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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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,"
A strong trend towards
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.
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
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."