“Without teachers developing online teaching, education could turn into fast food”

Joseph Flanagan, a university lecturer focused on developing digital teaching, believes students should get a lot of feedback with little delay.

Online courses, distance learning and teaching videos on YouTube; the range of digital study opportunities is growing rapidly. New methods of studying and teaching make it possible for an increasingly wider group of people to pursue university studies.

“For the quality of digital teaching methods and courses given online to become high, specialists in education should be involved in developing them,” says University Lecturer Joseph Flanagan.

He teaches English grammar, spoken English and linguistics at the University of Helsinki.

Flanagan is a fellow of the Teachers’ Academy, a network of distinguished teachers at the University of Helsinki, in addition to which he participates in the development of digital teaching.

Five years ago Flanagan decided he wanted to learn programming and take advantage of his pedagogical skills so that, eventually, it would be possible to acquire the same skills online as in the classroom and at the same level of quality.

Among his current activities, he is coordinating a course on text analysis that utilises Python, a programming language. On the course, students examine digital texts, such as blog entries and tweets, and study hate speech and other phenomena with the help of programming.

Students need continuous feedback

Flanagan has been teaching at the University of Helsinki since 2002, in addition to which he has carried out research on teaching and learning.

“Even if you think you’re a good teacher, you might actually be wrong. Teaching skills are not measured by whether students like you, but by what they get from your teaching. Ideally, students gain skills through their studies that they can utilise later.”

“When I'm teaching, I don’t think about what students should know, but what they should be able to do. Instead of knowing, I focus on doing.”

Flanagan structures the assignments on his courses in such a way that by completing them students gain useful skills, such as the ability to analyse text and perceive how it is structured which demonstrates how, say, a political argument is built.

To learn such skills, students need a lot of feedback. Sometimes a delay of even a week may be too long.

“If guidance is not given in time, students may complete several assignments incorrectly. After getting through the course workload, they may not be in the mood for receiving feedback.”

This is why Flanagan draws up his course assignments so that students know immediately whether or not they are on the right track.

The future of teaching is digital

In recent years Flanagan has developed digital teaching and course components that can be offered online. In addition, he has helped his colleagues digitise their teaching.

“I’m worried that if teachers themselves don’t take part in developing online teaching, education may become standardised McDonald's-type fare – everyone will be offered the same as fast as possible."

In such a world, learning differences would be overlooked. When teachers don’t check the answers given by students, erroneous justifications or reasoning may go unnoticed if the answer itself is right.

“Even when using digital teaching programmes you should continuously keep tabs on how students come up with a certain answer. Based on the answers and the underlying conclusions, you should be able to assess the skills students still need to hone.”

Flanagan envisions future educational software that selects new assignments for users based on their previously completed assignments. Such software will be able to check how students approach the topic and personalise assignments accordingly.

In the future, teaching might not be planned exclusively by teachers; rather, the work could be done in teams where programmers develop a system and designers focus on its appearance and usability, while teachers approach it from the viewpoint of teaching, learning and content.

“When digital platforms are developed by specialists, the end result will fulfil students’ needs better than solutions developed independently by teachers. Young students in particular are skilled and experienced users of technology, which also makes their standards high.”

“Identifying with students is the hardest part”

Even though the world is changing, certain rules continue to apply to students from year to year.

“I develop my teaching by trying to identify with the students and their situation,” Flanagan explains.

When planning lectures, he considers which methods he himself would find helpful, paying particular attention to situations where he has had to learn something new or difficult.

“Teachers are already good at what they teach, so they don’t have to study it. Therefore, they have no experience of how the methods currently in use actually work and help students process learning content.”

Methods are often chosen on the basis of the least proficient students, but Flanagan believes skilled students should also be supported in class. They also need special attention to reach their best.

“The Finnish school system does a good job in getting everyone to a certain level. Yet, from time to time, the thinking seems to be that the best students will be fine and take care of themselves. With that mindset, they may not necessarily reach their personal best.”

“When education can be personalised, both the most and least skilled students will get the most suitable assignments.”

Read more about the degree programmes:

Three questions for Joseph Flanagan

Joseph Flanagan is a university lecturer at the Faculty of Arts who teaches English and linguistics. In 2014 Flanagan was invited to the Teachers’ Academy, which supports distinguished teachers.

His personal research topics relate to social media and its societal impact. Flanagan is investigating what we can learn about political attitudes from social media.

He does a lot of teaching: spoken English, phonetics, grammar, a proseminar on social media for bachelor’s students, academic writing and digital text analysis.

What are the best aspects of the University of Helsinki?

From the perspective of students, it is definitely freedom. They are free to choose how to pursue their studies and to focus on the topics they are most interested in.

At the University of Helsinki, students are open and adaptive. They treat each other fairly and value each other’s opinions, in addition to which they are open-minded, which makes them easy to work with.

What are the best aspects of Helsinki?

Helsinki has many of the good qualities of cities, but only a few of the negative ones. It has nature and urban areas. There’s not much crime, the streetscape is clean and services function well. This is a city where it’s easy to live.

Where would you take a friend visiting Helsinki from abroad?

I take my guests to the woods near Herttoniemi, to Kivinokka or for a walk among the allotment gardens. They emanate history.