Attend a lecture in New Zealand – from Helsinki

The global and digital classroom expands students’ horizons, while building international bridges in an educationally meaningful way.

The University of Helsinki has granted €39,000 of funding to its Swedish-language Master’s Programme in Social Sciences for the promotion of digitalisation in teaching. The purpose is to further develop the concept of a digital and global classroom, which was originally created at the Swedish School of Social Science. The project is a practical application of the University’s strategic plan.

Kim Zilliacus, university lecturer in political science, and Christian Lindblom, e-learning specialist, have been developing the model of a global and digital classroom since 2007 at the Swedish School of Social Science in collaboration with various international partner universities. The model was tested in 2013 together with the University of Technology Sydney and Monash University, and was established in 2016 in cooperation with the University of Canterbury and Auckland University of Technology around the course Politics Online. This “laboratory course” now serves as the basis for the further development of digital flagship courses in the Swedish-speaking Master’s Programme in Social Sciences at the University of Helsinki.

“The project is the result of several years of experimentation at the Swedish School of Social Science, where we tried to create a viable model that would establish a teaching format based on both online and face-to-face teaching,” explains Zilliacus.

In addition to offering a viable digital course package, the model ensures long-term teaching cooperation in the form of parallel teaching at partner universities, as opposed to the temporary and local forms of teaching that are usually the norm in international teacher exchange.

“The development of a well-functioning model of teaching through international cooperation increases both the quality and internationalisation of teaching, while also rendering international exchanges more meaningful by enabling the long-term exchange of teaching resources,” Zilliacus states.

Engaging and inclusive teaching

At present, the Master’s Programme in Social Sciences is offering the course Governing Online Communication, which continues from the lab course and is given in cooperation with the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand.

In practice, the course participants meet on opposite sides of the globe – the students of the Master’s programme in a lecture room in Helsinki and the students in Christchurch in a lecture room at their university. The lectures are broadcast live from the classroom where they are held to the partner university where students attend the lectures through an online connection and are able to comment in real time. If a lecture is held, for example, in New Zealand, the course coordinators are present there, while a teaching assistant is available in Helsinki, where students attend the lecture in a classroom or online.

The students are engaged before, during and after the lectures in discussion of the relevant topics via Facebook and Presemo (an e-learning tool). A Facebook event is created for each lecture, allowing students to send questions and comments in advance which can then be addressed during the lecture. During the lecture, students participate through Presemo. A more reflective discussion follows the lecture in the Facebook event so as to make students even more involved.

“Everyone interacts with each other, regardless of the classroom they are in,” Zilliacus says. “The course coordinator follows the discussion on Presemo and forwards students’ questions to the lecturer for real-time commentary. During a lecture, students comment on its content actively and continuously on Presemo, which clearly enhances the quality of participation, enabling the lecturer to explore and address students’ interests and feedback more consistently and interactively,” Zilliacus points out.

Zilliacus has co-authored a scholarly article* on the development of the “global classroom” and the use of social media and e-learning tools in teaching. It has been shown that the use of, for example, Presemo is an excellent way to help students focus on the course content rather than other matters on their phones or computers. The model enables a meaningful and international dialogue between students and teachers throughout the learning process.

“It’s been incredibly productive. The system works just as well live as it does in the digital classroom,” Zilliacus says. “It works because students use social platforms that they are already familiar with in their social lives.”

Strength in international competition

Students can also attend lectures from the comfort of their homes. The course shares some features with a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), but is much more interactive and inclusive with regard to the role of students in teaching.

“The big players such as Harvard and Stanford can offer MOOCs by international star lecturers, but we and other smaller organisations must consider what to offer instead. We wish to build bridges with other institutions that have similar interests and resources, and to focus on what we are good at so as to be able to develop alternative models of productive, international teaching.”

Zilliacus’s goal is to develop and systematise teaching cooperation with partner universities that can offer complementary and enriching international environments. The cooperation can take place on three levels:  the exchange of lecturers, the exchange of courses and the exchange of study programmes. For students, the cooperation provides more flexibility and international options.

“If we want to participate in international projects and develop international education cooperation, we must be able to offer well-functioning digital course packages. We have now developed a mobile package that is easy to implement both technologically and in terms of cooperation with partner universities. The fierce global competition requires that we must be able to offer alternative models and identify our strengths.”

The project intends to use the new funding to systematically develop digital flagship courses and a digital network platform for international cooperation in teaching. In addition to the course, Governing Online Communication, which is currently being offered with the partner university in New Zealand, the project is now developing course cooperation with Nordic and Finnish partners. Because the University of Helsinki bears national responsibility for the Swedish-language education of social workers, the model can also aid in the provision of qualifying education to those already in employment (e.g., in Vaasa).

“The model provides added value by integrating the three strategic priorities of the University of Helsinki, i.e., digitalisation, internationalisation and education development. In addition the project involves research as the model will be assessed in a journal article focusing on e-learning, and it could also be adopted in the other degree programmes of the University. I believe the added value we can provide is quite unique,” says Zilliacus.

*Moring, T. A.; Zilliacus, K. O. K., Rupar, V., Treadwell, G., Joergensen, A. S., Larsen, I., Munk, I. & Matheson, D. Oct 2017, “Global Interaction as a Learning Path towards Inclusive Journalism” In: Journal of Applied Journalism & Media Studies. 6, 3 p. 485-506.