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The Finnish virtual university offers university students both undergraduate and post-graduate studies free of charge - in contrast to several international virtual universities which function on a commercial basis.

    Virtual university
    -the newest challenge of university teaching

    Rami Saarela

 

New technologies utilised in teaching puzzle those within the profession. Each new application may, however, contain great additional teaching potential. This is why teachers and trainers have the energy to apply new applications to their teaching each time one is introduced.


With the accelerating development of Inter-net technologies since the mid-90s, the virtual world has been characterised by rapidly changing trends. For example, at some points people have talked about eBusiness, at others eCommerce. In recent years, a new term, eLearning, has been the topic of discussion. There is nothing new in the idea as such. Distance learning in the form of correspondence courses for example dates back to the early 20th century. Now courses are available on the Internet.

A few years back, the Finns also realised the potential of information networks as an application which could support teaching. The advantages brought about by Internet technology started to be seriously discussed under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, and after a couple of years spent in planning, the first phase in the conquering the virtual world was ready to be launched; in January 2000 a virtual university of Finnish universities began operating.

Finland has its own model

Unlike the rest of the Europe, Finland is building a joint virtual university from all Finnish universities, based on inter-university co-operation and networking.

The Finnish virtual university offers university students both undergraduate and post-graduate studies free of charge _ in contrast to several international virtual universities which function on a commercial basis.

The primary aim of the virtual university in Finland is not to produce distance learning opportunities but rather to develop university teaching so that face-to-face learning and virtual learning utilising information networks both support studies as efficiently as possible, enabling the best features of both types of teaching to be utilised.

The objective is not to transfer all studies to the Internet but to utilise the opportunities provided by new applications in the best possible way.

Initially the virtual university offers support services mainly to those university teachers who have had courage to draw up virtual study modules. Students will be able to choose virtual studies proper through the virtual university next term at the earliest. According to plans, the virtual university should be fully operational by the end of 2004.

A joint portal for the virtual university

One of the central plans for the virtual university is an educational portal of its own. The main aim of the portal will be to secure as easy access to a university education as possible by making a supply of national and international education available to those who need it. This would also fit in with the basic mission of Finnish educational policy by providing everyone with an opportunity to receive higher education. This goal is easy to achieve through the Internet, since the majority of Finnish households have a computer and Internet access.

The aim is for the first services to be available through the virtual university portal at the end of 2001. The portal will contain an extensive module serving teachers in their work.

The virtual university in Helsinki

The teaching technology centre established in January 2000 is responsible for co-ordinating virtual university activities. A separate virtual university working group was established to co-ordinate participation in the virtual university and the use of new teaching technologies. The working group also serves as a steering group for the Centre for Educational Technology.

The University of Helsinki has focused on finding new channels for co-operation in order to manage complex virtual teaching. Instruction must combine teaching, technology and administration, and for understandable reasons traditional

methods fail to operate in this new combination. New methods have therefore had to be developed. The first stage concentrates on the establishment of a functional basis with a view to the future developments, without unnecessary fussing before a feasible foundation is created.

Teaching staff and the Heads of faculties
and departments are being trained

The planning of virtual teaching must address the issues of combining technology and teaching. For this reason, the University of Helsinki has emphasised the upgrading of its teaching staff's Internet skills, and teaching staff members have an opportunity to participate in extensive courses to improve these.

Simultaneously, opportunities for IT management have been developed at the university. Seminars to discuss and develop models related to strategic planning and implementation have been arranged for the heads of faculties and departments.

The necessity of a functional
technological infrastructure

A second special feature of virtual teaching is its heavy reliance on technology. In the old days, if the bulb of an overhead projector failed, it was still possible to continue the lecture. If the network connection or something else in technology fails, virtual teaching is practically impossible.

Technical support services have therefore received a lot of attention and effort. In Helsinki, support services include a system in which each faculty has a person who is responsible. These people work in close contact with the Centre for Educational Technology. Support personnel and the Centre for Educational Technology provide teachers participating in the virtual projects with consultation and training related to learning environments.

The project manager of the Centre for Educational Technology, Janne Sariola, says that this issue is of vital importance from the perspective of the healthy development of the use of the information networks. "We have made substantial investments in support services and training in order to lower the threshold for content production as much as possible and make use of the virtual environment as simple as possible. When we talk about these services we are talking about people: they use these services and produce the content. Thus it is of paramount importance that this is made as easy as possible," says Sariola.

Support services are also available on the Internet in Helsinki. A multimedia service portal, as flexible as possible and responding to the needs of teaching staff has been developed to this end. In practice, this means a www and Wap technology-based service which can be used when support for teaching is required.

A joint tool for content production

Despite the technological advances in HTML-editors, it is not that simple to transfer teaching materials onto the Internet. The University of Helsinki has acquired WebCT software which is designed for Internet teaching. Technical support from the Computer Centre and pedagogical support from the Centre for Educational Technology have been integrated into the software. The aim is to guarantee the software's security and user-friendliness.

"WebCT has been extremely well received once the technical issues were got under control and once we offered pedagogical support. We have distributed approximately one thousand user IDs and I have a strong feeling that this figure is going to be tripled by the end of the year," says Sariola.

A strong trend towards
future technologies

As a multidisciplinary higher education institution, the University of Helsinki has endeavoured to support virtual activities in different disciplines in various ways. It launched the UniWap and eBook projects as new projects; both targeting at mobile learning. These projects make the flexible study opportunities combined with the support services into a functional concrete whole. The eBook Project is studying the use of electronic books in research and studying environments and also aims to develop the publishing skills of the university researchers and university teaching staff. The project is helping to test the production of electronic books in the university environment.

The new Wap mobile phones make virtual studies possible irrespective of time and place. Teachers can produce material in real-time inside or outside the university, and transmit learning materials for students directly onto the Internet by using wireless connections. By using Wap applications students and teachers can, for example, check exam results or the location and time of a lecture.

The UniWap project also aims to help the user to obtain flexible support services whether they have a Wap mobile phone, a computer or a communicator.

According to project manager Janne Sariola the first pilot phase of UniWap, involving ten teachers, has begun in February. "The pilot phase of UniWap will involve only teachers, and students will join the project when the service is more sophisticated," says Sariola when talking about the Uniwap project's progress.

The University of Helsinki has good Internet TV facilities, and test broadcasts are often transmitted. Sariola says that the goal is not merely to broadcast live lectures through the Internet. "The best opportunities of the Internet TV are provided by editing the footage afterwards, leaving only the most significant issues to be broadcast. We have already had good results from this."

The greatest challenge for the virtual university is to prove that virtual teaching is more than a mere fad, likely to be forgotten in a couple of years' time, but rather a means to bring added value to teaching. Teaching through the Internet still has to find its place in the intermediary area of correspondence courses and face-to-face lecturing. The experience gained so far, however, proves that virtual teaching has established its position, at least in the teaching provided by Finnish universities.

Other forms of virtual
teaching in Helsinki

While the virtual university is still concentrating on developing support services for teaching, the Open University of the University of Helsinki has taken the next step: it offers virtual study modules to be completed solely on the Internet, and in some subjects students even take exams on the Internet.

The Open University _ a separate institution of the University of Helsinki _ offers everyone an opportunity for higher education. The Open University has always tested new methods of teaching. Thanks to its 20 years of experience in distance teaching, the Open University is in a good position to design Internet services. "Within the sphere of open and distance teaching we have had telephone lectures and other forms of distance teaching for a long time. I can't deny it took a long time to design the first Internet-based study module," says project manager Eeva Nisula when she describes the early stages of Internet-based teaching.

The first Internet-based pilot courses were launched in 1996, and the first Internet project proper was initiated in 1997 on the basis of the previous year's experiences.

Vladivostok
CALLING!

Paula Olli is completing her approbatur in social policies via the Internet from Vladivostok, Russia. A distance of several thousand kilometres has not been an obstacle, although it has presented some minor problems.

"Now that the payment hassle is over, everything has gone very well. For some reason the payments I made didn't show up on their interface and it's difficult to find out the reason by phone from farthest Siberia," says Paula. "I was quite desperate since the payment was a prerequisite for taking part in the course."

"It is practically the same where you read your books or write the essays; the Internet is the same everywhere."

Russian information networks add some extra excitement to studies. "The local Internet connection is quite a thing, but fortunately I haven't encountered any problems with the Open University. The pages are quite clear and function faultlessly. The only thing that I'm afraid of is the virtual exam, since the questions are available on the Internet at a specific time and you must send your answers back within three hours. Here the lines may function in any way whatsoever or the system may be so congested that you are unable to do anything. I just wonder what will happen," Olli muses on her future ordeal.

"So far, my experiences have been positive. Naturally I have to drag course books along with me; the last time
I came here I had to bring 10 books. The information network does not offer exactly the same information I could obtain in Finland and there I could visit libraries and read magazines. I have encountered some obstacles, but fortunately the office staff have been very helpful. Sometimes I think it is unbelievable that I am completing studies here on the other side of the world," Olli sums up.

 

Schedules are a necessity in Internet-based studies

Although the medium used for teaching is different, virtual studies are actually quite similar to ordinary studies. Virtual study modules are completed by essays, exams and theme discussions on the Internet. The greatest difference is the fact that students are not tied to time and place as much as previously. Project manager Nisula emphasises the importance of strict schedules; the learning process must be an in-built element of the course. "We are independent of location but unless we have deadlines, students will fail to do things in time."Not all those wanting to take the courses can be accommodated. Approximately 40 students can participate in any one course. If the number of students is higher, the course becomes difficult to manage, says Nisula. The course environments on the Internet are used as the basis for discussions and different themes are discussed at certain intervals.

"Discussions with a distinct theme take place according to a certain timetable. Intensive discussion periods often take place for two weeks. Initially students often find the threshold for participation high, and participation in discussion is for this reason often an obligatory part of the course. This encourages shy students to utilise the opportunities provided by Internet-based discussions," says Nisula.

Virtual courses are
a result of team work

"Every virtual course module is designed separately," says Nisula. "First a production team responsible for the course planning is established. The team includes an expert on content, a www editor and a co-ordinator. The roles are clear: while the expert contributes the expertise within the course context, the www editor plans the virtual course and, in practice, enters the material onto the Internet while the project leader co-ordinates and steers the whole process."

There are 3 www editors at the moment who enter materials onto the Internet and plan how services are to function in practice. "In our experience, www editors are needed because that's the best way to guarantee the quality of our services and regularly update them. We can't assume that all teachers would have the adequate expertise in Internet literacy," says Nisula.

Virtual studies in
different stages of life

Virtual studies provide opportunities for studying at different stages of life. The traditional forms of studying with regular lectures and group work are not available to all. The Internet makes it possible for students from different age groups to study nation-wide and world-wide. Many expatriate Finns participate in the virtual courses of the Open University.

According to Nisula, working mothers utilise the Open University a lot. For some people, virtual studies is often the only possible way of studying. "Many mothers have time to study when the children are asleep but no college provides teaching at 10pm. In this situation, virtual studies provides the only opportunity to study," says Nisula.

On the advent of real time

Currently it is possible to transmit high-quality images and audio material. Nisula points out that the Open University cannot change over very fast to the use of only new virtual pedagogic techniques, although the opportunity to do so exists. "The biggest obstacle to the broadcasting of moving images is the slowness of students' connections in often old equipment. Our materials must be available for those with slow connections. We have naturally planned experiments, but courses relying only on sound and moving images are not going to take place in the near future."

According to Nisula people have gradually begun to understand that the planning of virtual teaching does not happen overnight by transforming an old course into digital form. "It requires a lot of planning and editing - even if the course is ready for traditional teaching. Making digital materials and planning meaningful Internet-based study processes is time-consuming and requires a lot of effort. The medium itself is unable to solve the problems related to virtual studies and gradually expectations of the medium have become more realistic." ß