Online Teaching and Collaboration

By Dr. Andrew G. Newby,

University Lecturer, Centre for Nordic Studies

At the Centre for Nordic Studies, we have always promoted a symbiotic relationship between teaching and research. This has been a guiding principle in the development of “Nordic Studies Online”, a MOOC scheduled for launch in 2021, that we have developed under the auspices of the Digital Leap initiative. Therefore, we had already been preparing plenty of recorded material, and thinking how to make the best use of our personal and institutional research networks, when global events meant that most university teaching moved to online delivery in March 2020. While the initial reaction – at least for a few days – felt more like crisis management, it soon became obvious that amidst the turmoil there were ways of looking positively at the opportunities provided by the move to online teaching and mentoring.

During spring, I discussed the coming academic year with our European & Nordic Studies MA students, to gauge what sort of online delivery they would find the most effective. I settled on a certain type of “hybrid” approach – mixing pre-recorded pieces to camera of 10-20 minutes, and live lectures (in order to give structure to the students’ week as well as my own) which were then put onto Moodle for a period (permitting anyone who was unable to attend live to catch up in their own time). This was supplemented by other online content, especially podcasts, (which were a flexible way for the students to learn while taking exercise, travelling, doing housework etc.) and short video documentaries. When appropriate, and mainly as a means of maintaining positive mental health, it was possible to arrange informal outdoor “tutorials” where students could come to discuss the course topics (or anything else!)

For a Nordic Studies programme based in Helsinki, the normalisation of online content has meant that our students have had more chances than before to benefit directly from our extensive research and teaching partnerships. Taking the “Nordic Societies and Cultures” survey course, for example, I was lecturing twice a week to group of sixty students, from a diverse range of backgrounds (discipline, academic experience and in terms of culture / nationality). In this course I was able to use material that I had already prepared for the Digital Leap project (such as short films on Finnish emigration made “on location” in Muonio and Hanko), and the necessity of creating more new content also provided material for the forthcoming MOOC. I got in touch with friends and colleagues across the world to discuss the possibility teaching collaborations, and this led to a series of pre-recorded interviews on topics ranging from the welfare state to the Scandinavian influences in the Baltic lands, and from broad issues of postcoloniality to nineteenth-century Trans-Atlantic emigration. The primary benefit of this has been to give students access to the latest research by world-leading experts, in a way that would have been more difficult otherwise. Even if it had been possible to fly someone over from Nuuk, North Dakota, or Gdansk to give a class, in the past this has generally been an add-on to a “formal” research presentation, and often the paper is two hours and might not fit so well into the course. With online delivery, a colleague can drop in to a class for 20-30 minutes and present something that can be easily contextualised within the overall course structures, or arrange for a half-hour interview or discussion about one of the course themes, at a convenient time – and this can be shown as part of an asynchronous delivery. This type of cooperation, having been normalised, should continue even if academic life returns to how it used to be. We had already been moving in this direction as a way of reducing air travel, and 2020’s enforced reduction in mobility has accelerated the trend.

This optimistic reading of the last few months’ teaching challenges should not minimise the sense of loneliness, disconnection and exhaustion that has certainly been felt by both students and teachers during this period. I have often felt that I am on the brink of a crisis, overly dependent on technology, and giving lectures in inappropriate workspaces (including on a park bench). Maybe when we return to the classroom I will have an opportunity to reflect more dispassionately on these negative factors. For now I think it is more beneficial to remain focussed on the positives, to keep striving to improve my own skills, and give the students as good an experience as possible during what is undoubtedly an extremely trying time in their university careers.

Nordic Studies Online: Summer Update

The digi-leap project Nordic Studies Online has been mostly focusing on video production for our pilot modules, which we will try out within our courses at the University of Helsinki and Gdansk University throughout the fall semester. I summarized our video production experience and tips as below:

  • Training: We first scheduled the Unitube studio training in Alexandria with Mikael Kivelä, who also gave us some advice about technical equipment, which we wanted to buy. Thank you, Mikael, this was incredibly helpful!
  • Equipment: As we want to make videos also outside, we bought some basic equipment (mobile phone stabilizer, wireless microphone) to have a good audio quality in our videos.
  • Writing scripts: It is important to write a script before filming. Usually, we have a draft ready a few weeks before the filming, so the other team members can still give some comments and we can make final changes before the filming starts.
  • Filming: We are making short introduction videos (3-4 minutes) for our MOOC modules. Even though these videos are short, it is still a lot of text to remember, so during the filming we focus on smaller segments and then we edit them together. As I am responsible for the technical support during the filming, I noticed that our lecturers feel more comfortable in front of camera while filming outside rather than in a studio. For this reason, I always book enough time in the Unitube studio, so we can go through the segments several times. Please, be aware that the Unitube has been quite busy lately, as many teachers need to prepare their online lectures. I suggest booking the studio well in advance!
  • Post-production: Make sure that you have enough time for editing, adding visual effects and subtitles. We are discussing to hire a graphic designer, who would make our logo, which we could add in our videos’ intros and outros.

Filming with Andrew Newby in Hanko, 7 August 2020

The Nordic Studies Online is an international team of scholars from the University of Helsinki, Gdansk University and Aarhus University. Our colleagues in Aarhus can produce their videos with the support of the (Aarhus University) platform. In Helsinki, we continue our video production as planned and discussed above. However, the covid-19 pandemic impacted our video production plans with our Gdansk colleagues, who were supposed to make videos with the support of the Helsinki crew in Helsinki and in Gdansk, using the project equipment and Unitube studio. As travelling has been restricted, we were not able to support our Gdansk team members as we wanted to. In the end, we compromised – our Gdansk colleague Maja who is responsible for the Media module, wrote a script and then filmed her video using the Screencast-O-Matic. We will use this video for our fall try-out of the pilot modules; however, we will later remake this video in a studio for our actual MOOC course.

Jana Lainto 


Launching the Nordic Studies Online digi-loikka project

The Nordic Studies Online as a part of the digi-loikka project aims to create a digital learning platform about the Nordics. This project is a joint-initiative of several scholars from the University of Helsinki (Department of Cultures/Centre for Nordic Studies), University of Gdansk (Scandinavian Studies) and Aarhus University (Department of History), and also cooperates with the ReNEW research hub and with the online platform,

First NSO project meeting in Helsinki, 10 January 2020 (photo Maja Chacińska)

The NSO project was officially launched during the first project meeting in Helsinki on 10 January 2020. During this meeting we discussed possible forms, aims and objectives of our project and agreed to divide the project into two parts. The first aim is to develop a smaller scale, “pilot”, version of our MOOC course “The Nordics: Narratives and Practices of a Region”, which we will test with our BA and MA students at the University of Helsinki, University of Gdansk and University of Aarhus. This pilot course will enable us, the organisers, to learn how to use the MOOC platform and how to design and manage a smaller version of a MOOC course. We will collect feedback from our students, which will help us to further develop and improve our course accordingly. The pilot course will be launched in September 2020. The second aim is to develop a version of this MOOC course, which will be open for anyone who wishes to participate. This course will be aimed not only for BA and MA students, but also for professionals who would like to learn more about the Nordic working culture and anyone who is interested in the Nordics and themes such as Nordic cooperation, Nordic exceptionalism, Nordic cultures and societies. We will launch this course in September 2021.

The first meeting was followed by Digi-leap MOOC ABC workshop. This training was organised by the Educational Technology Services at the University of Helsinki and led by Sanna-Katja Parikka. During the workshop we discussed the MOOC platform, development of a course structure and types of assessments. The practical part of the workshop focused on designing the first draft of the MOOC course structure. We have been working on the course structure since this training and currently our course consists of 9 modules.

The project Technical Assistant, Jana Lainto, attended also the Moodle basic training in Viikki campus on 10 March 2020. This workshop introduced the most important tools for constructing a moodle course. Attending of the second training, Moodle & MOOC Clinic, is scheduled for 1 June 2020.

The scheduling of our second meeting, which was supposed to take place in spring 2020 in Aarhus, was bit challenging. The NSO team consists of 8 international scholars from different universities with different schedules and it was difficult to find a suitable date for everyone. In the end we planned the second meeting and training for 29-30 April 2020. Due to the corona virus outbreak, we unfortunately are not able to meet in Aarhus, however, we will proceed with this meeting and training online via a Zoom call during the same time as was previously scheduled.

Jana Lainto