The coronavirus pandemic forced the Finnish world of education, and the entire Finnish society, to make the biggest digital leap of all time. The push was perfectly pitched and the landing smooth but then what? What will happen next and how are we to prepare for the post-corona era – if there will be one?
This autumn, it has been a quarter of a century since I started my studies in information systems at the University of Jyväskylä. Earlier that year, the university had launched a key project that was announced to the freshmen: Jyväskylä would receive an electronic campus! Students were told that they could soon study wherever and pretty much whenever they saw fit. Traditional ways of studying, such as sitting in lecture theatres and taking in-person exams, would be accompanied by new, modern ways.
Nothing became of the electronic campus of the mid-1990s. Numerous other projects with similar aims followed: a national virtual university was founded, plans were made to carry out teaching using a new virtual reality lab, and teachers had their new media skills honed in touring media buses and with the help of digital mentors. Despite all this, the students still thronged to lecture theatres, sat exams, and struggled with classes starting at eight in the morning.
The black swan of the digitalisation of teaching
Then something completely unexpected and very unlikely happened: the black swan of the digitalisation of teaching landed in Jyväskylä in 2020 in the form of a nano-sized virus. Everything changed over a single mid-March weekend. What had been hoped and planned for but never achieved now needed to get done. The entire Finnish world of education – and in many ways the entire Finnish society – was forced into a digital leapfrog. And it seems that there is no going back.
How does the famous new normal appear to a teacher at the University? What are the new ways of teaching and working like? Has virtual university finally become reality? Which of the changes will turn out to be permanent and which ones will be undone as soon as possible?
The most important corollary of the digital leap might have been the realisation that many things had been erroneously deemed impossible. It turned out that students can be taught and supervised online, meetings can be held online, and even entrance exams can be held online. Necessity is said to be the mother of invention. This certainly turned out to be the case regarding all the ways the pandemic forced us to change our established practices.
There were concerns that online teaching would slow the students’ progression. In the Faculty of Information Technology, the fears turned out to be unfounded. In fact, the exact opposite happened: more modules have been completed and degrees awarded during the pandemic than were done the previous year, during the old normal. It is worth noting that the coronavirus restrictions also played their part: when the number of available activities radically decreased, students had more time to study.
The digital leap was not without challenges, the most important of which must have been the way physical encounters and face-to-face interaction suddenly ceased as people switched to working from home and teaching moved online. Finnish students are never too eager to engage in dialogue in a classroom, but in my experience online teaching brought all interaction to an end.
Students have also missed interaction and encounters. Before the pandemic it was common for students to want to do as much distance learning as possible, but they now miss in-person teaching. Many students find it not just miserable but also surprisingly challenging to study alone and at their own pace: routines help us structure our lives and going to the campus enables students to separate studying from other activities.
Although we keep improving as distance teachers, I believe that full virtuality will not be permanent, and we will return to personal encounters and unmediated interaction as soon as possible.
The new nature of work
The pandemic changed the nature of work in general. Workdays often lost all their porosity. No longer could we stop for a chat with our colleagues or meet with them over a coffee or a lunch. Coffee breaks were replaced with countless Teams meetings. Somehow it felt that the ease of organising a virtual meeting was often seen as a good excuse to have one. Sometimes the endless Teams, Zoom, and Skype sessions took up so much time that it was difficult to find time to eat, let alone to prepare a meal.
It was often difficult to notice when exactly a workday started. I got up in the morning and took a cup of coffee to my desk, only realising in the afternoon that I was still sitting there – in pyjamas and with a serious bedhead. The effects of tightly scheduled days and the lack of commute and other moving was also visible on the scales: corona kilos and the gradual loss of fitness were surprising but natural consequences of the changes in our working life and of being stuck at the desk.
The pedagogy of pessimism must not remain permanent
Earlier this year, Merja Maikkola, Maija Saviniemi and Paula Vaskuri from the University of Oulu introduced the idea of a pedagogy of pessimism. The key message, inspired by the famous Puolanka school of pessimism, was that many things are bound to go wrong and that is perfectly fine: it would be a mistake to always set the bar as high as possible.
Similar ideas were floated at our university. The message from the management was that the transition to distance teaching was so abrupt that getting everything right would be impossible. The results and the pedagogy would not necessarily be first-class. This was undoubtedly the right message to send in the spring as we were caught by surprise, but I believe that we actually exceeded most expectations.
The pedagogy of pessimism is a questionable approach. If we expect, say, online teaching to be only offered in exceptional and temporary circumstances, in which case it would be pointless to set the bar high, the low level of expectation may become a norm: we do not need to do well, passable is enough. Now that the acute situation is over, it is time to ensure that we will not let this happen.
In other words, it is time to launch yet another virtual university project – one that yields actual results. In addition to staff training, the employer should invest in the right equipment. At the University of Jyväskylä the situation regarding basic equipment, such as computers and phones, is fine but the teachers wanting to produce high quality teaching materials are too often left to use their own money to get the required tools and then teach themselves to use them.
Although physical encounters and face-to-face interaction will return to higher education, online teaching has become a part of everyday life in all fields of study. The material we produce must not look and sound pathetic to digital natives. Interested teachers must be provided with enough resources for producing digital content that is of genuinely high quality. We have the pedagogical skills and the expertise. The recent experiences have given an increasing number of us the courage to focus on the technical implementation.
Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Information Technology
The author is a Senior Lecturer and koulutusvastaava in the Faculty of Information Technology, where he leads the Master’s Programme in Security and Strategic Analysis. He has always been interested in gadgets and the pandemic was a good reason to get some new ones. As a teacher, he dreams of a multimedia course built around such a powerful story that students forget that they are studying.