Open Source

High-quality education: empowering learning in face-to-face situations

In David Wiley’s blog there is lively discussion about education as empowering and helping people. To be honest I feel a little unarmed to continue this discussion (see the comment by Jim Ellsworth). 🙂

So, I rather try to reflect the issue through an example from the Finnish education policy discussion. Finally I’ll try to make some (artificial) connection to educational technology and FLOSS.

Today in the Helsingin Sanomat – the major Finnish newspaper – professor Matti Wiberg from the University of Turku, wrote about the University students’ growing demand for more help from teachers to plan and supervise their students’ studies. Professor Wiber pointed out that students are now trying to move their responsibility of making progress in their studies to their teachers. He writes that learning requires thinking and planning of your studies – this is what the academic freedom is all about.

Wiberg writes that there is plenty of support available, but to make it real it requires that students come and ask for help. Students may ask for help in the contact teaching, in lectures, in workshops or simply come and visit their teachers’ office during the office hours. According to him e-mail does not work very well in a tutoring situation. I agree with him. Wiberg concludes by writing that the existential decisions can’t be outsourced: these we must all make ourselves.

Like always, this discussion must be interpreted in its context. In Finland the university studies are “free” as in “free speech” and actually as in “free beer” too. Well, the “free lunch” is paid by the taxpayers, of which majority is willing to pay it.

In Finland the academic liberty and freedom of though means that as soon as you are accepted to one of the BA/MA programs – though the competition to get in is tough – you’ll gain the unrestricted right to take as many studies as you wish from different faculties or just hang around and think what you really want to do with your life. Or you may become a hacker and program your own operating system – if you wish. One may claim that partly because of the academic freedom, the median age for those obtaining MA degrees is relative high in Finland, close to 28 years. And yes, some people see that this is a (small) problem in Finnish society.

Right now the Finnish Parliament is once again considering should they somehow limit the freedom to study. Students are of course against this and have claimed that graduation is made difficult for them, as there is not enough tutoring. To make it simple: tax-payers are claiming that students are lazy, as they do not graduate, whereas students are claiming that they would graduate as soon as they could get enough help from their teachers to finish their studies. Same time they actually implicitly claim that their teachers are lazy or at least not doing their part of the job.

Here we have a situation where there are people (students) asking for help, and other people (teachers) who are willing and mostly, I hope, capable to help those who are asking for help. This should be the optimal situation. So, what makes this so complicate?

Asking for help is difficult. When you ask for help you must show the other where your weaknesses are. It is much easier if you are truly equal with the one you are asking for help and know that the helper will benefit from the interaction, as well. Equality means that both see themselves as partners with common aims.

Giving help is difficult. You must understand the whole complexity of the situation where the other is asking for help. It requires ability to interpret the context. You must be empathic and see yourself in the same situation. You must be able to see what the other really need. And again: you must be a partner with common aims.

If you read all the way here you might be wondering what is the connection of all this to technology and FLOSS.

My conclusion is that helping students to learn, when meaning empowering learning, requires human-to-human and face-to-face connection. I am pretty sure that the fast development of artificial intelligence will not, at least in my lifetime, reach the level needed to empower someone to think and learn.

This does not mean that there is no need for technology. We just need to design technology that respects the complexity of human life and learning. If we spend all our money to build up automated tutoring systems and force our students to use them, we will simply harm them – even if our aims are good.

The same money could be used to develop technology that will make the human-to-human face-to-face interaction more immersive, intuitive and easier to use. iChat AV, Skype, FlashMeeting and the old good mobile phone are all great starts, but I think there is still a lot of work to do in here. And where are all the free/open source alternatives?

If you want to have a chat, feel free to Skype me (Skype name: teemu.leinonen).

One reply on “High-quality education: empowering learning in face-to-face situations”

There are some FOSS alternatives for video conferencing, the most finished that I know of being GnomeMeeting. Then there is gaim-vv, the friendly fork of Gaim, that theoretically supports at least MSN Messenger video conferencing but is practically still immature.There are some problems in developing FOSS video conferencing software. As usual, there is a multitude of proprietary programs that are already being used by many people around the world, so interoperability with the proprietary solutions is very important for the FOSS alternative to be widely adopted. But the effective standards of live audio, video and video conferencing are still in flux. And as the proprietary solutions change, it is difficult for FOSS projects to keep up. For example GnomeMeeting has achieved a good level of interoperability with MS NetMeeting, but Microsoft has dropped developing NetMeeting in favor of a different video conferencing technology in the latest versions of MS Messenger.As time goes by, I suspect that the standardisation of live video and video conferencing will advance so that the interoperability will be much easier to achieve, and there will be more choice. With HTML and still images we already got it 🙂


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