Aalto University Collaboration Design educational tool Open Source Social Software

Tools (and Spaces) for Self Organised Learning Environment (SOLE)

We have designed some new (media) tools for self organized learning environment (SOLE) and for progressive inquiry.


The self organized learning environment (SOLE) is a model to adapt school space to facilitate inquiry based learning. The idea is simple and powerful: “A teacher encourages their class to work as a community to answer questions using computers with internet access“.

In practice the SOLE class should work according to five simple rules: (1) students will form groups of about 4, (2) students may choose their own groups, (3) students may change groups at any time, (4) students may go and look what other groups are doing and may bring this information back to their own group, (5) students should prepare to present for the class their answers to the question(s). The SOLE is developed by Sugata Mitra and his colleagues.

I see in it some similarities with the progressive Inquiry and Future Learning Environment research we have been working with for many years.

The progressive inquiry is a pedagogical model where teachers are facilitating knowledge building that characterizes scientific research community and expert-like working with knowledge. To facilitate this we designed and developed the Fle3 – software. Later there has been other tools for the same purpose, such as the experimental Knowledge Practices Environment KPE.

The SOLE principles could be used in progressive inquiry learning with Fle3. There are, however, some differences, too. When in SOLE the inquiry questions are expected to be asked by the teachers in progressive inquiry it is seen that allowing and guiding students to set their own questions of inquiry is very important. Students are also expected to elaborate their questions, to find better questions during the study work. If the aim is to educated experts this makes a lot of sense. Scientists and experts are good at asking questions.

The SOLE sessions is designed to be a single lessons (about 60 minutes). There is a time for a teachers to post an inquiry question (5 min), time for students to study the questions with Internet (40 min) and time for reviewing the finding of the groups (10-15 min). In the implementation of progressive inquiry the study project is expected to last the whole semester or even two. This way there is time to explore number of questions, to do on top of the Internet search some experiments, interviews or other forms of data-collection to really study the topic from different perspective.

The progressive inquiry and especially the Fle3 (or other knowledge building tools) have not been widely took in use in schools. Not even in our home base in Finland. The schools culture, as well as institutional and organizational constrains have made it very difficult for teachers to take it in use in their own teaching. Some of the principles, however, are widely known and many teachers adapt some parts of it in their teaching.

I think the SOLE could be an interesting first step to the right direction. Like with the progressive inquiry there are also tools that are expected to help teachers and students to get into it. Mitra and his colleagues have proposed that a school should prepare classrooms with minimal set-up or to have a specific SOLE classroom with required equipment. The minimum set-up is defined to be:

• Laptops for one per 4 students. Large screens are preferable as they enable the group to work together on a single screen.
• A classical black or whiteboard to write the inquiry question so that it is always visible for the whole class.
• Paper and pens for students to take notes.
• Props to make each student groups’ “managers”visible for other (a badge, hat, etc.)
• A space to present the results of each group for the entire class.

In a SOLE classroom there should be an advanced set up and architecture. These include, for instance:

• A location that is highly visible for the whole school community, such as the lobby used by the students, teachers and parents.
• Having a classroom with glass walls so that the entire school community can see what the students are doing in the SOLE classroom.
• Having furniture that enables groups of four to interact with a computer and to have table space for note taking with papers and pens.
• Having in each group working space a fast laptop or desktop computer with fast broadband internet connection, large screen and speakers.
• Having free/ibre open source software such as Open Office and GIMP (drawing, graphics) for students to work with.

When thinking this now, this sounds like our design research studio at the Media Lab Helsinki. It’s not an office, neither a laboratory. We do not work that much in groups in front of a single computer as it is proposed in SOLE, but once in a whole we share things on a big screen. We have, at some point, also experiment with pair programming (agile) where there are two people in front of a single computer.

We try to practice expert-like research work. This also requires more ownership on the space. We want to have our own books, articles, papers etc. on our own desks. When work requires months or even years of analysis, design, re-design and reflection you need your own space for it.

This makes me wonder. Would it be possible to provide students their own “research desk”they may have for the whole year? Could the SOLE classroom be something where one do not just visit when it is the SOLE lesson but something where there are also individual research desks in addition to the group work desks. This way the space could serve also more long-lasting progressive inquiry.

I think the tools presented in the video above could be useful in, both in the SOLE classroom activities and in a progressive inquiry. We will try. Then we will know.

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