Serendip – an Immersive Sustainability Learning Adventure

Launching Serendip project on November 9, 2023!

When we started the Global campus project in 2022, we were given the freedom to experiment the limits of online learning. We were expected to do really bold, even risky EdTech experiments. So, we thought very carefully how we could use our time wisely. We wanted to know what this university wants or needs? What could be something bold that would benefit all the members of the university community regardless of the faculty and beyond?

One of the strategic goals for the University of Helsinki is to advance ecological sustainability and responsibility. The University is dedicated to integrate the themes of sustainability into all education programmes.

Well-designed digital and physical environments for work, teaching and learning will enhance ecological sustainability and promote encounters with others, support creativity, renew forms of collaboration and improve accessibility.

(University of Helsinki Strategy 2021-2023)

Following this mission, sustainability became a topic that would be the glue of our work. In the design process, we asked from teachers and students what they are missing regarding sustainability education. We learned that a virtual space where students would gather together around the world to solve the sustainability challenges would be the secret wish of the sustainability teachers.

Students, on the other hand, wanted to travel in 3D worlds and learn how to influence stakeholders. They wished to improve their skills in finding the intervention points in decision-making processes. Students also desired to see hope and use their all senses. We knew we wanted to do this. And this was the foundation for a bold EdTech experiment, the project called Serendip*.

Based on our pedagogical framework, we believe that learning should be engaging and fun but also at the same time personalized and efficient. By offering students a visually appealing virtual reality learning environment with diverse multi-disciplinary learning content and a chance to actually train the sustainability competencies, we can help students to become the change agents this world needs.

The learning content has been developed together with researchers, teachers and students from different disciplines. The research-based content together with state-of-the-art technologies make an engaging learning experience. In virtual reality we could make impossible possible, travel in time and place and practice empathy.

Also, we identified that by taking the AI tools to the next level, we could increase the interaction between a student and the learning content. Therefore, we designed virtual AI-powered characters for different pedagogical purposes for the game. Each discussion is different and personalized, based on the student´s own interests.

The first game episode, the Boreal Forest, one of the tipping elements in earth´s climate system, is an adventure through snow and woods. It combines forest economy, forest ecology and well-being with Indigenous studies. It helps the students to practice their systems-thinking, values-thinking and intrapersonal skills.

We see that you have a role to play in sustainability, so we are happy to invite you to participate as a teacher, a student or a subject-matter expert and co-create with us the further episodes. Learn more on and join the adventure by sharing us how you would like to take part by filling in the form. Can a learning environment for the sustainability education look like this?

* Serendip = The word serendipity, originating from an old Persian fairytale “the Three Princes of Serendip”, means unplanned fortunate discoveries. The Serendip Learning Adventure is based on serendipitous learning approach where, through exploration, learners might discover unexpected and interesting connections among phenomena which can lead to meaningful learning. Serendipity, as valuable unexplored sources for learning, can be fostered through engagement and interaction. We see that sustainability challenges need innovations which can be results of serendipitous events. 

Case Sustainable Health – a teacher’s view on Global Campus collaboration

Surreal handshake


Sustainable Health is a multidisciplinary online course that discusses sustainable development themes in the context of healthcare and life sciences. It serves as the discipline-specific counterpart to the University of Helsinki Sustainability Course (SUST-001). It is currently being piloted in the University of Helsinki, Faculty of Pharmacy, and development is ongoing for its expansion into a massive open online course (MOOC).

The course employs a highly learner-centred approach, giving participants ample freedom in terms of how and when they choose to complete it. The students construct an e-portfolio, where the participants compile reflections on sustainability challenges and solutions. The portfolio may be based on pre-defined assignments or other freely chosen topics that align with the learners’ interests. Mid-course, students exchange peer feedback on their portfolio drafts, and at the end of the course peer assessment is carried out to verify that the portfolios meet the passing requirements of the course. The participants can choose whether they wish to complete the course within one teaching period or over two consecutive periods.

The collaboration with Global Campus begun during the development phase of the first pilot version of Sustainable Health. At the time, large parts of the course content had been prepared and the outlines of course completion mechanics drawn. What we felt was still missing was a unifying concept to tie together the individual topics and tasks of the course in a way that would keep the students motivated throughout the extended periods of self-paced studying. Additionally, we wished to gain expert insight into the execution of the peer feedback and peer assessment workshops. This is where Global Campus stepped in.

I was immediately amazed by the can-do attitude of the whole Global Campus team. In the beginning of the collaboration, I was asked to compile a wish list of features and enhancements for the course that the team could help me with, which felt like a strange position for someone whose work typically involves catering to the wishes of other teachers. Not having a clear sense of the full range of possibilities, I was initially hesitant with my hopes, but it soon became evident that the options would be only limited by my own imagination. For example, what started as an idea for using text-to-speech snippets to introduce the course content was transformed by Global Campus into a full sci-fi narrative, delivered in a post-apocalyptic virtual reality environment by an avatar from the future. Such a mind-blowing reference point has taught me not to hold back my scope based on what I expect to be within the realms of possibility.

Furthermore, I received valuable advice on how to organize the exchange of peer feedback among the course participants and got excellent insight on how to formulate the feedback instructions and questions in a way that would make the assessment process motivating and useful to the students.

Despite the creative and uninhibited atmosphere, working with Global Campus was very organised. With Sasa Tkalcan’s excellent coordination and comprehensive documentation on the shared project whiteboard, the goals were set very clearly, and progress towards them was regularly monitored. I really liked this approach and hope to apply it in other collaborations later on. This was also my first time working with some of the project management tools involved, like Kanban, so I also acquired new tracking methods for my projects.

During the development phase, Sustainable Health was one of two concomitant Global Campus pilots. Despite the completely different disciplines and course topics of the pilots, we had several meetings between both developers and the whole Global Campus team and ended up having an extremely fruitful collaboration based on the shared goal of creating quality e-learning. Some unique ideas that arose in our joint discussions ended up as crucial parts of Sustainable Health (and vice versa, I hope), highlighting the impact of the interdisciplinary brainstorming. I have no doubt that we will keep in touch and continue sharing ideas and good practices with the developers of the sibling pilot also after the finalisation of both projects.

The biggest challenge I faced during the collaboration was the allocation of my personal resources between developing the e-learning mechanics of the course and producing learning materials. The latter task was initially hoped to be shared within a larger group of subject matter experts, but the dynamic nature of the working group and the limited time resources of the experts proved challenging for co-creation. Eventually, I took on a large portion of the scientific content creation to ensure that the course would be ready for piloting on schedule, which limited my availability for the conceptualisation of experimental e-learning elements. On the bright side, the content is now in place with the pilot, allowing the future development of the course to focus purely on educational technology innovation and making the course as fun, engaging, and inspiring as possible. Conversations with the Global Campus team and other pilot developers revealed that the issue may in fact be more general, as it may often be challenging for subject matter experts to find the time to produce certain types of content, such as video lectures. However, it was also highlighted that AI-assisted technologies, such as text-to-speech and digital avatar tools, could significantly reduce this barrier and make it easier to co-develop learning materials in the future.

Overall, working with Global Campus has been a great experience that has really expanded my perspective on what is achievable when open-minded enthusiasm meets with the latest technology. In addition, the collaboration between the two parallel course pilots served as a great example of how multidisciplinary teamwork and idea exchange can greatly enhance course development projects when facilitated by a great team. I feel that by sharing knowledge and best practices between the projects, we established a framework that could be easily adopted to guide future course development initiatives.

Ilkka Miettinen
University instructor / Post-doctoral researcher
Faculty of Pharmacy / Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS)
University of Helsinki

Exploring the Potential of VR in Group Work

Virtual avatars sitting in a virtual meeting room

The multi-disciplinary sustainability course at the University of Helsinki tested an alternative way of completing the project work using virtual reality (VR) technology.  Students were given the opportunity to use Oculus2 virtual glasses in Meta’s Horizon Workroom application for group meetings where they planned their own course presentation. The goal of the experiment was to evaluate the usability and ease of use of the devices and the efficiency of working in virtual space.

The experiment was part of the University of Helsinki’s Global Campus project, led by EdTech Expert Jussi Wright.  The teacher responsible for the course was the university lecturer Rami Ratvio from HELSUS.  From the tested alternatives, Meta’s Horizon Workroom application was chosen for the actual use test. The program was chosen in part because of the features and its more limited ability to move, which helped to focus on meeting work instead of moving around in free space.

The students who participated in the experiment generally enjoyed the experience and found working in VR mode to be beneficial. The feeling of presence in the virtual meeting was considered to be better than in traditional video meetings, and the meeting atmosphere was felt to be more intense. However, the use of the VR glasses and the program were considered challenging at first, and it was suggested that there should be more time allocated for practice before the course begins.

The Horizon Workroom application also allows for recording meetings, sharing text and image files, and even has the option for one student to act as the organizer and update the agenda on the virtual meeting room’s wall. It’s the perfect blend of technology and organization to enhance the learning experience.

Overall, this experiment demonstrated the potential of VR technology in group work and highlighted the importance of preparing students before using such technology in class. With the right tools and training, VR technology can be a powerful tool to enhance the learning experience, collaboration and improve group work outcomes.

Message from the future

Person looking through a stand-alone window in a dystopian landscape.

Sustainable health course

This is about Global campus’ first project, the Sustainable health course by the Faculty of Pharmacy of the University of Helsinki.

Conceived and orchestrated by Ilkka Miettinen PhD (pharm.), the course is based on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals as formulated by the United Nations. Sasa Tkalcan, on behalf of Global campus, assumed the lead in crafting a lightly gamified storyline and after a few tests using drone footage, 360° images and a VR headset Sasa came up with a few mockups which served as a basis for creating a visually striking concept for the course.

Ilkka and Sasa formed a dynamic working partnership as they collaborated on the project. Sasa, having previously worked extensively with ThingLink, was well-versed in the tool’s capabilities and thus elected it as the platform for the VR components of the course. The core concept was to build a VR environment, which nonetheless would also function on a plain screen, for an introduction in which the learner encounters a hologram and is presented with an assignment. Upon successful completion of the course, the learner is reunited with the hologram in a modified environment, where they are presented with a certificate.

Hologram of a person

The project involved filming a professor in a studio to be transformed into the hologram delivering the assignment. However, in the interest of preserving the element of surprise for prospective learners, details shall remain undisclosed. The project was completed on schedule and the course was made available online on the 10th of January, 2023.