiction authors a short time ago is entering our homes (and classrooms), providing us with media and services in ever more convenient and fast ways. But on the other hand, the speed of progress makes everything around it seem dated as quickly as version 2.0 comes out.

Look at any physics textbook thats 5 years old, and apart from the omission of Pluto you will most likely see very little difference between that and a book published yesterday. Do the same with a book on ICT and you would have a hard time following it. Despite a PC now having very simliar tools to one 5 years ago, the volatility of software has caused those to be changed and updated beyond recognition.

Therefore, learning resources associated with such technologies must be built so they utilise technology rather than rely on it. Rather, the learning resources must be backed up by a skill-set, methods rather than specific tools should be the backbone of this work.

Monday, 16 January 2012


Tell me and I will forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I will understand
- Confucious

Monday, 9 January 2012


Pin-goo-ee-no, Ping-wee-no, I'm not sure how to pronounce it. But this is a project that been developing since 2008, with the purpose of designing an Arduino that can be built on the cheap by anyone at home. It mostly supports Arduino code, and this is getting improved on. As for other hardware, for the next release they they are working on supporting Zigbee, OTG and CDC, which makes it a hell of a lot easier to plug things in and get them working. Also whats interesting is that they are working on getting Android support, so effectively turning this into an ADK board as well.

What caught my eye though is that the guy who developed it, Jean-Pierre Mandon, is a teacher at the robotic lab at the Aix en Provence School of Art in Southern France. Why an art school needs a robotics lab I'm not yet sure, but initially this project was meant as a tool for his students. This guy might be useful to talk to.

Ultimately, it looks like they are saying this board exists to build more features into the existing Arduino platform, while making it more widely compatible and cheaper to make. I think its worth giving this a look at, at least after the next version.

More info and an interesting interview at MAKE and the original site here.

Monday, 2 January 2012

2012 musings

Yes, the evening after new years eve. I dont know why I'm not in bed either. But I've had some things on my mind. Some things that started with the last meeting of 2011 with Tom Page.

A mate of mine, who went to my old school and is now studying at Loughborough design school is also really good at making apps for iPhone. Out of bordom during his gap year, he taught himself how to code in Objective C from scratch using only Youtube videos and online tutorials, and now is selling some apps on the Apple app store. Apparently he is even getting some sort of monetary return from it too.

What occurred to me was this: That hobby of his is very design centered, from the interface layout to the styling, and apps are being used in more and more products everyday, but nothing on the product or industrial design courses comes close to utilising the potential of that skill.
Sure we have lectures on coding and on interface design, but this guy is so beyond what they teach its stupid for him to go on them.

And this is just one guy, I know of loads of other people who have taken a product design course, and they are really good at something design related but at something that is either not taught at the school, or is taught but at a depth shallower than their skill. Designing has no set rules of what you need to know, so why are modules set up in this way? Sure, there are ‘optionals’, but they still are too restricting with not enough options.

So this is what I propose: One optional module that looks for people with curricular/un-curricular but advanced knowledge in a skill that’s applicable to a design process. You will end up with a group of most likely differing skill sets, so team them up and get them to design something. If you provide the resources for them to do it, just watch and be amazed at what they do. You will end up with a well designed product all round, and a well made prototype, most likely demonstrating all of its features.
It will exercise their own skills, increase the ability to work in a team, and will drive the quality of output of the university up. Initially this increase in quality will come only from this module, but I feel that they will set a standard that the final year projects may likely follow.

And this brings me to how this realtes more to my studies.
Its not a lack of ideas that slows innovation, it’s a lack of skills needed to get those ideas out. But there is not enough time to teach everyone how to do everything. People who can do it should be encouraged to, people who can’t should be shown ways to get a similar outcome with easier methods.