My Research

Prelude: scenes of my research
(you can also skip this crap and go directly to what I do).

Scene 01

My research is based on Seymour Papert's theory of learning called "Constructionism," which believes that people's knowledge and ideas are better developed when the learners are engaged in activities that involve construction. He also believes that computer technologies can magnificently enhance this learning environment by making it easier for learners to visualize and try out their ideas. Examples of these computer technologies include Logo, Star Logo and Lego Mindstorms.

Scene 02

While computer technology can significantly enhance children's learning, its presence in classrooms does not guarantee that good learning will happen. In fact, computers in schools have been mostly used in ways that does not allow anything in scene 01 to happen. While we like to think of computers as amplifiers of learners' thoughts and ideas*, they have been used merely as an instruction instrument. Instead of letting the children program the computer, schools try to use computers to program the child*. It is clear that huge changes need to take place in schools. We need environments that better nourishes learners energy and imagination. This was the main focus of my Master’s thesis.

* these are Seymour Papert's terms and ideas.

Scene 03

Many people have been aware of scene 01 and 02 since the early days of computers. However, schools have evidently chosen to walk the opposite path. So, what should those few who want to rethink schools do? How do they create impact?

 There are many limiting factors that suppress the ideas in scene 01 and 02, such as material factors, people's mindset about learning, and forms of school. For any intervention to have impact there has to be a well-theorized framework of change. A balance between micro and macro changes is also needed*. Macro changes are often the changes induced by school, municipal, or country level administrators. This top-down effort to stimulate change is quite common. Inspiring examples of changes spreading in the grassroots level are much harder to find. But what is almost non-existent is a harmonious change in both directions. It has been my experience (and others too) that the process of change is biological and hence is rather unpredictable. Thus, going about engineering the change is not the right approach. Any initiative must be meaningful to those in the grassroots level, and should be able to spread by itself as much as possible. Resistance to change is normal. But if there is enough space for the seed of change to grow, then there is a chance for it to gain momentum and create impact. The managers must also be supportive and willing to sacrifice their peace of mind (i.e. not being in control, not knowing exactly will happen) by allowing things to happen in untraditional ways.

* See works of David Cavallo

 

So, what exactly are you doing now?

 

The GoGo board: Nourishing a culture of making tools

The GoGo board is a sensing and control device similar to the LEGO Mindstorms (or the RCX brick) and the Cricket. There are two versions of the board, one with memory and the other without memory. The idea of the board with memory, aka Espion board, is virtually the same as the RCX brick. The one without memory operates by receiving commands directly from the computer. Thus, it can be used to create, for example, a joy-stick for a game written in Logo, or to create physical models that demand computation or multiple media that can be served only by a PC.

One strategy I hope to explore is to revisit the notion of using technology to re-surface the issues about learning. This happened before when PCs started to enter schools (and are, to some degree, still happening today) and again with the Internet. Similarly, with the introduction of the GoGo board, questions about what it is and how to use it naturally becomes a discussion in the school community. Since the mindset of how to use this tool has not been established, we have another chance to seed new ideas about learning.

Multiple entry point” and “transparency” are the important ideas of the GoGo board framework. I hope to see a community that composes of:

  •  People who use the GoGo board in the way they would use the RCX brick or the Cricket. But they are not limited to the “given” sensors and actuators.

  • Most people will be involved in thinking about how sensors and actuators work and how to create one that fits their particular needs given the resources they have.

  • In addition I hope to establish a group of people who like to be involved in the assembly, design, and production process of the GoGo board itself.

Unlike the RCX or the Cricket:

  • The GoGo board uses simple components that are now available in retail stores in the US and many other developing countries like Brazil, Mexico, and Thailand.

  • The total price of GoGo board components is relatively low (<US$20).

  • The design is (will shortly become) open source.

What all of this means is that people can choose how they want to use the GoGo board. Many would just want to use it to trigger something on the screen, which may be where their main focus is. Some others would get engaged in designing sensors that works the way they want (i.e. a sensor that detects when someone walks by). And a few would be spending a lot o their time learning about the GoGo board and may be how to make one themselves or how to design a better one.

If the GoGo board becomes a nice tool that people like to use, it may spread. It may spread more if the people feel they actually own the GoGo board. That is if they can reproduce or even better if they can redesign it altogether. If people make their own boards, then we’ve started a culture of making one’s own tool. I believe it is exceptionally interesting if it happens because, unlike making tools with Lego RCX, the tool can be made entirely from locally available materials. They are completely independent which is a very powerful idea in itself. There are also strong links to Ivan Illich’s ideas of not being only consumer of the industrial mode of production.

This new culture of making tools, whether it is making a sensor or a GoGo board, could be a powerful force that fuels the larger changes that we hope to see in the education system. It’s a new culture that doesn’t feel intrusive to the school system (compared to things like eliminating class segregation) but it still introduces the quality that schools don’t provide. This is not to say we create something that is compatible with school. It’s more about avoiding head-on confrontation. It’s a kind of back-door approach that could provide the support that “change” needs in order to gain momentum when the time comes.

A few questions to ask.

The first and foremost question is why would anyone care about using a GoGo board. Fortunately, there has been significant research done in this area. Programmable devices such as LEGO Mindstorms and the Cricket has been around for many years and a great number of interesting outcomes has been published. Based on these works, I have successfully developed useful programming environments for people to use the GoGo board.

The second question is whether the idea of making one's own GoGo board or sensors/actuators would make any sense to people who are normally just end-users and are generally non-technical?

The third question is how to make the design of the boards flexible enough to accommodate different needs or available parts. This issue obviously involves finding strategies to allow changes in the board design to happen easily. Collaborating with a local technical institute is one simple solution, but it would be much more interesting if there could be a system (such as a computer program) that provides a simple way to reconfigure and reproduce the board.

 

For more technical information about the GoGo hardware framework, please visit the GoGo board website.