Learning Methods, Tools and Spaces in a Digital Society

I wrote a small piece to the forthcoming Media Lab Helsinki 20 years anniversary book. I’ll post here a draft, unedited version that has not yet go though any language checking etc. The book will be published in September 2014.

Media Lab 10 years

1. Introduction

Designing learning environments — methods, tools and spaces for good learning — have been one of the cornerstones of the Media Lab Helsinki since it’s founding in the early 1990’s. Within the emergency of new computational tools, digital media and networks it was seen that these would radically change the educational landscape of our time. In the Media Lab we decided to have an active role in the process where the future of education is designed.

In the Media Lab the approach has been to enable meta-design: to have activities that create new methods, tools and environments that allow people to be creative and act as designers (Fischer and Scharff 2000). The idea constitutes a deeper pedagogical principle, too. Learning is not primary about receiving information and gaining skills but rather a process of participation to practices of an expert community.

In the early days the pedagogy of the Media Lab was summarized with the statement “hands-on with minds-on“. Finding balance between the “just do it” attitude and serious considerations of the consequences of the doings is still central in the Media Lab.

Timeline of the Main Paradigms of Using Computers in Learning (Leinonen 2010)
Timeline of the Main Paradigms of Using Computers in Learning (Leinonen 2010)

In the last 20-years we have seen several stages in the history of mainstream development of computer-based learning tools (see Leinonen 2010). I have recognized five stages of paradigms of using computers in learning. From those, Media Lab has been influenced by all of them and actively involved in the three latest one. Although we have been living with these trends the focus in the Media Lab has been, already from the very beginning, to the latest stage: social software + free and open content. We may proudly say that in this we have seen and done the future.

Today, in the field of design research of New Media for learning in the Learning Environments research group of the Media Lab we recognize and focus on three topics that are essential part of the social software + free and open content paradigm. These are New Media enhanced methods, tools and spaces (1) for knowledge building, (2) for reflection and (3) for design and creativity.

In the following, I will present each of them from theoretical and pedagogical point of view and then present some ideas on how New Media can be used in them. If you are interested in the prototypes designed in the research group to experiment within these areas, you may point your browser to the URL’s listed in the end of the article.

2. Methods, tools and spaces for knowledge building

In the knowledge building research we have a long history. The Learning Environments research group was found in 1998 on the bases of the Future Learning Environment research project carried out with the Centre for Research on Networked Learning and Knowledge Building at the University of Helsinki. Since then, the theoretical framework of the research has stayed the same, although we have witness remarkable development in it, too. In it the central concepts are the social constructivist learning theory, Vygotsky’s (1978) theory of the zone of proximal development, knowledge building theory (Scardamalia & Bereiter 1994) and progressive inquiry learning (Hakkarainen 2003).

The pedagogical framework can be summarized to be an attempt to facilitate similar kind of working practice with knowledge that are common among expert communities, such as scientific or art and design communities. In knowledge building people are engaged to work together to create knowledge. In the computer science, some of the earliest experiments of computer supported collaborative work (CSCW), were having very similar kind of objectives. Especially Douglas Engelbart’s 1968 demo of the oN-Line System (NLS), designed for collaborative knowledge work can, be named to be the first attempt to design computer system for knowledge building (Engelbart & English, 1968).

Using New Media in knowledge building is a widely studied topic. There are still, however, a lot of work to make it properly. The design and development of knowledge building tools that will truly support progressive discourses, are able to guide students to deepen their understanding collaboratively, that will help them to self regulate their activities, as well as to follow and take different views to the process is not a trivial design research challenge. With several prototypes (Fle3, Fle4) and experiments with them, we have contributed to this research tradition.

With some connections to knowledge building theory there are also topics I would like to explore in the future. These are rich media (audio-video) tools in a knowledge building processes, as well as dialogue and discourse tools specifically designed for organizational strategy work, for conflict meditation and to support deliberative democracy.

3. Methods, tools and spaces for reflection

According to dictionary reflection means “serious thought or consideration”. Thinking and thinking about once own thinking are common methods used for better learning. In formal education, reflection is often a process, in which individuals are writing texts, such as lecture notes, journals and essays.

Reflection is important in knowledge building, too. Knowledge building can invite the participants to guide and regulate their own learning: to think and decide on what is important to find out, what to do next and how to do it. The process is asking people to take responsibility about their learning. In this the participants need both, self and group reflection.

To experiment with the possibilities to use New Media to enhance reflection we have designed several prototypes (ReFlex, TeamUp, Ach So!). The tools are expected to help teachers and their students to create spaces for reflection, to make their classroom a learning environment where reflection is essential part of all activities. When brought to the classroom the tools are formulating new kind of interaction between the students and teachers, as well as among the students themselves. The tools also support transparency and sharing culture in a classroom or in a workplace.

4. Methods, tools and spaces for design and creativity

The third area of research in the field of New Media and learning we have worked lately, is the use of the tools in design and creativity. In this arena we have focus on the essence of New Media, the possibility to program, to code things that will serve you. We see that programming, ability to command a computer to do things for you, is in the core of New Media and with a great impact to creative practices.

We call the ability to think and interact with computers computational thinking skill. In practice it means that when doing stuff — designing and creating new things — students are able to recognize situations where a computer can help them to achieve their goal but also situations when computers are not for any good.

As the research group’s senior researcher Tarmo Toikkanen have present, programming in its essence is same time math and art: problem solving, logical thinking and creative expression. In the digital society coding is as important skill as farming use to be in the agrarian society or technical drawing in the industrial society.

As design researchers we are interested in to design and develop prototypes (Square1, Meemoo) that will provide computational thinking, programming and coding for the rest of us. Also this area of research has a long history to build on. In our case we have been interested in hardware and the meta-design aspects with them. Concrete hardware components can demystify the computer technology and when build to be hackable, they can provide tools for students to take full ownership of the tools used.

5. Conclusion

Diversity of ideas and working practices is good for learning. Students should everyday experience new discoveries and inventions. To make this to happen, we need intellectually rich environments: different people with different ideas. Within the Media Lab we should ask everyday how we could be more sophisticated community of scholars, designers and artists — all exploring new frontiers.

Continuous revising and developing our methods, tools and spaces for better learning is a way to keep Media Lab relevant. Building on what we already know, but also providing possibilities for meta-design are critical. We believe that these are the philosophical, pedagogical and research methodological approaches that will create digital society that is fair and sustainable.


Engelbart, D. C., & English, W. K. (1968). A research center for augmenting
human intellect. In Proceedings of the December 9-11,

Fischer, G., & Scharff, E. (2000). Meta-design: design for designers. In Proceedings
of the 3rd conference on Designing interactive systems: processes, practices, methods, and techniques (pp. 396–405).

Hakkarainen, K. (2003). Emergence of Progressive-Inquiry Culture in Computer- Supported Collaborative Learning. Learning Environments Research, 6(2),

Leinonen, T. (2010). Designing learning tools. Methodological insights. Aalto University.

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1993). Computer Support for Knowledge-
Building Communities. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 3(3), 265-283.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological
Processes (14th ed.). Harvard University Press.

Prototypes to study methods, tools and spaces for knowledge building

Fle3: http://fle3.uiah.fi

Fle4: http://fle4.aalto.fi

Prototypes to study methods, tools and spaces for reflection

ReFlex: http://reflex.aalto.fi

TeamUp: http://teamup.aalto.fi

Ach So!: http://achso.aalto.fi

Prototypes to study methods, tools and spaces for design and creativity

Square1: http://lead.aalto.fi/tag/square1

Meemo: http://meemoo.org

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