Open Source

Designing learning technology

A few days ago a wise friend and an ex colleague of mine handed me an article on activity-centered design by Donald Norman. It is something everyone who ever have designed (or is planning to) anything, from a door handle to online learning platform, should read it through. Norman writes:

“The historical record contains numerous examples of successful devices that required people to adapt to and learn the devices. People were expected to acquire a good understanding of the activities to be performed and of the operation of the technology. None of this “tools adapt to the people”nonsense — people adapt to the tools.”

In a way this is nothing new for me. I enjoyed reading the article mainly because Norman is a one of the big names in design research and now he is writing something I have been preaching for some years in my own little social, academic and design circles. I am not claiming that I got these ideas before Norman. I am claiming that they have always been embedded in good design practice.

I really think that all projects done in my research group are good examples of activity-centred design. I will now focus a little more to the design of Fle3 learning environment, as it is the most well known tool made by us. In the beginning of the project we decided to design and develop a tool that supports progressive inquiry learning model (PI-model). We knew that PI-model is reformative model of learning. We also knew that there were very few schools or classrooms that were already operating even close to this model. So, why should we design a tool for an activity that hardly exists? The answer is: We need this tool because it may change the current activities – they way of teaching and learning in schools and universities. Norman writes:

“People do adapt to technology. It changes social and family structure. It changes our lives. Activity-Centered Design not only understands this, but might very well exploit it.”

if we were and are doing activity-centered design, how does it effect on Fle3? Many ways. I’ll try to explain.

When designing Fle3 we were naturally doing it with teachers, educators, pedagogical researcher and pupils. We use to make references to participatory design. We wanted to learn from the people who will be using the tool and we did – a lot. On the other hand we use to be very firm when it came to design decisions. The primary rule use to be: “if the feature proposed do not support progressive inquiry we are not going to implemented to the tool”. Here is the activity-centered design.

You may guess that we declined many proposals made by the teachers, pupils and researcher. Here are some examples of these: automated tracking of student’s activities, quiz tool, automated grade books, learning material repository, chat, 3D avatar world, video conference, MP3 player. We just couldn’t see how these tools wold support the activity of progressive inquiry.

Now the question is what is then the problem if there are features that do not support the activity but are otherwise nice to have? The challenge is that also the “nice to have tools” are guiding people’s activities and unfortunately our human’s time is finite. If we do quizzes, fly in a 3D world or listen to music we do not do progressive inquiry. Same time all the “nice to have features” aare making the tool more complicate to use for the actual purpose it is designed for. The tool will end-up to be to be a violin with an alarm clock nailed on it.

So what we are now looking for is that people will adapt to the technology designed by us. But we also hope that people start to redesign it. The decision of releasing Fle3 under GPL is critical. Without it the tool could never be an object of slow, evolutionary folk design – the most powerful design process.

2 replies on “Designing learning technology”

Adapting to (new) technologies means changing. Your way of working, your way of thinking. But there is a good reason why this kind of technolgy is often called 'disruptive'. Disruptive change makes people resist even when the message is to "change or die". As opposed to the Finnish aproach of first starting with encouraging and empowering the teacher, most European countries simply start with buying lots of hard- en software without the proper support and guidance for the teachers. The problem still lies in the way how the educational technologists are communicating with the teachers (and vice versa) about the use of modern technology in the classroom. And secondly, it would be better if we would start with learning teachers how to use this tecnology in a simple way with simple tools. If you don't have a clou of how to use powerpoint in the classroom effectively then why even start with an 'over the top' LMS. My biggest objection with your aproach is that no learning management system should ever impose one didactical model. This would mean some kind of didactical 'lock in'. "Redesign" by the users of FLE3 would probably only mean enhancing the code or the look and feel but probably not altering the didactical principles that are part of FLE3's structure. The evolution of software shows us that any given innovative product either finds/creates a market or dies. There is a reason why groupware/CSCL and forums never really became a success, while the current social software like weblogs and wiki's seems to succeed and apparantly fullfills a need. People didn't adjust to weblogs or wiki's; they even use these tools for purposes they were never designed for.


Hi Paulo, thank you for your comment. You wrote: “no learning management system should ever impose one didactical model. This would mean some kind of didactical 'lock in.” That would be very nice, but I seriously think that being “pedagogically neutral” is just impossible. According to my approach *all educational technology* is *always* enhancing one or another kind of pedagogical thinking (I am not comfortable with the term “didactics”). Technology is never value free. And education is very much based on value decisions, such as “what do we teach, to whom, how and why?” Decisions on educational technology are then related to these. You also wrote: “Redesign" by the users of FLE3 would probably only mean enhancing the code or the look and feel but probably not altering the didactical principles that are part of FLE3's structure”. You are probably right, but actually people (sometimes called users) have already changed the pedagogical thinking behind Fle3. Two years ago we were very much against to offer teacher any tool that makes them somehow more powerful in the Fle3-group. We didn’t want to give any “special tools” (except the administration tools) for teachers, but in the latest version we have teacher’s course blogging tool. This reflects change in the pedagogical thinking – and the input came from teachers. We noticed and heard from the teachers that they must carry very big responsibility to make things happening inside Fle3. So we thought that maybe they need a special tool for this. Now it is in there.


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