What’s needed is education!?

About a month ago, I spent one week at the Universidad Nacional (UNA) in Costa Rica participating in two research projects, and on some level this Mimi & Eunice strip sums up my experience:


I don’t mean to say that I went to Costa Rica thinking that my colleagues there are doing anything wrong, but I did have a rather naïve presumption that the greatest challenge for facilitating change would be pedagogical.  However, as it happened there were other just as important challenges, and the research stay turned out to be very educational for me.

From the UNA campus – very exotic seen from the eyes of a Dane.

The first project is called ” Curricular Innovation of Study Plans in the disciplinary area of System Engineering at the Universidad Nacional, considering POPP (problem oriented project pedagogy) as a methodological approach”. Dra. Mayela Coto and Máster Sonia Mora are the local researchers in this project. Maylea Coto received her PhD from Aalborg University (AAU) in December 2010, but is back living in Costa Rica with her family.

My role in this project is fairly limited. I was invited to give an introductory lecture on the Aalborg PBL model (incl. the particular POPP approach) and to participate in a couple of workshops and research meetings focusing on implementing PBL.

My AAU colleague, Professor Marianne Lykke, will go to Costa Rica in January to continue this work.

The second project is called “AVATAR: The use of Second Life as pedagogical approach”, and Máster Carmen Cordero, Máster Willy Castro & Máster Dinia Rojas are the local researchers in this project. My AAU colleague, Post Doc. Heilyn Camacho, who also is from Costa Rica, and I are working together in this project, and this is the context for the UNA-AAU course in SL that we currently are running. In the UNA-AAU course, we are also lucky to collaborate with Danish SL designer and educator, Inge Knudsen.

Kick-off session in the UNA-AAU course.

Before leaving for Costa Rica, Inge and I had tried to kick off the UNA-AAU course in SL, but we experienced quite a lot of technical problems and language challenges making it difficult to figure out exactly why things weren’t going as expected. Originally, Heilyn and I were supposed to go together to Costa Rica, but due to unforeseen administrative issues, I ended up going alone. Heilyn went a couple weeks later and experimented specifically with the Lego Serious Play concept to help the participants understand the course assignment better.

SL participants in UNA Virtual’s computer lab.

In relation to the UNA-AAU course, the participants and I spent two days in the lab mainly doing hands-on exercises, and we had a lot of fun. Introducing SL is always such a pleasure, and I really enjoy helping participants discover the many possibilities of this medium.

There are nine participants in the UNA-AAU course, and for the course I’ve asked them to work in three teams. In one of the in-world exercises, each team had to go to a representation of a specific country (Denmark, Costa Rica, and China (Inge is also a Sinologist)), explore, find facts and take pictures, and finally present their findings to the rest of us. Not only did this exercise demand the mastery of basic SL skills, it also highlighted the inter-cultural aspect of the course, and it seemed to work very well.

Setting up the three presentations in the sandbox.

On the second day, I gave a short talk about my research in SL, tried to elaborate on the pedagogical underpinnings of the course, and we continued exploring and trying out different SL features.

I was truly impressed by how fast the participants understood the more technical aspects of SL, but it was also very apparent that the majority of the participants did not understand English very well. Another challenge was the time that the participants are able to allocate for the course. In Costa Rica there seems to be little tradition in Academia for giving the faculty time to participate in Professional Development (PD), and because the salaries are low, many teachers actually hold two jobs to make ends meet. In the UNA-AAU course this means that the participants can only allocate 3-4 hours/week, and anyone who has been working with and in SL knows that it takes time to learn the basics and time passes quickly once you have logged in. Therefore I decided to cut the course literature (for many it would take more than 3-4 hours to read one English text), and focus on giving the participants some good and relevant experiences in SL.  I have designed the course based on some of the fundamental principles of PBL (problem orientation and formulation, student control, open-ended curriculum, and qualitative assessment), but given the above-mentioned challenges, I have found it necessary to play a more instructional role than I usually would do. By the end of the course, the participants still have to present an analysis of SL as teaching and learning environment in relation to a self-chosen target group, but I have asked them to use a particular model for their analyses to ensure that they cover some of the most important didactic/instructional elements. For the presentations, each team has its own sandbox in the air above the Danish Visions Island.

Sandboxes in the air.

In both research projects, UNA has asked us to collaborate in terms of teaching and research. Though the projects are different, they are both aiming at implementing new pedagogical strategies and technologies. Making the change to start using a PBL framework and SL as technology is a big change in itself, but based on my experience in Costa Rica, I would say that the biggest challenge has to do with culture.

Visiting the Poas Volcano.

Ready to embark a gondola ride into the rainforest.

All of the teachers I met in both projects were eager to change and to learn about new kinds of pedagogical practice, and I feel confident that they will. I do, however think that there are several challenges that need to be addressed. Certainly, my colleagues and I will do our best to support these Costa Rican teachers, but unless the management of the university recognizes that PD demands time (and credit), I fear that the changes they are all hoping for may take many years. A very interesting – and somewhat paradoxical – perspective on this, is the fact that education per se is highly prioritized in Costa Rica. There are more than 50 universities in this small country with only approx. 5 mio. people! Changing a pedagogical/academic culture is obviously not something that happens over night, but it does seem like the appropriate place to start, and at least the context is something that we (from the outside) need to consider very carefully when designing for change.

And yes I still do believe that education is what’s needed – perhaps just not only as in “teacher training”, but also on a more complex level and for all of us involved in this process. Thinking about this, cultural anthropologists, Bates & Plog (1990)’s definition of culture comes to mind:

[Culture] is a system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviors, and artifacts that the members of a society use to cope with their world and with one another, and that are transmitted from generation to generation through learning.


Bates, D.G. and Plog, F. (1990:7): “Cultural Anthropology”. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

A CoP approach to facilitate university teacher PD in ICT and POPP

On December 17th, 2010 I had the great pleasure of attending my (now former as she’s back in Costa Rica) e-Learning Lab colleague, Mayela Coto’s PhD-defense. Mayela’s thesis is entitled “The case of UNAgora: A community of practice approach to facilitate university teacher professional development in ICT and project-oriented problem pedagogy”, and is now available for download here.

Mayela presenting her findings on Dec. 17th, 2010 at Aalborg University.

Here is an excerpt from the abstract:

  • The overall aim of this research is to enhance the understanding of to what extent a distributed community of practice approach affects the professional development of university teachers and whether this leads the teachers to promote a transformation in teaching practices mainly regarding the introduction of ICT and project-oriented problem pedagogy (POPP).
  • More specific research questions are concerned with what is the impact of belonging to the community of practice on teachers?; what kind of changes takes place in the teachers’ practice?; which factors support or hinder the professional development of teachers who are part of a distributed community of practice?; how does technology contribute (or not) to the formation of the community, and to the professional development process?; and what principles may be used to guide the design of a professional development model- based on communities of practice for fostering change of practice?
  • The main findings of the study were that the distributed community of practice approach appears to be a productive form of professional development under certain conditions. It provides an environment for learning and dialogue that can enrich and deepen teachers’ knowledge, as well as an understanding of important educational issues and change of values, beliefs and practices. Issues of access to technology, culture of online communication and collaboration, teachers’ workload and time have been identified as conditions that need to be carefully studied in order for the approach to be potentially effective.
  • The overall result of the approach to professional development proposed by this study, offers teachers a scope for learning, negotiation and identity formation within the community. The study also suggests that teachers who are closer to the center of the community are able to identify with, and develop a feeling of belonging to the community to a greater extent than the teachers with a peripheral role. However, it seems that both kinds of teachers are able to transform, to some extent, their teaching practices.

Mayela’s supervisor (who’s also my PhD-supervisor) was Professor, PhD Lone Dirckinck-Holmfeld (Aalborg University), whereas the examining committee consisted of Maite Capra (Univercidad Nacional Costa Rica), Marianne Lykke (Aalborg University), and Etienne Wenger.

Similing faces after the very successful defense: Lykke, Wenger – Mayela Coto – Capra and Dirckinck-Holmfeld

It’s a pretty long thesis, but well worth the read :-)


COMBLE meeting in Poland

Tomorrow my ELL colleague, Heilyn Camacho and I will be going to Poland to meet our partners from the COMBLE project. As part of the COMBLE project Heilyn and I are responsible for developing, implementing and testing a course that aims at educating future trainers in blended learning, and we will be giving a stat on our work and ideas:

We’ve chosen Problem Based Learning (PBL) as the overall pedagogical strategy for the course, and this is by no means a coincidence. When Aalborg University was founded in 1974 it was based on ideas of learning-by-doing and experiential learning that has evolved into a  strategy called Problem Oriented Project Pedagogy (POPP), which can be seen as a particular branch of PBL. The strategy is fundamentally based on group work, and it will be especially interesting to watch how this strategy works in a pure online course. This is also one of the main reasons for using SL in the course, because we hope SL will give the participants a strong sense of presence and co-presence in the learning environment that also consists of Moodle and different web 2.0 technologies.

The course is set to kick-off mid April and Heilyn and I will be working on setting up the Moodle environment and finding relevant places/people to visit in SL. It has not yet been decided where the main teaching and learning activites in SL will take place, but our Polish partners own an island, which we might use.

This course is the second case in my PhD, and in contrast to the MIL course I will not be the only teacher, since we’ve planned that some of my ELL colleagues, incl. Heilyn will teach in-world. This will give me an opportunity to get some feedback and different perspectives on teaching in-world, which I think will be very valuable for my PhD work, so I’m really looking forward to running this course :-)


Design and Education Thinking with Gregory and Moholy-Nagy

This week I’ve been attending both a seminar and a PhD course with Judith Gregory, Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology and Anne Marie Kanstrup, Department of Communication and Psychology, Aalborg University. This post is mainly an overview of my impressions from the seminar – I’ll return to more explicit content issues and a few but very important decisions I’ve made based on especially the PhD course.

On Tuesday, January 13th Gregory was invited to speak at an internal ELL seminar. Besides Gregory, Kanstrup and ELL’s leader, Lone Dirckinck-Holmfeld (my main PhD supervisor) we were 8 PhD candidates and researchers from ELL and two researchers from Department of Development and Planning. After Dirckinck-Holmfeld had given a short introduction to ELL and the general research and educational /pedagogical strategies of Aalborg University, we all described our research interests to give Gregory an overview of the multidisciplinary field we’re working in.

Colleagues in the E-Learning Lab

Gregory then introduced her background, which in the short version includes the following:

  • Institute of Design, IIT, Chicago (since 2005)
  • University of Oslo, Department of Informatics (2001-2005 faculty, 1999-2000 research fellow)
  • Oslo School of Architecture & Design (2003-2006 Professor II, Doctoral Research)
  • Ph.D. in Communication, University of California-San Diego (2000) (Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition & 3 areas)

When describing her current research interest, it became evident that we would be able to find common ground in many areas:

  • Formal scientific contributions and social commitments & social inclusion
  • Transdisciplinarity in design: thinking across domains & disciplines
  • Social practices basis for understanding users
  • International and inter-cultural collaboration
  • Reciprocal understanding across context
  • Design for negotiation of disparate logics

Judith Gregory

Besides showing us a number of very interesting case studies she has been involved in, Gregory also shared a very thoughtful and quite progressive statement from the prospectus brochure made by the founder of the School of Design (Institute as of 1944), Lázló Moholy-Nagy back in 1939:

Moholy-Nagy’s 1939 statement

Unfortunately this picture is rather unclear, but what I found especially remarkable was Moholy-Nagy’s thoughts on the teacher-student relationship and the potential fruitful learning process:

In the School of Design, the student’s self-expression is never compared with the work of a past “genius”. On the contrary, instead of studying the master, the student is encouraged and urged to study that which the great man himself studied in his day – those fundamental principles and facts on which all design of all times is based. Instead of relying on some other man (however ingenious) to describe truth to him, the student here must study here first of all the truth itself. Just as the genius of old had to do, the student must “strike down to bed rock” and build upward for himself, within himself, gaining that happy status of self-experience and experimentation which is the true source of creative achievements.

Then he is ready to study tradition and the contributions of bygones geniuses, enriching his own knowledge by the fruits of their discoveries.

On a more personal level, Gregory told us that her father actually studied under Moholy-Nagy, and that this was one of the reasons why she had found it difficult not to accept the offer of coming to work at the Institute of Design when she was given that opportunity. Another more professional reason for working at the institute was that it has continued to honor and respect the pedagogical foundations of Moholy-Nagy.

moholy-nagy_portrait2Lucia Moholy, László Moholy-Nagy
1926 © Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin

In a truly inspiring paper on Moholy-Nagy’s Design Pedagogy, Findelli (1990) describes how Moholy-Nagy developed his pedagogy based on Bauhaus pedagogy, Goethe’s Naturphilosphie and Dewey’s pragmatism.

In bridging the social responsibility with a scientific method based on intuition and problem based experimentation facilitated by a nondirective, noninterventionist, and nonviolent teacher it’s my impression that Moholy-Nagy managed to found a visionary pedagogical philosophy and practice that must have been (and maybe still is) quite provocative and radical to many educators. Findelly (1990:19) concludes that “the general pedagogical approach of Moholy-Nagy, if correctly adapted to the new circumstances, still constitutes a valid preparation toward the tasks that await future designers”. So let me finish this post by quoting Moholy-Nagy once again, this time on his thoughts on designers:

To be a designer means not only to sensibly manipulate techniques and analyze production processes, but also to accept the concomitant social obligations … Thus quality of design is dependent not alone on function, science, and technological processes, but also upon social consciousness. (from Findelli. 1990:19)

Personally, I could rather easily replace designer and design with educator and education hereby deducing that educators are a certain type of designers!

After the seminar we were all invited to Dirckinck-Holmfeld and her husband Arne Remmen’s house for dinner where we continued more informal talks on design, education, politics and democracy, which was a beautiful way to end a perfect day :-)

Lone and Arne’s kitchen



Findelli, A. (1990): Moholy-Nagy’s Design Pedagogy in Chicago (1937-46)
Design Issues, Vol. 7, No. 1, Educating the Designer (Autumn, 1990), pp 4-19
The MIT Press

Design Thinking and Informatics

Next week I’ll participate in a 2 day PhD course on”Design Thinking and Informatics” at HCCI-Doctoral research programme in Human Centered Communication and Informatics, Aalborg University. Course lecturers are Judith Gregory, Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology & Anne Marie Kanstrup, Department of Communication and Psychology, Aalborg University.

Day one focuses on design thinking (vs. construction). Introductions will be made to the history of design thinking in general and current trends in design thinking in informatics in particular. Socio-technical, theoretical perspectives will be introduced and used in discussions of what this way of thinking means for students’ doctoral research projects.
Day two focuses on methodological practices and consequences of design thinking. Case examples will be presented for how selected methods have been employed and students will work on how to integrate design thinking into their research projects.

In order to enroll in this course I had to prepare 1-3 questions related to design within my PhD project. In my view design is an ambiguous term. I do use the term in my project, but depending on what area of my project it concerns, I use the term with different meanings. I tend to regard my whole project as a design, and in Danish I would use the term didactic design to strengthen that I’m concerned with design aimed at a pedagogical practice. However, when I speak with non-Scandinavians the term didactic doesn’t seem to make much sense, and I usually resolve to say educational design instead, but this doesn’t cover my project either. When I explain in further detail what my project entails people – especially Americans – often respond by saying “oh, you mean instructional design”. But instructional design is in my opinion related to a certain pedagogical epistemology on which I don’t agree. It has been suggested that I might use the term curriculum design, but that doesn’t really cover my project either … This uncertainty about how I should coin my design is the main reason for me to participate in the PhD course as I’m hoping it will inspire me to clarify not only the prefix but also the design concept in itself. I therefore have posed the following questions:

  1. How can I define (think of) Design? According to Owen.2004:3 design can be described as “a profession that is concerned with the creation of products, systems, communications and services that satisfy human needs, improve people’s lives and do all of this with respect for the welfare of the natural environment (…) Design involves problem finding, problem solving, analysis, invention and evaluation guided by a deep sensitivity to environmental concerns and human-centered aesthetic, cultural and functional needs.” However, this is not an adequate description of my design concept …
  2. How can I coin my design concept so that it includes pedagogical, participatory and technological aspects?

Rheingold. 2008 advocates for the need of Participative Pedagogy as a strategy for designing social media. Participation is already a keyword in my project – both with regards to my overall Action Research inspired approach and with regards to my pedagogical foundation within PBL and POPP. In spite of this, I’m not really sure how to include that particular keyword in describing my project. So as you can imagine, I’m in desperate need of the course ;-) Below I have placed some of my project’s keywords in Wordle, which seems as an appropriate way of illustrating my current state of mind – one big mess!


Another interesting part of this PhD course will be for me to figure out how I (my project) fit into the field of Informatics. At ELL we have several researches working within Informatics on either information processing and/or development/design of information systems (IS), but they are using a quite different terminology (which typically indicates different views and practices) and I don’t usually consider myself to be part of that “gang” at ELL. I don’t really like the term IS. First of all, I think the information part associates with a narrow view on communication and system(s) in my ears simply rings too machine’ish putting too much emphasis on the technology. I’m aware that system(s) in several theories* refers to human activity and organization, but I just don’t like it. From talks with my colleagues, I know they share most of my humanistic views and I probably will stand corrected on this after the course – not least because I know for sure that we have common interests on the methodological level. Anyways, I’m looking forward to a couple of interesting days, and hopefully I’ll soon be able to return with a clarifying post on my project design …


Owen, C.L (2004): What Is Design? Some questions and answers.

Rheingold, H. (2008): Participative Pedagogy for a Literacy of Literacies.

*) Intersting resource on theories used in IS