A student opens a course assignment, and the first thing they see is a holiday photo of a man in a street in Milan. Perhaps the teacher has uploaded the wrong image by mistake, the student may wonder.
However, the image is the right one, part of the assignments included in a course on chemical risks.
“I utilise a wide range of assignment types, including image analysis. Milan is the most polluted city in Europe, suffering from serious air pollution issues,” says University Lecturer Olli-Pekka Penttinen.
The photo uploaded for the assignment portrays Penttinen himself, in front of a photography exhibition on Chernobyl set up in a Milanese street. Students are tasked with pointing out how the effects of various chemicals are evidenced in the picture. Typical of Penttinen’s style, the assignment encourages discussion and suits online teaching well.
Being there online
Penttinen has worked at the University of Helsinki for almost 20 years. Among other topics, his courses focus on ecotoxicology and chemical risk assessment, in addition to which he provides academic guidance.
“Two things give me pleasure in both teaching and guidance: meeting students and helping them.”
Penttinen provides most of his teaching online. Despite not sharing a physical location with students, his presence is felt on the courses. Students can ask further questions and clarify things which they are not sure about. Penttinen answers their questions, communicates and gives feedback. At times, an entire lecture can consist of issues on students’ minds.
Teaching stems from students’ needs
Ten years ago when Penttinen was starting out with online teaching, certain students were opposed to studying remotely, with some of them even threatening to handcuff themselves to the lecture room desks. Nevertheless, Penttinen transferred his courses online.
“In a way, I’m not doing anything special online. The idea is that courses are simply teaching, not online teaching or lecture-based teaching.”
Over the years, Penttinen has experimented, asked more experienced colleagues for help and listened to feedback. He has spent funding granted by the Teachers’ Academy, a network of top-level teachers, on, among other things, student interviews.
“Teaching has to stem from students’ needs. My aim is to offer something to everyone on the web: a variety of teaching and learning opportunities to students of different kinds.”
In his courses, Penttinen mixes lecture recordings, live streams, small and larger assignments as well as groupwork. He does his best to encourage students to discuss and comment. A Q&A technique where students form a chain of questions and answers on a topic chosen by the teacher has turned out to be a well-functioning teaching method.
The courses also include examples from Penttinen’s life, for example, in the form of photographs. This helps students understand how chemicalisation relates to everyone’s life, while getting to know their teacher in the process.
Answers by peers help in learning
University students do not always receive personal feedback, far from it, but Penttinen comments on his students’ written assignments without exception. He devotes his time to it because students have expressed their appreciation for feedback.
Furthermore, Penttinen’s students give each other peer feedback, with each student responsible for reviewing two of their peers. For this purpose, they are provided an assessment matrix, a chart that points out which elements require attention.
“Students are good assessors, and they take feedback seriously when it comes from their peers instead of a lenient university lecturer such as myself.”
When students assess one another, they get to see answers by their peers and have the chance to learn from each other.
Assignments returned online can be made public, enabling all students taking the course to see everyone’s answers.
“Students take the task seriously and often do a wonderful job.”
When someone writes a good essay or compiles an excellent portfolio, Penttinen may ask permission to introduce it to the other students or to present it as an example on the next course.
Learning is stored on the web
In online courses, the teacher and students are not necessarily ever present at the same time, but Penttinen does not consider that detrimental.
“In the lecture room I will notice when someone is missing, wondering whether the absentees will keep up with the course. On the web, I'm not bothered by absences that much.”
With discussions and responses stored on an online platform, the teacher sees which things the students have internalised and what still needs to be reviewed. The online environment illustrates students’ learning.
Penttinen encourages teachers to consider what kind of instruction still needs to be provided in lecture rooms. Would it be wise to increase online teaching for reasons other than the coronavirus?
According to Penttinen, flexible online teaching suits modern students and studying well, as students get to reconcile their work and studies with the rest of their lives as they please.
“Just for the fun of it, I’ve considered introducing night lectures. I got the idea when I saw a video of a professor reading a book by candlelight. After all, not all teaching has to be that serious.”
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