Distance education took a leap

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2020-04-01 13:12

Schools all around Finland transferred to distance education in less than 48 hours when the government announced the suspension of schools in the middle of March. The transition in Espoo has proceeded well despite the tight timetable.

Clarity is key in distance learning

Despite the highly unusual situation, our school days have gone well and I have received positive feedback from my pupils”, says teacher Niina Sivonen at Lähderannan koulu primary school. She has sent instructions to her pupils daily and used, for instance, the online tool Zoom for teaching.

“Many pupils have been enthusiastic about the video calls, since they have been able to see their friends while learning online. We have had fun moments together and the pupils have gotten on track in just a couple of days”, rejoices Sivonen. “Clarity is key”, she specifies.

The same principles apply in distance education as in contact teaching. The better you plan, the better quality you get. “You have to strive to be as clear as possible and plan your lessons and schedule the flow of them more specifically than in contact teaching,” adds French and English teacher Tytti Tenhunen at Otaniemen lukio upper secondary school.

The teacher guides the learning process

Ms Tenhunen’s first thought when hearing about the suspension of schools was that you can do all the same things in distance education of languages, as you can in contact teaching: Oral and written tasks, or team or individual projects. The tasks should be creative and open, so that upper secondary students can apply information and personalize the assignments. Technology is used as an assisting tool.

The Google Meet video platform has been in frequent use on Ms Tenhunen’s lessons. At the beginning of the lesson, she explains how the course proceeds, reminds the students about deadlines and answers questions. The students then work on team projects in group video meetings.

“I have also given individual feedback for instance on draft texts and guided the students during group meetings. A main task of the teacher is to guide the learning process. The possibility for real-time dialogue is better when the students can see me on video or hear my voice”, explains Ms Tenhunen.

Distance education contains usage of textbooks and other materials, as well as digital learning environments and assignments. Espoo has instructed teachers to interact with the pupils every day.

Tytti Tenhunen
Tytti Tenhunen now teaches from her home couch. Picture: Tytti Tenhunen

 “It feels like having your friend next to you”

The pupils face a new situation as well, when their days are spent at home instead of going to the school to learn and play with friends.

“I miss my friends a bit, I would like to play with them. But doing assignments in Teams (digital tool by Microsoft) has been fun”, says third-grader Sofi from Jalavanpuisto school.

Sofi got the first instructions from her teacher on Wilma, the digital platform for communication between homes and schools. The first school days at home contained reading and rhythmical music assignments. Sofi has also participated in life stance education and studied with her classmates with the help of video connections:

“Doing math assignments with a friend was nice. I can recommend doing things together online to others as well. It feels like you have your friend next to you.”

Prioritizing wellbeing of children and youth

The wellbeing of children and youth deserves extra attention in exceptional times like these. “Days are for school, but evenings should be taken off for spare time activities”, reminded Deputy Mayor Harri Rinta-aho in a video message to Espoo residents.

Giving a suitable amount of work to students is one way of supporting the balance between school and leisure time. Teacher Markus Kytölä at Espoonlahden lukio upper secondary school is well aware of the challenge: “During the first week, I noticed that I need to control myself. You can’t give the students too many broad assignments to return in one day”, Mr Kytölä reflects.

For children and young people in need of extra support in taking care of their wellbeing, school social workers and psychologists can be reached online or by phone. If needed, individual face-to-face meetings with students are set up for instance as walking meetings outdoors or as indoor appointments, where the physical distance is taken into consideration. In addition, youth workers have increased their presence on online communities popular among the youth, such as game communities, chat services or social media channels.

How to find the best tools and methods?

There are numerous products and services that support distance learning, but it might be challenging to find the ones that inspire learners, follow the curriculum and are pedagogically sound. The National Agency for Education in Finland has compiled a list of tools and methods and local actors, such as museums or theatres, share online learning materials through their own channels. Teachers have shared materials and best practices for instance on social media channels.

Schools in Espoo have used services by Microsoft and Google for quite some time. The city develops the services and arranges capacity building for staff in collaboration with the contract suppliers. Many pupils have digital devices of their own. During the suspension, pupils lacking suitable devices can borrow devices from their school.

Espoo also participates in the creation of new tools and learning environments. On the Make with Espoo Learning Environments platform, schools and companies co-create learning solutions. In the co-creation process, teachers contribute to the development of future learning environments together with companies, and learn new digital skills. Companies receive genuine user feedback to use in their product development. Pupils acquire for instance digital, collaboration and co-creation skills.

Tens of companies have participated in the collaboration and some have launched new products as a result. A new virtual meeting and matchmaking space for the co-creation model will be set up in 2020.

Learning in centre - no expressways to success

Researchers have criticized digital learning for being too focused on tools and software. Although she has used a variety of digital tools, also Ms Tenhunen underlines that no digital tool offers an expressway to success: “The most important thing in distance education is to enable learning processes, in which the student builds and combines knowledge and plays an active role instead of being a passive participant”.

Mr Kytölä ponders whether more teachers will adapt distance learning methods when the school again returns to contact teaching. Ms Tenhunen, who recently finalized a continuing education program on digital learning and education at Helsinki University, is excited. “This is an excellent opportunity for me to use digital education methods in practice. I am sure I will add more distance learning to my courses when we return to school, for instance as a supporting element in individual guidance.”.