Presentation at the UNESCO ICT in Education Prize Laureates’ seminar March 12th, 2019.

Developing new technology is like writing a research paper; you cannot draw conclusions without writing the article.

The inspiration for ThingLink came over 10 years ago when I was a PhD student at the University of Helsinki. At that time, I got especially interested in connecting our physical environment and artifacts in it with digital information about them — in other words, augmenting reality with the various cultural or personal meanings of things.

My main assumption was that making visible the meaning of an artifact would increase its value, and valuable objects are less likely to be thrown away.

For example, the value of a historical artifact is defined by when it was made, by whom, for what purpose, in which context it has been used, and what is its cultural significance. Similarly, the value of personal artifacts, such as old family photographs, is defined by what the people and places in the images mean to us.

The idea of augmented reality led me to start search for technologies that would let us explore the things around us by just touching them. This was in 2006.

ThingLink experience at the Fazer Experience Center, Finland

Four years and many experiments later, I called my good friend Janne who was a technology director at Nokia, and asked him to gather a small team of engineers to build an easy way to annotate things images with additional information. 2011 we launched our first rich media image editor, 2014 we added support for videos, two years later for 360-degree images, and recently to 360-degree videos.

Since the beginning, ThingLink has had a wide range of users from teachers and students to media companies, non-profits and businesses. A common goal to most users is to convey information in an easier, faster, or more engaging way using interactive images. Popular use cases include:

  • Maps
  • Infographics
  • Project reports and presentations
  • Learning materials
  • Campus and company tours for students or employees
  • Factory tours
  • Technical training
  • Workplace safety training
  • Language learning and
  • Cultural exchange projects

Teacher education

Over the past 5 years, together with our certified educators and partners around the world, we have helped thousands of teachers develop basic skills in digital storytelling using interactive images. These skills make it possible for teachers to both 1) create visual learning materials for students as well as 2) teach students the essential skills of expressing themselves and documenting their learning using multiple forms of media.

Teacher training at the Florida M&A University organized by ThingLink Certified Educator L. Michelle Salvant
ThingLink teacher training organized by Hunglun Technology at Gang-Shi Elementary School, Keelung, Taiwan
ThingLink teacher training at Strawberry school, India organized by Destiny Planners
ThingLink teacher training organized by Astrid Hulsebosch, Italy

Technology adoption

Brining any new technology to schools takes time. A low-tech approach may sometimes work better than a high-tech approach. For example, we get often asked how can you get 4th graders to create a professional-looking virtual tour as their project presentation? The answer is: because they started easy. As the first step, we recommend that students use a mobile device to take a photo of their school project or a drawing, and add a couple of text notes, closeup images and a simple voice recording.

A viking skip by Delaney and Scarlett
An exploration of Rohu fish by Rimpa Didibha, Sabuj Abujh Shishu Angan Elementary School, India

After one successful experience, students will have the necessary technical skills to build elaborate projects individually or in a group, creatively combining text, sound, images, videos into a coherent presentation. Teachers and the curriculum gives them the framework in which these skills are applied.

A ThingLink workshop at Barron Park Elementary School, Palo Alto, USA

A common goal in education globally is learning essential skills for building a sustainable future. New technology is one of our tools. Any technology applied in the classroom setting should directly or indirectly help us develop knowledge and skills for improving our conditions for living locally and globally.

Global capabilities & virtual mobility

Solving problems together starts from understanding complex situations and dependencies, and sharing thoughts and ideas with others. The fastest way to increase understanding of any topic is a personal experience of a place or a situation.

Technical colleges use ThingLink to take students to real-world working environments. Image: 3D metal printer, SASKY, Finland

Two years ago on International Women’s Day we collaborated with women around the world to create a virtual tour of women’s rights in 11 countries using interactive 360 images. The goal was the viewer could feel like they are personally standing at the street corner in each country, and by looking around, they can learn facts about legal rights, political and economic participation, as well as health care and education.

Women’s Rights 360: Ireland

For many, this kind of virtual lesson of a potentially abstract global topic can be engaging and eye opening. Creating this kind of tour empowers students in a new way.

ThingLink Teacher challenge 2019: Documenting cultural heritage in all languages

The development of global and local capabilities can be supported by improving students’ virtual access to real world environments that are relevant to their learning goals. I am happy to share that to celebrate the Award, ThingLink is in the coming days releasing a virtual tour to over 40 UNESCO World Heritage sites.

· Ancient building complex in the Wudang Mountains, China

These images are free for use and modification under the free ThingLink Teacher account in the ThingLink Image Library, and will be available later in the ThingLink Teacher Challenge 2019.

Universal healthcare and childcare are elements of the innovation system

Finally, I would like to say something about my own personal path as a developer of new technology for education.

In Finnish we have a word “sisu” to describe a silent, relentless inner strength. Being early with a big new idea requires a lot of sisu. Often times, it requires everything else too, financial and personal commitment, believing in the idea though all the hard times. Building a company from zero to profitability carries a significant risk, and most companies fail.

Without having the childcare and healthcare provided by the Finnish system, I could have never started or built ThingLink. Equal opportunities for innovation must be seen from the perspective of risk tolerance and eliminating the risks for not getting the basic services for yourself or the family in case the company fails. This means that universal healthcare and childcare should be considered as critical elements of a healthy and diverse innovation system. Without them, new technology development and innovation will mostly remain the priviledge of men and the wealthy.

Ulla Koivula and Tiina Korhonen at the entrance of University of Helsinki, Finland

Founder & CEO of ThingLink, education technology company for building visual learning environments in the cloud. Winner of UNESCO ICT in Education Prize.