Digiloikka and the ‘new normal’

When I was hired as Digiloikka project manager for the USP Master’s Programme, I was expecting to pilot a remote course, taking digitalisation and pedagogy into account, and offer ‘a meaningful alternative’ to the physical classroom for our international students.

Meanwhile, the world changed and with it, university education around the world and at the University of Helsinki. What was a meaningful alternative to be piloted and slowly implemented became an urgent need to be accomplished as efficiently as possible, under the threat of a pandemic. The international intake in Master’s Programmes also had a significant impact on the way to plan our courses: some students might not be allowed into Finland, due to temporary restrictions, or have decided themselves to postpone moving here. How to teach to a multidisciplinary and multi-sited group of international students?

Moreover, an urban studies and planning course requires going out, exploring, observing and analysing the urban as it unfolds itself in streets, construction sites, housing estates, and public and commercial spaces. How to do that remotely? What if a student feels suddenly unsafe or is unable to go out, because in a quarantine?

Discussing with the Master’s programme director and with its lecturers and students in a series of Digiloikka coffee breaks I organized in the spring, we decided to focus our digital skills onto the USP-301 Introduction to Urban Studies and Planning; in our plan, we had envisioned the possibility to work on an existing course.

USP-301 is the first course that our students take. It is a 10 ECTS intro course, which consists of twelve long meetings (9:00 – 16:00), each organised by a different lecturer of the Master. In its physical envisioning, the course had a lot of classroom work in groups in the fantastic Urbarium facility on the ground floor of Porthania and excursions around the metropolitan area. My main preoccupation has been how to translate all that into the remote environment.

I worked with the various lecturers involved in the course, first collectively, then individually, to help them frame their day according to some basic ideas. Through a previous survey, I knew that among them, I would have had experts in digital learning next to true beginners and my main challenge has been how to ‘talk’ to all of them. It doesn’t come as a surprise that we are using Zoom for lecturing and some of the group activities. It is definitely the best instrument to work in a synchronic way, that is, live, with the students present on the other side of the screen. Moreover, Zoom allows recording the sessions that can be later shared with students who were not present.

When designing course assignments, I advised the lecturers to keep in mind that the students don’t know each other and different scenarios are possible, including the one where they never meet face to face, for the whole duration of the course. Therefore I developed assignments, which they can all perceive as adequate and make them feel at ease, despite the exceptional situation. I divided possible assignments into three categories:

  • Individual assignments such as readings, writing a short essay, going out and taking pictures, which are always useful learning moments
  • Interactive assignments such as online discussions in Moodle forum, individual activity peer-reviews, blog posts, video or audio replies (new Moodle feature!) are all asynchronous activities, which might help them develop trust and get a sense of the classroom
  • Group assignments such as posters, presentations, problem-solving activities, which are a great way to work together towards common goals

Important is of course to offer students a platform for this. Moodle itself has plenty of embedded assignment/activities, moreover, we have been experimenting with Thinglink and Flinga with very positive results.

Combining live and asynchronous activities in the course has been a must, so that students that are not in Finland or/and are sick can rely on the lectures, without having to be present. Starting and closing the day a live interaction is a good idea, for instance introducing the day in the beginning and making a ‘wrap up’ and get feedback in the end. In the first lecture, we also had the chance to work with a video-lecture recorded for us by Meg Holden, Director and Professor of the Urban Studies Program at Simon Fraser University. This shows that remote learning and digitalisation has also had a positive impact on international collaboration and on implementing guest lecturing.

The course has just started, I will write a post about this in a few weeks, once it has finished and I collected some feedback from the students.

How to migrate your course to digital 1.0

this is a short text I wrote and sent to the teachers of the USP Master’s Programme and I felt it might help some other colleagues at the university, so I decided to turn it into a post for this blog.
The digital ‘leap’ has happened overnight in all higher education in the US, Ireland and in less coordinated ways in Italy, some interesting reflections about it can be found here.
If you are already trained and have experience in digital teaching, you don’t really need to read further, if the case is not so (33.3 % of my teaching survey responded that they don’t have any experience in that) please bear with me for a quick introduction.
First of all, I hope that all of you set up a Moodle for your course.
I normally organize my moodle into blocks such as introduction to the course, schedule, slides, readings, assignments, some others organise them temporally, according to the lecture dates.
In a course I started teaching yesterday, I already set up various assignments to be done within Moodle forums.
Forums are a simple function of Moodle students can upload assignments such as texts, pictures, videos or sounds and then interact by commenting on one another. You can also tutor this activity remotely, by commenting yourself on the entries.
Very important is to provide clear simple instructions and reasonable deadlines for performing the tasks.
If you are interested in working with videos and or streaming here you can find a full list of alternatives.
The best in a state of emergency is Zoom:
(If you have a laptop of the University, Zoom is pre-installed, otherwise, you should download it, although it also works as browser-based)
Zoom also gives you the chance to record your lecture (for future uses for instance) on your computer or on the cloud.
Please remember that following a full lecture (90 minutes) in front of a computer can be very boring and that pauses or moments of interaction (someone suggested telling all students to stand up and do some exercises after 30 minutes) are very important.
The Guardian published an interesting article about backgrounds and dressing etiquette when streaming from home.
Maybe it is wise developing the lecture with individual learning (having a look at the slides beforehand / reading an article) followed by the teacher streaming presentation or video (lasting no more than 30 minutes).
if you want to work with recorded videos, you could simply record with your telephone and a selfie-stick or with your computer and upload the videos on Moodle.
The university has professional dedicated studios and software for that as well, the UniTube that you can book and find here.
It takes time and experience to get to build an online course and bringing a live / in-person course online is even more difficult, but I hope that some of these instruments will help you.
There are of course plenty of other activities that can be performed through these instruments and with others, these are some of the basic ones. If you need tutoring, please refer to the Hy helpdesk and the university has just set up a page with some developing info.


The international Master’s Programme in Urban Studies and Planning is a joint programme of the University of Helsinki and the Aalto University aiming at solving complex urban challenges. It offers several degree options to apply for, which in the University of Helsinki include MA (Faculty of Arts), MSc (Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences), MSc (Faculty of Science) and M.Soc.Sc (Faculty of Social Sciences).

The Programme relies on a multidisciplinary team of professors and lecturers, with various pedagogical approaches and levels of expertise. The USP digiloikka project will enhance the development of digital solutions in teaching and at the same time will build upon international cooperation. In practice, our project is aiming at the co-creation of a pilot 5-10 ECTS course in urban studies, to be possibly implemented through the collaboration with one to three other international universities. It is of uttermost importance for us to increase the Master’s Programme visibility and international appeal. We have several possibilities on offer about how to implement the course, ranging from working on an already existing one and transferring it onto the web to creating a new one altogether, on the basis of what is missing from our multidisciplinary curriculum.

We were deeply impressed by the Digiloikka kick-off meeting for the 2020 projects, which took place on January 31. There we could see presentations from last year’s round of applications and this provided plenty of food-for-thought. Moreover, it revealed how individual disciplines understand and use digitalization in very different ways. Our project will be inspired by all these possible applications, in the context of a multidisciplinary Master’s Programme.

We are eager to work on the creation of a digital platform, to test the chances of learning about urbanization in an online environment, and to turn this into a pedagogically sound instrument to fuel non-digital and multi-sited learning activities.

We are relying on one hand on the expertise of our teaching community, which spans several disciplines across two leading universities and on the collaboration of students. Nevertheless, to accomplish the project, we also need to even out the digital expertise of lecturers via dedicated training and workshops. A key collaboration in this will be with the University of Helsinki Centre for University Teaching and Learning.

Giacomo Bottà, USP digiloikka project manager