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“Learning materials are so advanced that they genuinely support teachers in their work” – how the schools’ digital leap was done and what could be learnt from it

Originally published in MustRead.fi 10 May 2020 (in Finnish)

Distance education became suddenly the new normal in Finland and has put learning materials to the test. In this abrupt transition, publishers have provided free digital materials to support schools. Teaching professionals describe the lessons learnt from distance education and how these new skills and knowledge might be useful when returning back to normal teaching.

Teini-ikäinen poika loikoilee sängyllä ja näppäilee tietokonetta sininen lippis päässä.Feliks Perttola studies in the upper grades of the comprehensive school and participates in distance education at home in Espoo. Photo: Annukka Pakarinen

“An overnight digital leap” is an expression that was used when schools switched to the distance education mode due to the coronavirus pandemic and this truly does not exaggerate the phenomenon.

“The biggest challenge was the fierce speed of the transition. The time available for reacting and getting ready was extremely short – we did not have a long planning period or any existing resources,” says Matti Ranta, Senior Advisor at the Finnish National Agency for Education.

According to principal Eero Kling of the Maininki school in Espoo, there were a couple of days for making preparations before the Finnish Government made the official announcement on Monday, 16 March.

“At that point, we sent messages to the teachers and analysed which approaches each teacher could use and how the situation should be managed. On the other hand, the more IT-savvy teachers advised those who felt more uncertain. In practice, everyone had just a couple of days for getting adjusted to the new situation,” Kling notes.

At the onset of distance education, not only teachers but also schools and pupils started from very different places. According to Ranta, both equipment and digital skills varied. The skills of teachers and principals have clearly improved in recent years: in 2018, only ten per cent reported deficiencies in digital skills in their self-evaluations.

“When it comes to skills development among pupils, the results are not equally clear. According to a study, skills have even declined somewhat. The idea of digital natives has become firmly rooted. However, often pupils use digital solutions for recreational purposes and learning-related use requires different skills,” says Ranta.

“The Finnish National Agency for Education does not possess all the wisdom. We directed schools to services offered by companies, pedagogical networks and social media groups.”

His areas of expertise include teaching-related ICT solutions but the transition required other knowledge and competence, too. The experts of the Finnish National Agency for Education have also provided schools with guidelines on legal issues related to distance education as well as on the pedagogic execution and rules of distance education and directed schools to other sources of knowledge.

“We do not possess all the wisdom. We directed schools to services offered by companies, pedagogical networks and social media groups. We have also worked in close cooperation within state administration and with other stakeholders, such as the Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities, the Trade Union of Education in Finland and of course education providers,” notes Ranta.

Publishers pitching in

The publishers of learning materials could see that in this situation, it was necessary to provide equal access to digital learning materials for everyone. Each publisher granted free access to their materials for the spring term.

“When the announcement of the transition to distance education was given, our company – and probably other companies, too – reached the conclusion: we want to pitch in and help schools in this rapid digital leap,” says Mika Perttola, Business Director, Sanoma Pro.

The digital materials offered by the publishers have been hugely popular. According to Perttola’s estimation, the number of digital service users have at least doubled.

Sakari Laiho, Director at the Finnish Book Publishers Association, points out that the input of the learning material publishers is significant also when measured in euros.

“Economically speaking, this amounts to more than EUR 10 million. This is equivalent to approximately 15 per cent of the entire learning material market in basic education,” calculates Laiho.

Ranta from the Finnish National Agency for Education also praises the publishers’ input. According to him, the materials provided by them are considered reliable and technically easy to use.

“I would say that especially teachers who have no previous experience in using digital solutions have benefitted greatly from the publishers’ digital materials. The threshold to start using them has been low,” says Ranta.

In distance education, there is not time for everything

According to Kling, after a few weeks of distance education, things have gone much better than expected. Even teachers who did not have any motivation for digital teaching to begin with have been “nearly enthusiastic” about succeeding.

“Especially during the first weeks, everyone was like a first-time teacher: each lesson had to be prepared from scratch again,” says Kling.

Mies istuu tyhjässä ruokasalissa punaisen pöydän päällä."Distance education has gone well but I already miss teachers and pupils”, admits principal Eero Kling in the empty Maininki school.

The key goal of distance education has been achieved: progressing in a way that sufficiently fulfilled the requirements of the curriculum without leaving critical gaps in pupils’ skills and knowledge. This makes it possible to begin the new school year normally in the autumn.

However, Kling says that it has been necessary to eliminate some learning content. At first, the goal was to do everything that would have been done in classroom teaching and pupils were given “absolutely too many” tasks. The impossibility of the situation became apparent quickly.

“There was not enough time to teach all the content. Many pupils learn more slowly when the teacher cannot guide everyone individually,” says Kling.

Kling also agrees that digital materials have made distance education a lot easier. From the perspective of teachers, and especially pupils, it has become evident that it is important that printed and digital materials are interconnected and that digital materials follow the structure of the textbook.

“The materials of all publishers have clearly worked well. If this had happened five years ago, the situation would have been much more challenging. Nowadays, learning materials are so advanced that they genuinely support teachers in their work,” notes Kling.

The wide range of platforms is a burden

Now that the return to classroom teaching is already on the horizon, it is a good moment to review the lessons learnt from distance education and how these new skills and knowledge might be useful in normal teaching, too.

First and foremost, it could be seen that respect for teachers’ professional competence increased drastically. At the latest now that parents have been more or less closely involved in guiding the distance learning of their children, they have realised how demanding work teaching is.

“Teachers have received a lot of positive feedback and teachers’ work is now highly appreciated,” summarises Ranta.

The fast transition to distance education led to a situation where there was an enormously wide range of different school administration systems and learning platforms used in communications and assignments. According to principal Kling, homes gave a great deal of feedback on this variety of platforms. In a hurry, operations were built from the point of view of the teacher, not the pupil.

“Homes have reported what it has been like when teachers are using numerous different systems – for many, that is an unreasonable burden. As a result, we have tried to bring more consistency into our operations, to convey the image of a single school and not 12 different schools realised by 12 different subject teachers. It would have been a smarter option to choose a single platform but I don’t know if it had been possible to decree that in the initial situation,” admits Kling.

In the Finnish National Agency for Education, Ranta agrees with the principal’s observations.

“We have encouraged schools to adopt a ‘keep it simple’ approach. It has been necessary to learn to reduce the diversity of solutions,” says Ranta.

The actual learning materials provided by the publishers adjust easily to different platforms, but Sanoma Pro’s Perttola understands families’ frustration with the situation very well.

“I am in favour of a dialogue between the Finnish National Agency for Education and publishers on national standards for learning materials. It is the publishers’ task to ensure that their platforms and communications tools are as interoperable as possible,” says Perttola.

What about increasing inequality?

There has been a lot of talk about how distance education puts pupils on an unequal footing, more so than in classroom teaching: For some pupils, the family offers a lot of support in the form of mental and material resources while for others, the situation at home may even hinder learning. Even the fact whether the parents are at home or at work during the school day makes a difference.

Principal Kling has noticed that in distance education, the need for support has increased among some pupils and decreased among others. Distance learning is a good solution for example for pupils suffering from concentration difficulties. It also reduces social pressure.

“I just talked with our arts teacher about how a pupil had achieved a lot more in arts lessons without peer pressure. The results were at an entirely different level and the pupil could analyse their work better,” Kling notes.

According to Kling, distance education could be recorded in legislation so that it would be an option alongside classroom teaching. Partial distance education might make life easier for pupils that are stressed by social situations.

Ranta from the Finnish National Agency for Education also believes that there will be more discussion on the legislation on distance education.

“At the moment, there are definite legal restrictions on distance education. It probably needs to be considered whether it should be made possible to a larger extent in the future. Reforms in the school network and smaller age classes also direct development in this direction.”

Personal touch is important

According to Perttola, for the publishers of learning materials, the most important thing is that materials are suitable for different situations, needs and learning objectives in both classroom and distance teaching. Traditional textbooks and workbooks have also been valuable in distance education.

"The most important thing is that learning materials are suitable for different situations, needs and learning objectives in both classroom and distance teaching."

Even before the digital leap brought along by distance education, teachers used supporting digital materials actively. Distance education also brought increased focus on pupils’ digital assignments.

“Digital exercise materials are very important and highly sought after. They have to be of high quality so that the teacher does not need to contemplate their use but can simply say: ‘Use these’. The teacher can trust that the materials follow the curriculum and have a pedagogically justified structure,” says Perttola.

When digital materials focus increasingly on exercises, their personal nature becomes more important. Digital materials cannot be recycled in the same way as traditional textbooks. An essential question is if the pupil has a personal device available.

“In the basic education, not all pupils have personal devices. However, now materials start to be so advanced that they can be personalised according to the pupil’s needs. In this case, a personal device would be the best option as it could be used in storing materials for later use. If we want to reap the full benefits of digital solutions, there should definitely be personal user credentials and materials that adjust flexibly according to the learner,” notes Perttola.

Ranta from the Finnish National Agency for Education recognises the significance of devices and the shortcomings of the current situation.

“I assume that after this experience, there is willingness to invest in virtual learning devices and networks. However, it is left to be seen if this is possible, knowing the financial pressures that municipalities are facing in this situation,” says Ranta.

Digital technology also enriches classroom teaching

Ranta is also interested in what the results of self-evaluation tools will tell us about the digital skills of teachers and pupils after the distance education period.

“I believe that digital skills take a giant leap forward and that competence increases among both teachers and pupils. Digital solutions will certainly be used to enrich classroom teaching from now on,” says Ranta.

The publisher representatives have also arrived at a similar conclusion: the development of digital materials will get an additional boost from the distance education period.

“Until now, the use of digital learning materials has depended on the teacher but now everyone was more or less forced to take the digital leap. Now publishers have the courage to invest even more in digital learning materials, which will accelerate their development,” says Sanoma Pro’s Perttola.

According to Laiho from the Finnish Book Publishers Association, the digital leap taught us how significant learning materials are and what kind of materials are suitable for each group.

“This has been a trial by fire for learning materials: teachers are known to be quick to give feedback and now our materials have been put to the test. I hope that also decision makers have heard the message of the significance of learning materials,” says Laiho.

Heidi Hammarsten, MustRead